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A spaceship from Germany - an exclusive Interview with EAVE+ graduate Jonas Katzenstein

"We put a lot of heart, effort, sweat and blood into our projects."

EAVE+ graduate Jonas Katzenstein (augenschein Filmproduktion, DE) produced Stowaway by Joe Penna, the film about a blind passenger on a spaceship, which is available on Netflix and in cinemas in Germany and France. They just recently also set up an in-house world sales and financing division at augenschein, which will be one of the company case studies featured in the ‘Transforming Companies’ section of the next edition of EAVE+.

Harald Olkus: What is the last German science fiction film that you can remember? Maybe Raumschiff Orion from the 1960s?

Jonas Katzenstein: Well, maybe it was really Raumschiff Orion, but I think it was rather Roland Emmerich’s film Das Arche Noah Prinzip, a film made in the beginning of the 1980s…But I think this is exactly the problem – and what it makes so tough to produce German genre movies. There is a huge genre movie audience in Germany, but of course they are so used to English language films and Hollywood standards. And they are also used to Hollywood actors starring in these films. So, it’s tough for German filmmakers to make a German language genre movie and still be able to compete. This is probably why both of us cannot remember any German science fiction movie from the last few years.

 

And German co-productions with the US are rare also. How did it happen that you have produced this project?

Jonas Katzenstein: We had originally been in contact about another movie we produced, 7500, which takes place completely in a cockpit. It was a German production in co-production with Austria and mainly shot at the MMC sound stage in Cologne, so we were already experienced with the technical challenges of shooting a “flying” motive on a soundstage combining VFX, Virtual production and classical set construction.

We didn't do 7500 together in the end but it was due to this knowledge and production experience why XYZ approached us for co-producing STOWAWAY. XYZ were also the sales partner on Joe Penna’s previous movie Artic. So, there was a natural link between us, XYZ and Joe Penna. For us it was perfect to have a partner who could be our sales and production partner. And for them we brought the production experience and the access to German financing. 

Since producing 7500 my company partner Max (Maximilian Leo) and I regularly were in LA - until the pandemic we traveled at least every two months to LA - so we could do personal meetings with XYZ and also the director which always make things a lot easier especially in the early stages of a project.

 

How did it come that you shot in Germany, when you have all these great studio possibilities in the US?

I’d say it was a combination of our knowledge, track record, the German funding sources and the highly skilled crew in Germany. Joe Penna is a Brazilian born director who lives in the US, and he shot his previous movie Artic in Iceland. He is not coming from the studio system in the US, so he is not used to blast hundreds of millions US Dollars on movies. He is more driven by real experience, so there was an approach to build Stowaway not like the most fancy or biggest spaceship but more like a really realistic one. He always wanted to create an experience for the audience that would feel like being in space with them together. He also liked our European approach, so he was happy about our collaboration.

We also have such a great system of German funding sources allowing for a lot of creative choices and with the spotlight US talent brings to the project you can have a much bigger impact and reach a wider worldwide audience. Combining US talent with German production teams and sources gave us much more opportunities for a director driven approach on the movie. If there’s one studio giving you 20 million, then they are the guys who make all decisions. This creates a big risk of adversity and you get a lot of restrictions and obligations with it. The funds in Germany are much more open and they have a different approach, which is much more filmmaker friendly.

@augenschein Filmproduktion GmbH / Klemens Becker

 

You managed to sell the film not only to Netflix that shows it in many regions of the world, but it’s also shown in cinemas. How did you achieve this and why was it important for you?

When we got the script, it felt immediately like this movie deserves a real cinematic experience. Especially if you see all the effort we put in all the spacewalks and the zero gravity scenes. This was always meant for the big screen. To be honest, we started the distribution strategy much more focused on a worldwide theatrical release, because we pre-sold the movie to Sony International. Also for US domestic plans were to have a big screen release. And we had Wild Bunch on German and French side for the theatrical release that was pre-negotiated before.

Afterwards Netflix came on board and bought it for the US and the remaining open territories. They fell in love with the movie, so Netflix approached all attached distributors and bought the rights back. And this is why the film is available now on Netflix worldwide save for Germany and France.

We also had good offers from other US theatrical distributors, but Netflix simply made the strongest offer and the way the financing was structured it wasn’t our decision. Now we think it is a really good deal. We can experience the movie here in Germany on the big screen and all the US financiers got their invested money back. And it was a major Netflix release with a lot of press and really good critics. So it is a big success for all parties. 

 

And are you happy with Netflix?

Yes. Considering that the decision was in the height of the pandemic it was the guarantee to reach the widest audience. And to be honest, it has a great impact to show the movie everywhere. It’s possible to watch this movie in India, South America or New York whenever you want. This is really important for us and the filmmakers. In the first week we were the number 1 movie in the US and in the UK, so you get a lot of attention from the media. Anna Kendrick was in the Tonight Show, there were great critics in the LA Times and in the New York Magazine, and generally the critics were really good.

This helps also now for the German theatrical release (June 24th), but it is of course a very difficult time. There is a real jam of movies going to be released while cinemas are yet not all open and have limited seats available. Wild Bunch’s strategy was to go out ahead of the big studio movies and it might work since this is a movie for a Genre audience - but we will see. Hopefully people coming out of months at home due to Covid-19 aren`t less motivated to go into any room…

 

Maybe the audience wants to see films on the big screen and in open space.

Well, it’s a question of weather, or how successful is the European Football cup, or how successful is the German team - so there are a lot of elements that we don’t know. But we could offer a real theatrical experience, so the people might decide that they want to watch it on a big screen now. Let's hope that the rules will allow all screenings.

@augenschein Filmproduktion GmbH / Klemens Becker

 

Your company has launched augenschein sales, an in-house worldwide sales and financing division. Why did you decide to take this step and what do you expect with this diversification?

I founded the company together with my partner Max 13 years ago. We started really from scratch as two absolute beginners. I was an audio engineer and he was a director graduating from film school - this is maybe the worst combination for a production company ;-) We didn’t have any experience, but from the beginning we were very focused on international co-productions with the potential to reach A-Festivals. So out of our 30 movies we have produced so far only a handful are in German language.

We went to festivals and co-production markets for producers and started doing international co-productions. 2017 maybe was a peak year in this set up. We had one German movie which premiered in Sundance and a Romanian co-production that won the Silver Bear in Berlin. We had a Chilean movie that was in Cannes and 3 movies in Venice in the same year - and one won the Critics’ Week. So it was really a major year for us. We, the broadcasters, the distributors and the funds were happy with these films because we got awards at major festivals and the red carpet, but we still had only a very limited potential to reach audiences and in the end this is who we make the films for. But 2017 marked also the year, in which we produced our first English language movie 7500 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and this changed our company’s focus.

 

And after several links to the English language market came Stowaway

Stowaway came to us like a perfect scenario and it was a win-win situation for everybody involved. We could combine the best elements out of Germany, creative freedom, great crews and talents, marvellous facilities, together with the spotlight of an English language project starring a Hollywood cast - the perfect fit for our work. Our goal was and is to produce director driven movies in a boutique style. It can be Elevated Genre movies or dramas with a special edge - always with the potential to attract A level actors and crossover to a worldwide audience. The idea is to produce 2 of these movies per year, so we could be very hands-on and close with our directors. We put a lot of heart, effort, sweat and blood into our projects. And our films can still travel to big festivals but there is much more awareness afterwards.

In order to keep this creative freedom with the talents, it’s also good to be a sales entity. When you are doing so much during the development, financing, pre-production, production and post-production, the distribution part is really important. In order to have a strategy on how to combine these elements and make sure that there are no binding elements in the contract that we have to fulfil. With all the relationships that we have established over the past 13 years it is a logical step to also combine it with doing the sales.

But we don’t want to become a sales company in the classical style. Our sales division is more like a new-boutique-very-streamlined-sales-company and it will focus on financing the company’s production slate through access to equity, market pre-sales and film funds in order to retain creative and financial control over projects. We have a new marvellous colleague Jonathan Saubach who is very experienced and who has worked for Telepool for the past ten years.

In the changing industry we want to focus on the global deals for our movies, and we have established relationships with the US distributors. We can team up at an early stage and we can start developing together and selling it afterwards. So we don't want to compete with the traditional sales agent model like the big players in the field. On the contrary there will be many cases where we will continue to work together with them, especially if we decide for a multi territory strategy. This is also why we teamed up with a strategic partnership with Protagonist.    

 

So you think that you will have more freedom for your work with having the sales?

Yes, this is the main idea to keep the creative freedom with the director. We don’t want to compete with big studio movies. We think that in the US you either have these big studio films like Star Wars or small 1-5 million range movies, but in between there is a gap. And this is something that we wish to come in with great German financing behind us, so it’s a win-win for everyone. It’s not like 20 years ago when you had the expression of “stupid German money”, now we would like to establish a new expression of “smart German money”.

There is a big advantage in Germany, because we are already used to dubbed versions. So for the funds it could be a benefit to support an English language movie because there is the impact of a star like Brad Pitt which the international and also the German audience would like to watch. Sometimes it can be a co-production like on Stowaway and sometimes it’s just an augenschein project. With this we keep the money in Germany and enable the careers of filmmakers and crews to become more established, so they can work on better projects next time. It’s a long-term plan for the next 10 or 20 years.

Page published 30 June 2021.


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