"Nobody wanted to release the film because nobody thought it would work," recalls Xavier Chotard, marketing director at the independent Munich distributor Kinowelt. "But the film exploded in Germany. It was a big surprise."
Another big surprise came in 1994, when Wortmann's "Der Bewegte Mann," which translates literally as "The Shaken-Up Man," reached theaters here.
It told the comic story of a Don Juan who, after getting the boot from his girlfriend, moves in with a gay man who introduces him to an alternative social whirl. After the roommate expresses a romantic interest, the Don Juan starts to wonder whether he too is gay, setting off a sexual identity crisis that lingers even after he reconciles with his girlfriend.
"Der Bewegte Mann" hit the jackpot in Germany, attracting 7 million viewers over 1994 and 1995, more than any German film in a decade. It brought $48 million in domestic box office receipts, after costing less than $4 million to make. It also made a nationwide sex symbol out of the previously unknown actor Til Schweiger, who played the Don Juan. In the U.S., it was distributed under the name "Maybe . . . Maybe Not."
"It didn't do well in places like the Midwest," says Wortmann, who divides his time between Munich and Los Angeles and says that, when he was growing up, his own favorite directors were Americans. "It was subtitled, and that's hard in a comedy. I wasn't surprised that it wasn't a big blockbuster. It was an honor for it to be distributed there at all." Wortmann's subsequent film, "Das Superweib," or "The Superwife," was the third most popular German film of 1996.
With "Der Bewegte Mann" showing the industry just how much money there is to be earned here on well-made domestic films, the character of the German movie industry started to change. The American majors--which have long had a presence in Germany, but mainly as distributors of dubbed American films--jumped onto the "relationship comedy" bandwagon. Disney's Buena Vista subsidiary made the first experimental move, distributing a German children's film about a goblin in 1993.
'Nobody Loves Me'
It got good results, so Buena Vista next picked up "Keiner Liebt Mich," or "Nobody Loves Me," a German film about a morbid single woman who gets involved with an actor whose work requires him to wear a skeleton costume. It attracted 1.7 million viewers.
"That was very encouraging, since it wasn't a totally light comedy," Braun says. "Now we have a couple of comedies every year."
For better or worse, the Hollywood way of releasing films here proved rather jarring for tradition-loving Germany. In the past, a distributor might launch a German film with 50 copies or so, throw together a trailer and some posters, and try to get theater owners to stop scheduling the big Hollywood blockbusters long enough to give the German product a chance.
Buena Vista's style, by contrast, was to pick a film with box office potential, buy hundreds of prints, hire professionals to run a dead-serious, high-visibility marketing campaign--complete with a full-dress, star-studded premiere--and drop a great deal of cash on TV advertising.
"A lot of people were very upset," recalls Kinowelt's Chotard. "They complained that as soon as there was money to be made here, [Hollywood] wanted to invest in this new market. And they invested a lot of money. People were wondering whether it would work."
It did. Buena Vista's first German co-production, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," a film about two terminally ill men who bust out of a cancer ward, steal a mafioso's car and go joy-riding with gangsters and police in hot pursuit, is poised to be the No. 1 German film of 1997, with 3.35 million tickets sold as of mid-November and revenues of $21 million. Ranked against all films, German-made and foreign, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is currently the year's fourth most popular in Germany.
Even the story behind "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" sounds more like a Hollywood fantasy than the workaday German real world. The scriptwriter, Thomas Jahn, was in fact a film-loving taxi driver who happened to bump into Schweiger--the unknown actor who had just become a national heartthrob with "Der Bewegte Mann"--in a record shop. The taxi driver complimented the movie star on his acting, then mentioned he had a screenplay back home in his desk drawer.
Just the thing to send Schweiger fumbling for his car keys, right?
"Til Schweiger said, 'If you have a script, just send it to me,' " recalls Buena Vista boss Braun. The two spent a year revising the script, then persuaded Buena Vista not only to co-produce it but to make Jahn the director.
"We sent him to a course in New York, where he learned directing in seven days," says Braun, adding that this weird-sounding project worked because Jahn, who had an academic background in film, is a cinema addict with a powerful "big-screen" vision that he refused to water down.