Bringing Germany Into Focus

It's hard not to chuckle along with members of Germany's factual production community as they make subtle and not-so-subtle self-deprecating remarks. Native producers and distributors roast their own country for being naive in the international arena, poke fun at the insular...
November 1, 2000

It’s hard not to chuckle along with members of Germany’s factual production community as they make subtle and not-so-subtle self-deprecating remarks. Native producers and distributors roast their own country for being naive in the international arena, poke fun at the insular nature of the German broadcast community, and groan about the fact that the country is irritatingly slow to adapt to changes in the market. Politics, history and habit are considered Germany’s home-grown enemies of evolution, but insiders hesitate to explain why, arguing any explanation would be hopelessly complicated.

All of these factors – the insularity, the resistance to change, the lack of evolution – manifest themselves in the German markets, where new ideas meet traditions, state politics meet national interests and distributors/producers meet buyers/financiers. A better understanding of the German market results from a close look at its rising and its established events, which are currently perceived as failing the German factual community.


The German Screenings is the country’s most established market. This year’s affair, which runs from November 26 to 30 at the City Hilton Hotel in Munich, marks the event’s 25th anniversary. The market, which state-funded pubcasters ARD and ZDF organize exclusively for their own benefit, sees approximately 60 hotel rooms set up for screenings and provides an intimate atmosphere for commerce in German programs. ‘The German Screenings are the most important market for us,’ says Andrea Breitkreuz, doc sales manager for German United Distributors. ‘I would say it’s more important than MIPCOM.’

The debate as to whether or not this long-running market should open its doors to private broadcasters, as well as independent producers and distributors, is just as established as the event itself. Private broadcasters entered the German television market just over ten years ago. Prior to this, public broadcasters were the main source of German documentaries, and programs sold at the German Screenings represented the majority of available product. This is no longer the case, but the event still generates good business with the pubcasters’ important European clients. In 1998, 120 buyers from 25 European countries attended the German Screenings. In 1999, attendance rose to 180 buyers. Registrations for this year’s event are still arriving, with 140 participants from 25 European countries already confirmed.

‘It’s difficult to know if we should leave [the German Screenings] this way or open it up to become a really big market, because nobody can express how big it could be,’ says Breitkreuz, whose clients hail mostly from Eastern Europe. ‘It would lose a little bit of its special atmosphere, which is what people have always enjoyed and is why it has been successful, but the German market has changed over the last few years and of course we have to react to it.

‘It’s a good market, but I don’t think anyone can say ‘here’s a successful market and there’s no need to change anything’. The number of buyers who are attending has been stable, but we are always interested in more people.’

Heide Bayer of Munich’s Telepool, is organizing this year’s event and explains that the success of the market is measured according to the volume of sales rather than the number of participants. ‘In a way, it would be interesting to have a broader audience, which we would have if private companies joined,’ she says. ‘On the other hand, it might not increase our sales.’ This is the main concern for both ARD and ZDF – although opening the event might encourage more buyers to attend, it would also invite competition for sales.

‘ZDF Enterprises would like [the German Screenings] to open up, but this is still a political discussion,’ reveals Tim Werner, sales manager of ZDF Enterprises. ‘Although some of the ZDF board would like to open it, the other half says we have a responsibility to go with ARD for the next two or three years. We believe it’s necessary to open [the screenings], because otherwise the private channels will do [a market] by themselves. Because the German Screenings was the only market operating in Germany, it was well attended. Now, we would like to be involved in a stronger concept. We might lose the control if we don’t participate.’


The last few years have seen some movement towards establishing German markets that embrace independent companies. For the past 12 years, The Berlin International Film Festival has complimented its activities with the European Film Market. Billed as ‘the market of the future’, the event is meant to provide a favorable atmosphere for commercial transactions during the film festival. Although the European Film Market is open to producers, distributors, exhibitors and other film professionals, films of European origin and projects intended for theatrical distribution are given priority.

As well, the Cologne Conference celebrated its tenth anniversary this year by introducing the Cologne Screenings, a program market that ran from June 4 to 7, meant to lure international buyers. Most members of Germany’s factual community agree that the Cologne Screenings seemed to be a timely idea, as it was ostensibly what the German Screenings would be if it opened its doors to private broadcasters. Feedback from the event, however, indicates it was disappointing.

‘I can’t say everything was wonderful because it was definitely not,’ recalls Breitkreuz. ‘Everyone we talked to said it was really a mess – that it was a disaster. They told us 350 buyers were going to attend this market, but I saw only a handful. Even people from the broadcast stations in Germany and Cologne did not come to meet people from abroad here.’ According to Sabine Bull, project manager for the Cologne Screenings, 200 buyers attended the event along with 209 exhibitors and 232 participants. Only ten exhibiting companies concluded deals during the market and of the 24 countries represented, seven were outside Europe.

Breitkreuz places part of the blame for the market’s meager turnout on poor scheduling: The L.A. Screenings finished only four days before; the Banff Television Festival began only four days after; and Sunny Side of the Doc in Marseilles opened two weeks later. Werner agrees, but also feels the link between the conference and the screening attendees was too weak: ‘There was a small number of people, maybe 20 to 30, who came specifically for the Cologne Screenings because it was a different target group. There is, however, definitely a need [for such a market]. At the right time and with the involvement of all the state and private broadcasters, I believe it could be very successful. But, it’s important to pick a good place in Germany and the right time.’


Rather than establishing a number of different markets, all trying to attract the same international clients, members of the production community are suggesting the various markets amalgamate into one. ‘I don’t want to blame the states or anyone who is trying to organize something, but it’s not working like this,’ says Christine von Preyss, managing director for True Stories, a Munich-based production and distribution company. ‘There are tiny little markets and there are three buyers from outside at each. It’s nonsense. We have to have a professional market with international appeal and for that you need the full scale of German products.’

According to Kai Kruger of the German Association of Documentary Filmmakers (A.G. DOK), a study commissioned by Germany’s federal government, which looked into how export representation of German film production could be improved, came to a similar finding. ‘One of the conclusions is to throw the German Screenings, Cologne Screenings, Berlinale Market Place and additional TV market plans presently being discussed in Berlin and Munich into one big pot, say in Berlin, which seems to be favored by industry leaders. Great idea, but heaven knows…’

Von Preyss believes political and economic aspirations among Germany’s main city centers stand in the way of a move towards convergence. ‘In Germany, each state has its own culture, sports and economic ministries that are responsible for the money spent in that state. That means the Bavarian state is not at all interested in financially supporting a market that’s taking place in Cologne. What do they get from that? No prestige and no money. Nobody wants to support an overall market because they can’t see why they should spend money in other states.’

Horst Mueller, ZDF Enterprises’ senior VP of North American operations, agrees: ‘The question now is whether there will be one central MIPCOM-like German market that all the broadcasters and producers can agree on and will attend. There are various interested parties that would like to establish a market at their place. Germany is not as centralized even as the U.S., where you basically have L.A. and New York. Germany is much more federally organized and has several media centers, such as Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and more recently Cologne, as well as a couple of minor centers. Every German state is trying to attract and establish a new media presence.’

Kruger considers the lack of cohesion in domestic support for the German film industry a serious threat to international business. ‘The Federal Republic of Germany grew up for almost half a century without any federal cultural politics and you can see it,’ he says. However, there are signs that things are changing. Says Kruger, ‘State Minister Michael Naumann, introduced by the present government as federal commissioner for cultural and media affairs, doesn’t have much to say or spend…[But,] it definitely helped to have the federal government apply some pressure last year on industry and other government bodies and give a boost to export reform attempts.’


Dieter Matzka, producer and co-founder (with partner, Wilma Kiener) of Munich’s Matzka-Kiener-Film-Produktion, believes a ‘real market’ doesn’t exist yet for Germany’s indies, but he argues that before the markets can improve, German programs must take a greater interest in the international market.

Pointing a finger at both the pubcasters’ strand parameters and state funding criteria, Matzka believes German producers are forced into tackling subject matter that is too national to attract the attention of the international community. Further complicating matters, he has often heard international buyers complain that the German film style is convoluted and often runs over the standard commercial hour. ‘Germany’s independent producers want to make their films how they see fit,’ explains Matzka. ‘They’re not in touch with the international market – they need more information.’

True Stories’ Von Preyss agrees, stating that only ‘a few production companies, especially in the non-fiction area, have a clue about the international market.’ But, ZDF’s Mueller argues German films sell well in Europe and warns producers against creating bland global programs: ‘In many programming areas, German programs are highly successful – and this goes for programs produced both by the public and private broadcasters. In many European markets – and we’re talking about major markets like Italy, France and Spain – German series are more successful than American series. Our feeling for the audience and the way we tell a story is more familiar to Italians [for example] than American programs.

‘As far as production is concerned, when Americans produce programs, they couldn’t care less about the world. They tell a story for their particular audience. The same is now true for programs we produce in Germany. Sometimes in spite of this, or maybe because of this, they sell well internationally. When you start to take into account too many different perspectives, you end up with a kind of trans-Atlantic pudding that doesn’t fit any market. If you do something right for your market, maybe even typical of your own way of telling a story, it doesn’t preclude success internationally.’

Just as Germany’s various markets will likely benefit from finding common ground, German indies who do the same with their programs will likely find success internationally, advises Andreas Gutziet and Carsten Oblaender, co-presidents of Munich/Washington, D.C.-based Story House Productions. ‘You need to understand the intricacies of other markets,’ says Gutziet. ‘Broadcasters want to hear the unique perspective you bring to the table, but they demand respect for their idiosyncrasies. You need to supply that.’

‘It’s not a question of ideology,’ continues Oblaender. ‘It’s a question of how you earn money on one hand, and on the other, tell the story you believe in. If I find another way to tell a story and I still like the story told in this way, why shouldn’t I? That way, we get the biggest audience.’ Adds Gutzeit, summing up, ‘I don’t think you can take the liberty as a European producer to say ‘this is our tradition’. You’re telling stories and if an audience has a certain habit for digesting stories, you need to take that into account.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.