Erik Barmack Drives Into Romantic Comedy, Optioning Petra Hülsmann’s ‘Hamburg Series’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Erik Barmack and Petra Hulsman
Credit: Erik Barmack / Wild Sheep Content

In his first major move in the German market, Erik Barmack’s Wild Sheep Content, the fast-growing L.A. company of the former Netflix VP, has made a big swing in romantic comedy, optioning six-novel “The Hamburg Series” from Germany’s Petra Hülsmann, which he imagines adapting to the small screen as a six film franchise.

The Hülsmann deal comes as Wild Sheep Content now has 13 projects sold to top global platforms or networks, an extraordinary achievement for a company that only launched in 2019.

As often for Barmack, the sextet signals major IP. Hülsmann’s debut, “Bumblebees in the Heart,” hit No. 1 on German newspaper Der Spiegel Bestseller List, selling over 400,000. In total, “The Hamburg Series” has sold 2.3 million books in Germany alone, a huge number for a single market.

“The Hamburg Series” novels are stylishly localized with characters frequenting the same places in an idyllic Hamburg, by the Elbe River in northern Germany. They also channel the best of ‘90s classics, Barmack argued, from the wholesome cosiness and emails of “You’ve Got Mail” to the long and barbed relationship of “When Harry Met Sally,” and the physical humor of “Bridget Jones.”

“Bumblebees in the Heart” is a case in point. Lena, its lead, is ditched by her fiancee and fired from her job — for pressing reply to all by mistake when making a snarky comment about her boss. To make ends meet, she gets a job at a shabby bookshop and moves in her brother and his childhood friend, the charming Ben. She also conceives a three-point plan to turn herself into the perfect woman — not realizing she’s already met the man who could make her happy.

In many Hamburg novels, the female lead is hugely — even misguidedly — ambitious career wise, following a standard playbook of what constitutes success. Her initial dreams or life order — or willed disorder — are thrown a curveball by male figures who are her complete opposite in character.

Second chance life tales that triple down on the unexpected — her most recent Hamburg novel is tellingly entitled “Most of the Time It Turns Out Differently Than You Think” – the stories speak to the moment, framing an antidote to our fractious times. Barmack and Wild Sheep Content’s Joceyln Wexler, who brought the literary property to Barmack, drilled down for Variety on further attractions of “The Hamburg Series” adaptation.

With “The Hamburg Series” deal, you join a growing cadre of companies who are building slates of more feel-good, lighter series answering a market need for escapist fare.… 

Barmack: The wave of dark dramas that started in the U.S. with things like “Breaking Bad” continued into Europe as the streamers moved into premium TV. With “Bridgerton” and other shows, romantic comedies are proving revolutionary and the next step in TV of light shows that let people to forget about life for a little while.

This is your first deal in Germany as far as I know…

Barmack: It’s an opportunity to do romantic film franchises in a market where romcoms haven’t traditionally been done all that much. One of the reasons why we are chasing romance so hard is that there’s actually a big appetite throughout continental Europe. With all the global streaming services coming out, the availability of access to TV movies has become more limited. So we could either go to a global platform, or sell market by market, which is harder but can ultimately be more profitable for the business.

There are romantic novelists and romantic novelists. What kind is Petra Hülsmann?

Wexler: Her debut novel, “Bumblebees in the Heart,” is not just a romantic comedy. It’s great comedy as well, and very modern, with an appeal to women aged 20 to 40. The stories vary in theme and focus, but have a throughline in being very modern, very female-focused, feminist and progressive.

They also offer, I sense, the promise of immersion in a fully developed world which is not quite our own but highly attractive nonetheless.

Wexler: Yes, all the novels take place in the same universe, an idyllic Hamburg world, which takes in Ottensen, cafe terrace Alsterperle, street-corner bars and Elbe beach. The universe is full of eccentric characters, some of whom pop up from one book to another, such as taxi-driver Knut, a fan favorite who offers the characters sage advice.

The independent but interconnected nature of the novels would of course favor a film franchise structure…..

Barmack: Yes. Romantic comedies tend to be one-offs. Jocelyn and I have been searching all around Europe for titles that are repeatable. It’s easy to find a one-off, but it’s hard to find an entire romantic universe.


The Other Five Novels:

‘When Butterflies Fly Loops’ (2015)

Kara starts her new job at a big Hamburg soccer club, but not in senior management as she fondly imagined but rather as chauffeur and chaperone to its star player, who seems more obsessed by his moves at nightclubs than on the soccer field. Kara can’t stand him, she thinks, until the two risk a second look.

‘Happiness Is When You Love Anyway’ (2016)

Isabelle’s ordered life is thrown a curveball when the restaurant she has lunch in, across from the flower shop where she works, is taken over by the unpredictable Jens who refuses to prepare her favorite dish. But she soon suspects that it may be the surprises that make her life richer.

‘Life Falls Where It Will’ (2017)

Party, party girl Marie’s life is tuned upside-down when she’s forced to look after ill sis’ children and take over running the family shipyard. Doing so, she realizes there are some things that are worth fighting for.

‘If It Were Easy, Everyone Would Do It’ (2018)

Out of the blue, music teacher Annika is transferred from her dream school in an upscale Hamburg district to one in the city’s biggest problem hood. When the music group she founds there bombs, she turns to her first great love, Tristan, now a theater director….

‘Most of the Time It Turns Out Differently Than You Think’ (2019)

Fed up with love, Nelly determines to pour her energies into her job at a hip Hamburg PR agency, just as her little brother Lenny, who has Down syndrome, calls on her to support him in his move to find an apartment of his own. She also realizes she is falling in love with her nice boss Claas.