From Reality TV to Big-Screen Dreams

Germany's FremantleMedia has global hits on the small screen. Now it's aiming for celluloid

As U.S. viewers settle in to root for their favorite singers on American Idol, they may not know that the hit show is just one of 39 clones of a British offering called Pop Idol. While local broadcasters such as Fox in the U.S. reap big bucks from the formula of amateur singers and snarky commentary, the driving force behind the show's global success is FremantleMedia, a unit of German giant Bertelsmann. London-based Fremantle co-created Pop Idol and now produces similar shows worldwide.

As international demand for reality- and game-show concepts soars, Fremantle is rolling in cash. The company also helped develop and market The Apprentice (seen in 16 countries) and owns the rights to the likes of Family Feud (47 countries) and The Price Is Right (31). And it's the creator of less known fare such as How Clean is Your House? and The Farmer Wants a Wife, a show about men looking for women who share a passion for slopping hogs and milking cows (coming to the CW channel in the U.S. in April). Fremantle hasn't released last year's results yet, but its numbers from the first half suggest that operating profit easily topped the 2006 figure of $188 million on sales of $1.7 billion. "We had a good year," says CEO Tony Cohen.


That kind of success left Fremantle casting about for its next act. It found inspiration for new growth in a hangar-sized building across the street from Fremantle's offices near Berlin: the legendary Babelsberg studios, where Fritz Lang directed the futuristic classic Metropolis in 1926 and Marlene Dietrich filmed The Blue Angel in 1930. Those movies were made by UFA, now a part of Fremantle. Cohen believes the company can resurrect that tradition and use its contacts and expertise in TV concepts to conquer cinemas around the world. "Great work can be admired in more than just one country," he says.

But don't expect Fremantle to offer American Idol: The Movie—at least not yet. Following the success of German productions such as the 2007 Oscar winner The Lives of Others (by independent producers Wiedemann & Berg), Fremantle concluded that the world is ready for films originating outside Hollywood. Its plan is to build on UFA's experience turning out made-for-TV epics such as The Miracle of Berlin. The drama, about a divided family coping with the fall of the Berlin Wall, drew 8 million viewers on Jan. 27—21% of Germany's TV audience at the time.

Whether Fremantle can market movies as profitably as reality-show concepts is another question. UFA intends to shoot 8 to 10 films a year, primarily for the German-speaking market—making Bertelsmann the largest German filmmaker. After testing the waters at home, the company would export the biggest hits. A similar formula has worked for Munich's Constantin Film, which has had international success with the likes of Downfall, about Hitler's final days. Constantin CEO Fred Kogel, though, questions whether Fremantle has the stomach for the tougher economics of film. "It will be interesting for me how Bertelsmann, which is accustomed to high margins, will react," he says.

And UFA has made only a handful of cinematic releases since the 1960s, concentrating instead on the less risky TV business. These days, Babelsberg is more likely to be home to shows such as Paths to Happiness, a romantic soap opera produced by UFA. A recent Monday taping finds daytime heartthrob David Kramer unjustly locked up in a Babelsberg "cell" and engaged in urgent conversation with his defense attorney, a fetching redhead. She blows her line and giggles.

UFA chief Wolf Bauer knows he has a lot of work ahead of him but dreams of creating a European rival to Hollywood's giants. While Bauer won't reveal potential plots or stars, he says offerings may run the gamut from cartoons to dramatizations of best-selling novels, with the first projects to be unveiled this spring. With budgets topping out at about $20 million each, the films can make money with relatively modest audiences, he says. And new distribution channels such as the Internet or mobile phones may help generate revenue after theater runs are over. "Content creators," he says, "are the real winners of digital."

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