The success of World War II drama “Generation War” and Cold War thriller “Deutschland 83,” both of which won International Emmys and sold around the world, has raised the global profile of UFA as a producer of high-quality drama series. The company is now looking to build on that and take advantage of changes in the distribution and consumption of content both inside and outside Germany.
As Germany’s leading drama producer with a portfolio that includes everything from daily soaps to procedurals and high-end fiction, the company enjoys the advantage of being able to attract and hold on to top talent. “We can move talent around the company according to their strengths,” says Joerg Winger, who co-heads UFA Fiction, its high-end drama division, alongside Benjamin Benedict and Sebastian Werninger.
For example, Jonas Nay’s performance in UFA’s TV movie “Homevideo” caught the eye of Winger, the co-writer and one of the producers of “Deutschland 83,” who cast the young actor in the lead role. Winger is looking to build on the success of the show, whose second season, “Deutschland 86,” is shooting in South Africa and Germany.
Nico Hofmann, who ran UFA’s high-end fiction business for almost 20 years before being elevated to CEO, sees its continuing success as relying to a large extent on its ability to seek out and retain talent. Among these he includes Anna Winger, the creator and co-writer of “Deutschland 83,” and Annette Hess, the scribe behind another UFA hit drama, “Ku’damm 56,” about a Berlin dance studio in 1956. “It’s all about talent and putting a unique entrepreneurial system behind them so they can produce their shows. You have to give them a clear structure in which they are not just writers they are showrunners,” Hofmann says. “I really want to have the biggest star writers attached to UFA.”
German broadcasters continue to be generous backers of locally produced drama, and faced with competition from new players like Netflix and Amazon, which bought the German rights to “Deutschland 86,” they have started to become more adventurous.
Benedict says: “There is definitely a change going on — on many different levels. The networks are more and more open to new material and new ways of storytelling, and the new platforms are arriving and are making bold choices and trying new things.”
In the past many of UFA’s high-end dramas were TV movies or two-parters, big-scale period “event” dramas like “Dresden,” “Hindenburg” and “Der Tunnel,” the type of show sometimes referred to internally as “El Clasico.” While UFA still produces such one-offs, like Martin Luther biopic “Reformation,” its focus is on turning such dramas into returnable series, which it did successfully with “Ku’damm 56,” and the follow-up “Ku’damm 59,” and “Charité,” about a Berlin hospital at the end of the 19th century.
As fragmentation of the TV audience continues in Germany as in other territories, UFA is having to cater more for niche audiences. The audience is becoming “more differentiated,” Winger says. “There are different tastes, different tribes.” On the other hand there is a “globalization” of TV appetites in progress. “There is a new generation of viewers worldwide that is globalized. They listen to the same music, wear the same fashion and watch the same shows,” he adds. This presents an opportunity for companies like UFA.
Thanks to the success of “Deutschland 83,” which sold to buyers in 200 territories including Sundance Channel in the U.S., UFA is stepping up its efforts to seek out opportunities beyond German borders. Winger says: “I can now sell a show to a non-German broadcaster if the subject is right and these conversations are happening more and more,” he says. Among his slate Winger has two English-language shows in development.
International broadcasters and platforms have become more willing to consider shows from outside Hollywood, according to Benedict. “There is a much greater awareness of international programming in every country in the world,” he says.
One focus is on co-operating with other producers within the FremantleMedia group, of which UFA is a part. Winger, for example, is working on projects with France’s Thomas Bourguignon at Kwai, Denmark’s Jonas Allen at Miso Film, and the U.K.’s Laurence Bowen at Dancing Ledge. “That is very satisfying because it is a very personal creative relationship but taking place within a big, powerful machine,” Winger says. “If it gets too corporate then forget it because [international buyers] want singular voices, they want something specific, they don’t something average or mediocre.”
Hofmann adds: “I am only looking for completely authentic projects. It doesn’t make sense for me to compete with a L.A.-based production company. It wouldn’t work. I can only focus on the things we are doing better than the Americans. So ‘Deutschland 83’ is a nice example because it is an authentic German story, but told in an international way.”
UFA’s pact with Euston Films, another of FremantleMedia’s U.K. companies, to produce a series based on Robert Harris’ novel “Munich” fits Hofmann’s criteria for a co-production. “One of the two main characters is German and the other is British so you have an organic, authentic basis to say a co-production between the U.K. and Germany makes sense,” he says.