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Berlinale Blog: What’s the point of film financing?

At the European Film Market, it's obvious that Germany's film financing isn't what it used to be.

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Photo copyright Oliver Möst/Berlinale/EFM

Ever wondered why Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney come to Potsdam to make films? It’s because they get help from the German taxpayer. Someone has to make movies round here, and since Germany doesn’t have a film studio system, it once set up a state-funded network of film boards across what was then West Germany. These were founded back in the 1970s as a way to fund new film-making, perhaps even to create a homegrown film industry. But, as you learn when you peruse the various brochures the German Federal Film Board has laid out at its stall at the European Film Market, they have lapsed more and more into economic subsidy for films that are likely to be commercially successful – which means more Hollywood in Babelsberg. Just like coal mines are subsidized by tax money, the film industry is subsidized by film boards, driving growth my tenderly pumping your taxes into the right holes in the hope they will create jobs. Not that that’s evil, it’s just that the point of subsidization in Germany is not about funding art – it’s about making money.

That’s why there are so many international co-productions in Europe: when Lars von Trier, for instance, wants to make another film, his production company Zentropa opens an office in whichever German state is most likely to give him the most money – usually North Rhine-Westphalia. And since anyone would like to be able to say they co-produced Nymphomaniac, the NRW film board hands over a few million, and Lars promises to film part of his movie in the forests outside Cologne, or do the post-production in the city, or cast actors from NRW. The German quota of the cast will then rent flats and register addresses in that state so that they’ll be allowed to act in the movies. My German film-maker friend Ingo, mooching around forlorn at the Berlinale, has much to say on the subject. “Of course everyone knows this is how it works – all the people who run these companies know each other,” he said.

The upshot is that the film boards will mainly fund films if those films are more or less guaranteed to be either festival successful – ie, get into the competition at Cannes, Venice, or Berlin – or are commercially successful – in Germany that means anything with Til Schweiger in it, or anything that is set in the Third Reich or the GDR. “Of course, they’d like to get some art to subsidize, but it’s only worth it if it’s Lars von Trier,” my friend says. German directors, meanwhile, are more likely to get cash if they make films about Nazis or the GDR (Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Elser, or Andreas Dresen’s As We Were Dreaming in this year’s competition), partly because that’s what the international market expects from Germany – the most successful German films in recent years were Downfall and The Lives of Others.

“It used to be different in the old days. Wenders, Herzog, Fassbinder – all those people, they made art, and not market films. Today all the film boards say, ‘We have to get the money back.'” In other words, film boards are under pressure to spend taxpayer’s money wisely, and not just throw money at any young film maverick, and the film-development funds are usually offered in the form of interest-free loans rather than donations. “So they give Til Schweiger a million to help make his movie, and they know they’ll get the money back,” said Ingo. “They don’t give money to a film that no one is going to watch.”

The German Federal Film Board sends out regular newsletters announcing which film is being funded with how much – on February 3, for example, it announced that Fack Ju Göhte 2 was getting €500,000. The scale of handouts then goes down from around €1 million, more or less according to how famous the film-makers are. “When Til Schweiger gets his eight million audience members, he gets this nice event, with the press, and he has this big cheque and says, ‘and now I’m handing that million back.’ ” But this, so insiders say, is all a farce, because it’s not as if the money goes into a pot for other film-makers who make more ambitious films. That one million is parked on a bank account so when Til Schweiger comes back he gets the money back again.