German TV movie producer hits big Ziegler eschews formula, looks for what's new. By ERIK KIRSCHBAUM
BERLIN Regina Ziegler, who defied long odds to become one of Germany's most successful producers over the past three decades, says she doesn't think there's any one durable formula behind making the films people want to see.
But there are nevertheless a few tricks she's learned over the years.
"You've always got to be on the lookout for something new," Ziegler, 63, tells Variety. "In a sense producers ought to go through life with their nose on the ground, sniffing around back and forth like a truffle pig. I'm always looking out for new material, something I haven't already seen 100 times. It's got to be genuine. If you try to fool the audience, they'll spot it right away and punish you by turning the TV off."
Ziegler has put her nose to good use, producing nearly 400 films that for the most part hardly anyone has switched off.
Six of the top-rated TV films in 2007 were Ziegler productions, including one of the top pics of the year -- faux docu "Uprising of the People," which garnered 10 million viewers on pubcaster ZDF. Set in 2030, the story revolves around a time when the pension fund has gone bankrupt, a very real concern for Germans today.
Another pic "Moppel ich," harvested 8.22 million (24.1 share) on ZDF. Based on Susanne Frolich's best-selling diet book, "Moppel ich" was about a full-figured radio host whose fans all think she's thin. As one persistent fan tries to meet personally with her, the radio host tries desperately to lose weight before the date.
Although there have been some award-winning cinema productions in between, most Ziegler productions are TV melodramas with reliably strong ratings that anchored ARD's Friday night primetime. Even though her TV films often have happy endings and are a tad kitschy, they're usually genuine stories with enough unexpected twists to keep even jaded viewers tuned in.
"There's nothing for a producer that tops cinema but the financial risks are enormous," Ziegler says, explaining her focus on TV productions -- a prudent strategy in a country where the world's richest pubcasters get some e7 billion ($14.53 billion) a year in mandatory viewer fees.
"Nowhere can you scorch away so much money as the cinema because even really good films can end up losing a bundle for so many different reasons. They might have been released on the wrong weekend, or went up against a blockbuster, or word doesn't spread the right way. So much can go wrong. It's a risky business."
Despite what seems like an aversion toward risks, Ziegler made a big roll of the dice herself when she started Ziegler Film in 1973, which is now one of Germany's largest independent production companies.
There were enormous odds against her at the time -- a young woman entering an old man's domain. That was 32 years before Germany became relaxed enough about powerful women to elect its first woman chancellor in 2005. (Ziegler, incidentally, has been a friend of Chancellor Angela Merkel for years and is part of a network of women movers and shakers that meets informally in Berlin.)
Ziegler was a law school dropout and learned the ropes as a production assistant at West Berlin pubcaster SFB from 1964 to 1973 before she set up her own shingle.
Ziegler says there was a simple reason behind her move at age 29: "Independence. I couldn't bear having someone telling me how to run my life or business. I'd rather risk failing."
Ziegler, whose pioneering career was the subject of a three-week retrospective featuring 16 of her films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2006, has made some award-winning movies including "Ein jahr der ruhenenden sonne" (A Year of the Quiet Sun), which won the Golden Lion in Venice in 1984. She also produced the final film Rainer Werner Fassbinder appeared in, "Kamikaze 1989," in 1982.
She even shared her house with Fassbinder in 1981-82 ("he was a special guest").
An energetic grandmother often seen in bright red outfits at film and media parties in Berlin, she has run her company, based in West Berlin's former cinema district, with her 41-year-old daughter, Tanja, since 2000. Her daughter had been producing docus. Brushing away any notions of nepotism, Ziegler, says: "It's worked out much better than I imagined.A lot of people warned me 'Regina, don't do it, it won't work. There's no room for anyone working next to you.'
"But it's worked out wonderfully because we each do what we're best at. It's been invigorating for me to see what young producers are doing. It's also a great feeling to know what I started won't stop.
"But whether this will end up being a dynasty remains to be seen. It will depend on what my granddaughter Emma wants to do later on. But right now she's only 4."
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