On Nov. 19, the eve of the International Emmy Awards in New York, one of Germany’s leading production companies UFA will celebrate its centenary. It has witnessed dramatic highs and lows over those 100 years, but is now enjoying a golden era, producing critical and commercial hits like International Emmy winners “Generation War” and “Deutschland 83,” which also won a Peabody Award.
When UFA’s parent company FremantleMedia unveiled a shift in strategy to focus more on scripted content four years ago, UFA was seen as a “role model” for the rest of the group, says UFA’s CEO Nico Hofmann. Since its inception, UFA has primarily been a drama producer, with fiction shows contributing up to 70% of its revenue in recent years. Having run UFA’s high-end fiction business for almost 20 years, Hofmann was ideally suited to take the company forward when he became sole CEO of UFA in September after two years as co-chief with Wolf Bauer, who had led the company since 1990. Hofmann’s ambition was to turn UFA into a global player.
When UFA’s three-part World War II drama “Generation War” – budgeted at a total Euros 15 million ($17.4 million), a record per episode amount for a German show – sold around the world in 2013, it was seen as a gamechanger for both UFA and FremantleMedia. Cold War spy thriller “Deutschland 83” added to this sense of a shift in UFA’s drama paradigm in 2015, with sales to 200 territories, including the U.S., where it was bought by Sundance Channel – the first U.S. linear channel to air a German-language drama series. The second season of the series, “Deutschland 86,” is in production.
Following on from the success of Nordic Noir in global markets, these shows’ achievements provided further evidence that non-English-language content could be embraced by international audiences. “‘Generation War’ and ‘Deutschland 83’ opened a lot of doors for us,” says Hofmann, adding that it strengthened the resolve of Cecile Frot-Coutaz, the CEO of FremantleMedia, to invest heavily in high-end drama. “I love the way she’s doing it because it gives me a real family feeling, and the backing to go further,” he says. “There is a huge appetite [for high-end drama]. It’s so huge it can’t be fed just by the Americans. [The buyers] need projects from everywhere.”
The new strategy has led to increasing co-operation between FremantleMedia’s rapidly expanding legions of international drama producers, but once again UFA had been ahead of the curve, co-producing “The Sinking of the Laconia” with FremantleMedia’s Talkback Thames in 2010. Under FremantleMedia’s director of global drama, Sarah Doole, such unions have been vigorously encouraged, resulting in the recent pact between UFA and the U.K.’s Euston Films to produce a series based on Robert Harris’ novel “Munich.”
The transformation of UFA into an international player is just the latest in a series of reinventions the company has been through. In the 1920s it was a creative hothouse bustling with talent like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich, producing classic movies like “Metropolis” and “The Blue Angel.” In the 1930s the Nazis took over UFA, crushing its creativity and remodeling it as a propaganda weapon. The post-war era saw its renaissance as an independent movie studio, but this revival was stifled by the rise of television.
UFA’s most recent incarnation started in 1990 when Bauer took the reins, and it went from strength to strength to become a dominant force in German television, spanning both scripted and non-scripted programming, as well as delivering the occasional theatrical movie hit, like “The Physician.” Its commercial success was reflected in its revenue growth: starting at around Euros 10 million ($11.6 million) when Bauer took over, it rose by more than 30% a year, and is now 25 times bigger than in 1991.
Bauer says one of the qualities that has driven UFA’s success is its willingness to innovate and be the first mover in the market, such as its launch of Germany’s first daily soap opera, “Good Times, Bad Times” in 1991.
Another strength is the focus on establishing programming brands. “Only an emotional bond with the audience will lead to a long-lasting brand,” Bauer says.
UFA’s non-scripted business is also buoyant and being part of FremantleMedia has allowed it to produce German versions of its parent’s entertainment formats, like “America’s Got Talent” and “American Idol.” A growing area for UFA is reality shows, such as “Hartz und Herzlich,” about people living on welfare payments.
Despite the dramatic transitions of the past, Hofmann sees UFA’s transformation into a global player as its biggest opportunity yet. “The real re-invention is going on right now, because you have all these big international markets opening up. This is a golden age for television. Creatively, I have the feeling that it is the most interesting part of my life. Many things that I’ve tried to establish for over a decade are really coming together.”
Hofmann sees producers like himself as having a responsibility to engage in public debate about social and political issues. “We play a huge role because we are so strong in the [German] market. Sometimes on Saturday evenings we have almost 50% of the audience watching UFA shows,” he says.
“Generation War” was controversial because some viewers accused it of “emotionalizing the feelings of German soldiers” during World War II, Hofmann says. This led to a debate about the responsibility of ordinary Germans, the viewers’ parents and grandparents, for war crimes.
The rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany Party has prompted Hofmann, who is not on the right of politics, to express his opinions publicly. “If you make films about the Third Reich then you have a responsibility to talk about why a right-wing party is getting up to 15% of the vote in Germany. You can’t say it has nothing to do with you,” he says.
“I have the feeling that we must be much more political in our statements, because we are not just part of the entertainment industry, we have a very clear vision about German society.”