With global screen sectors increasingly in flux thanks to the aftershocks of an unprecedented pandemic coupled with intensifying streaming wars, it would be easy to see why execs in the business could feel a little on the apprehensive side. But for Oliver Berben, deputy CEO and deputy chairman of German production and distribution powerhouse Constantin Film, this is the golden age of international content production.
“If I could have chosen the time in the whole industry of moviemaking to be working, I would have absolutely chosen this time to live and do my work,” enthuses the well-respected exec. “It’s the perfect time to challenge yourself. I love situations where everything is questioned and I think for us working in a creative business, to be in a situation where you’re not sure is a good thing because you question yourself constantly. The moment you lean back and say ‘ok, I know how this works,’ you should definitely change your business.”
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It’s this sanguine attitude and steadfast ambition that has helped steer Constantin’s television business into one of Europe’s most dynamic and edgy production labels. The Munich-based outfit, which, until recent years, focused largely on film, has pushed to position itself as a top European indie in the TV drama space. In the last few years, the company has seen local and worldwide hits with projects such as cult series Shadowhunters, crime thrillers Shades of Guilt and The Typist as well as a TV version of modern-day crime drama Perfume, which it co-produced with Netflix, with backing from German public broadcaster ZDFNeo (Tom Tykwer directed the 2006 feature film).
Last month, it launched German coming-of-age series We Children From Bahnhof Zoo on Amazon Prime, which has become one of the most-watched German series on the streamer while a local German version of Amazon’s comedy show LOL: Last One Laughing which was co-produced by Constantin, has become the most ever watched title on Amazon Prime Video in the territory since it bowed April 1.
A deputy CEO since January, television veteran Berben is responsible for the TV, Entertainment and Digital Media division at Constantin Film and reports to highly respected CEO Martin Moszkowicz. Berben was previously head of production at the outfit and has been a member of the Board since 2017. He founded the company Moovie in 1996, which has been a subsidiary of Constantin since 1999.
“When I first joined Constantin, there was no TV side,” Berben recalls. “Today, more than half of the turnover is from streaming and television so I’m pretty proud about what we have built in a relatively short time.”
Berben says the foundation of the company is to empower its many creative producers. “We’re a creative, producer-based company, so we’re strongly focusing on the creative power of our producers,” he says, noting that there are 40 to 50 producers working within different entities inside the Constantin universe.
Some of its arms include: Constantin Television, which focuses on high-quality scripted programming; Constantin Entertainment; Moovie; Rat Pack Filmproduktion, a film production company that handles high-end TV movies and VOD series; Hager Moss, which focuses on socially relevant dramas and documentaries; Olga Film; and PSSST! Film.
Berben says that allowing creatives to have the independence to work under their own labels with Constantin in the background is a working success for the company.
“It’s much better for showrunners, writers and directors to connect with a small production entity and even broadcasters and streamers prefer working with smaller units, knowing that there’s a big company in the background.”
It’s purposeful that as the TV side of the business has grown, the company has positioned itself as a home for producers to have creative freedom while also serving as a place where producers are aligned with the right partners. Constantin has long worked with established broadcasters in the German TV market such as ARD Degeto and ZDF, as well as the latter’s streaming service TV Now. It’s also partnered with Netflix and Amazon on projects, which means there’s a huge range of content in the company’s pipelines which hit a variety of demographics.
“We want to be seen as a creative hub that allows creators to come and do their shows and develop their ideas here and produce them here with us,” he says. “Then we can find the right partners for it.”
He points to We Children From Banhoff Zoo as an example. Constantin paid for development of the project and worked with creators to set up a strategy for which audiences they wanted to reach. “We’re always trying to create a safe space for the creators to develop their shows and then we can look at where it fits and which audience we want to reach. It’s a preferred situation for creatives to work like that.”
He adds: “We are not focused on one particular thing because we have these different brands and entities but overall, the main focus for some of those companies are of course the big IPs, big historical events and big international rollouts of local or international productions.”
The company is currently creating around 1,000 hours of television and streaming content a year and is actively leveraging its position as one of Europe’s leading production companies by exploiting its deep library of brands and literary titles. As well as Perfume, Constantin is in production on a TV version of its international sci-fi horror franchise Resident Evil, which is currently shooting in South Africa. It’s also in the works of a TV version of Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, adapted from its 1997 Julia Ormond film.
Berben says that while some of the company’s brands already resonate with international audiences, such as Resident Evil, the key to building up new IPs is to start small and focus regionally.
“If you are trying hard to do a show that travels, you fail,” he says. “You should try and do a show that works for an audience that you know and if you’re very good at it and the show is good, it will travel.”
He points to the early 2000s when there was a lot of “Euro-pudding,” a term coined by execs in the business when producers focused more on mixing different nationalities of European talent together solely on the hope the content would travel. “I strongly believe that a show travels because it works in one territory very well and creates a buzz that then swaps over to other territories,” he says.
Berben is optimistic about the opportunities that the streamers have brought into the market. Not only do they energize the business by offering another avenue for producers to place their content, but they are also, he says, forcing existing broadcasters and local VOD services across Europe to level up. Germany is Europe’s biggest SVOD market, where nearly half of all households have at least one SVOD subscription. According to Berben, the country’s RTL Group, for instance, is ramping up its VOD service TV Now in response to market competition.
“It’s not just energy and strength from money, it’s the power of the people inside of it that want to create something new,” he says. “They’re willing to take completely new directions for content that haven’t been done before in Germany so far. The biggest opportunity in the last few months is that, from a creative point of view, there are so many more opportunities. Of course some things will fail, but some things will rise up that have never been seen before.”
The UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Scandinavia have historically had very strong broadcast systems with deep pockets, and they are now, interestingly, in a situation where they need to find ways of doing high-end programs so they can compete with U.S. streamers. This, says Berben, could spark a new era of co-production partnership that may see major European players pool funds together for bigger budget projects.
“What is visible in the last few years is that the need for these strong, European local broadcasters to come together in order to create big budget productions is rising,” he says. “Before co-productions were a mess but now it’s looking like a necessity for broadcasters. With that in mind, we feel there’s a strong need now to create local productions with financial and creative power in the background. Still, I believe that the stories you choose for these corporate actions need to be focused on something you know.”
What excites Berben the most about the whole shifting business is the opportunity for more creative freedom and an opening up of consumption of these stories on a global scale. Of course, he’s wary of the role that international streamers might play in the long run – “if it leads to a situation where producers are just the middlemen, that would be a terrible thing” – but he’s largely filled with hope about the possibilities on the horizon.
“We have no idea today about what the wider entertainment business will look like in a few years,” he says. “Nobody can tell you due to how fast technology is changing, the situation with the pandemic or how we will live life in the future. But one thing’s for sure – we will consume an awful lot more content and I just love being in such a situation to help create that.”