As most everyone knows, “Resident Evil” was born of a video game. Playing it, according to co-producer Robert Kulzer, is “empowering.”
“You’re sitting at the controls and you try to really conquer a new world,” Kulzer says. “And the rules at first seem really, really foreign to you. But the more you play the game, the more you master it. And at a certain point, you own it. You are completely in charge of your destiny within that world.”
That description pretty well summarizes the history of Constantin Film, the Munich-based entertainment giant. It’s the story of a close-knit group of filmmakers and business people who saw an opportunity in postwar Europe and grabbed it with both hands, but slowly and carefully, as if ensuring a joystick’s pivots and buttons are second nature before proceeding to the next level.
It’s also the story of one particular visionary, the late Bernd Eichinger, whose 2011 death was described in a Der Spiegel headline as: “German Film Loses Its Leading Man.”
As described by current executive board chairman Martin Moszkowicz, a longtime associate and close friend, Eichinger emerged from Munich’s film school in the late 1970s at a time when the most positive adjective one could choose for the German film industry would’ve been “moribund.” The nation’s foremost postwar distributor, at 200 films a year, Constantin wasn’t immune to the economic woes affecting Europe generally.
“He was a very self-confident guy,” Moszkowicz fondly remembers. “Hadn’t made a lot of movies, but he was one of the Rat Pack-type independent producers of that time.”
Eichinger persuaded Constantin management to sell him a share of the firm as managing director, and he began to move the company in new directions inspired by a study of the industry in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Prior distribution practices had involved striking 50, maybe 60 prints which would circulate in Germany regionally. But a run of 500-plus prints of Dino De Laurentiis’ “Conan the Barbarian” helped that film become a local blockbuster, a U.S.-inspired model that dominated in subsequent years.
More importantly, Eichinger took Constantin into production in a big way, beginning with 1984’s “The NeverEnding Story” and “The Name of the Rose” two years later, something Moszkowicz claims “changed the German production and distribution landscape completely.”
The local norm, he recalls, had been films costing $1.2 million to $2 million. “But ‘NeverEnding Story’ was, I think, $40 million, completely unheard of. Nobody had made international movies of that size in Germany.”
Not all of Eichinger’s ventures were touched with gold. He relocated to Los Angeles in the late ’80s to establish Constantin as a presence there. Moszkowicz, who remained to oversee production at home, speaks painfully of his friend’s experience.
“Pretty soon, Bernd somehow — well, he didn’t lose interest, but the business in America was very different…. He was very charismatic, but was also burning the candle at both ends, as they say.”
Moszkowicz struggles to find the right words. “He had a very rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, and he just — he didn’t really like Los Angeles very much. It was hard for him because he had been a superstar in Europe, but struggled to find his footing in the U.S., even though we had a couple of properties, ‘Fantastic Four’ and ‘Silver Surfer’ and so on. But it wasn’t easy to get the movies made there. We had to start basically from scratch.”
The IPO that took the company public in 1999 set an invigorated Constantin Films onto the strong course it maintains to this day. “Suddenly we had a lot of money,” Moszkowicz says. “A lot of German companies had gone public, we were one of the last ones. With that money we built up the company into something very, very different.”
A co-production, “Nowhere in Africa,” won 2002’s foreign-language film Oscar. Joint ventures with U.K.-based Impact Pictures began with the first of the “Resident Evil” movies in 2002.
As for TV production, now amounting to 2,000 hours per year, most had been in German, barring the occasional international one-off like “The Mists of Avalon.” But in the past two years Constantin has moved into English-language telefilms in earnest. “Shadowhunters,” for Disney Freeform, has just been renewed for a second season.As for Eichinger, the six years remaining between his voluntary withdrawal from Constantin management and fatal heart attack may have been his most impactful and personally rewarding period. He produced “Perfume,” and wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for two foreign-language film Oscar nominees: 2004’s “Downfall” generally regarded as the preeminent dramatization of Hitler’s world and psychology, and 2008’s “The Baader Meinhof Complex.”
His death was, in Moszkowicz’s words, “a huge blow to the company. He was the center of gravity for all of us….We lost our founding father and our main creative force.” Yet as an artist and a businessman, Eichinger remains an inspiration to the firm, still dedicated to big dreams grounded in solid economics.
And their employee loyalty is rare, in Germany or anywhere else. Everyone from the board and associated producers to the assistants refer to themselves as “Constantiners.” That’s a source of real pride to the chairman, who points out that he himself arrived there in the late 1980s, and that most serve “for 10, 15, 20 years or more … I guess it shows you we’re doing something right.”