Berlin Film Studio Back with a Vengeance Boom Times for Babelsberg

For much of the 1990s, it seemed as if Berlin's film studios at Babelsberg would never return to the glory days of Dietrich and Garbo. But this year, the site is hosting a number of major productions. The stars are back.

By Allison Connolly in Berlin


It's hard to imagine screen siren Marlene Dietrich ever being just another blonde standing at a bus stop. But when she first strode across the lot of Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam some 80 years ago, there was little separating her from other young, unknown actresses hungry for a big break. But Dietrich didn't have to wait long before her breakout role came in the 1930 film "The Blue Angel." And she had Babelsberg Studio, where the movie was shot, to thank.

The film rocketed Dietrich to international stardom, and she soon left for Hollywood. But the Potsdam studio she left behind -- despite a pedigree including a number of successful classics -- soon lost its glitter. When Hitler came on the scene, Babelsberg devolved into his personal, albeit incredibly effective, propaganda machine. Under communist East Germany, the studio had flashes of brilliance, but when the Berlin wall fell and the studio came under private ownership, the losses mounted.

Over the past year, Studio Babelsberg has made a stunning comeback worthy of its star-studded past.

With new management -- and generous government subsidies that cover up to 20 percent of a filmmaker's costs -- the studio is confidently looking ahead as it celebrates its 95th anniversary this year.

By the end of December, the studio will have hosted 11 films, including two big-budget Hollywood films currently being shot simultaneously: Tom Cruise's "Valkyrie," the World War II biopic of Count Claus von Stauffenberg's 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler, and the Wachowski brothers' star-packed flick "Speed Racer."

It's a far cry from only a year ago, when the fledgling investor team of Carl Woebcken and Christoph Fisser saw just three films, with a major production pulling out at the last minute. "This is the only project-driven industry where you don't have them set up two years ahead," said Woebcken, who serves as chief executive officer.

Indeed, it has been a rollercoaster ride for Woebcken and Fisser, who took over the studio from Vivendi Universal in 2004 for a single euro. The studio's bottom line had been hemorrhaging since the Franco-American conglomerate bought it in 1992. Despite pumping more than €500 million into it, Vivendi couldn't stanch losses of about €1 million a year.

After cleaning up the balance sheet and paying off the debt, Woebcken and chief operating officer Fisser posted decent returns in 2005, with such films as "V for Vendetta," "Aeon Flux" and Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book." But 2006 was "not representative" of what the studio was capable of, Woebcken says. At the last minute, the government postponed introducing the subsidies until 2007, a critical blow to the studio had touted them in bringing films that year to Potsdam.

With the subsidies now in place, the studio heads say there is nowhere to go but up. For 2007, the studio said recently it expects revenue to soar to more than €100 million, up from just €16.4 million last year. That would help it swing to a pre-tax profit of about €5 million, from a loss of €2.7 million in 2006, studio officials said. Since 2004, the team has invested €8 million in upgrades.

Babelsberg's rebirth has not only restored pride to the studio, whose legacy includes such successes as "Nosferatu" and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." It has also created jobs and income for the region and returned much of the glitter lost long ago. "The glamour factor makes the buzz around the city even higher," Woebcken says.

Getting back the glamour, however, is a lot of work. The studio's bread and butter is in big budget films, and Babelsberg's executives start courting filmmakers at least a year in advance. Reps make four or five trips per year to Hollywood to rub elbows with key players, to research scripts and make their pitch.

The stakes are high: Of 10 projects up for grabs, they may bring home one. And none of the money spent on such trips comes back to the studio unless it lands a film. "That's why the subsidy system is so important," Woebcken says.

Though they're already chasing next year's business, neither Woebcken or Fisser would divulge which films -- or stars -- are up for grabs. Fisser allowed only that "we're in good talks" with big names.

Babelsberg, though, doesn't just have to do battle with other studios to land the big flicks; it also has to face down its own past. The Potsdam studio's dark history under Hitler's Third Reich often becomes an issue.

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