Although the German box office is significantly down for the first six months of this year, there is one bright spot: German market share has climbed up to 14.3% from an overall 11.9% for 2002 (Screen Daily, July 11).
Part of this upswing is being driven by an unlikely source: German children's films.
In fact, despite some of the toughest regulations in the world governing child actors, the German children's film sector is thriving. A string of German produced children's films have recently delivered huge numbers at the local box office - in turn helping to invigorate the German production sector.
This year, Bavaria Filmverleih & Produktion's production The Flying Classroom, an adaptation of the Erich Kaestner classic directed by Tomy Wigand, has become the second most successful local film so far after Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin! with Euros 8.9m at the box office.
The most successful German film of last year was BFP's adventures of a girl witch, Bibi Blocksberg, which took Euros 9.6m at the box office.
"In the past, there were films like Momo, Rennschwein Rudi Ruessel and Charlie & Louise being made in Germany, but we didn't have a continuous output", says BFP's managing director Uschi Reich, winner of this year's Bavarian Film Award Producer Prize and the German Film Award's Lola for The Flying Classroom .
Reich adds. "Now we have a continuity of production and children's films in Germany have developed their own brand: family entertainment where you don't need lavish special effects or action; where a well-written screenplay can be produced that will hold its own with American films; and where we have good actors and the children are also there to play in the films."
"The tradition in Germany until five years ago was that children's films weren't taken seriously ", observes Ulrich Limmer, whose production of a second Das Sams film wrapped in Bamberg at the beginning of June. "In Germany, even children's books like those of [Das Sams author] Paul Maar don't appear in the publishers' bestseller lists. But the fact is that some of these films are among the most expensive and successful films being produced."
Indeed, many of the top children's' films are adaptations from successful books. "Without an established brand like Kaestner or Das Sams, it is still very hard in the German children's film scene. We have real problems with original developed story ideas", adds Reich.
Meanwhile, Bibi Blocksberg's subsequent commercial and critical success - the film received a nomination for this year's German Film Award and picked up a Best Supporting Actress "Lola" for Corinna Harfouch as the wicked witch Rabia - has laid the foundations for a franchise. The next Bibi Blocksberg film is set to go into production for BFP this summer under the direction of Franziska Buch with Sidonie von Krosigk reprising her role as Bibi along with Harfouch and Ulrich Noethen from the first film.
However, the laws governing the employment of children in films don't make life easy for German producers of children's films. Child actors in Germany are only allowed to shoot 40 days a year whereas those on Harry Potter, for example, were able to work for 80 shooting days. Similarly, in the UK, children can spend nine hours on set with 4 1/2 hours appearing in front of the camera, while the German legislation only allows them to spend up to five hours on set a day and three of those in front of the camera.
"That means that considerable demands are made on the logistics of a production", Reich explains. "Of course, there are more liberal conditions in the Czech Republic, Austria and the UK, and many productions go there to shoot. But if you want to tell something about your own country, its people and the life here, then it's important to shoot in Germany. That's why we chose specifically to be in Leipzig for The Flying Classroom."
On the Das Sams sequel, Das Sams In Gefahr, producer Limmer also located some of the production in Prague in addition to the key scenes in the north Bavarian town of Bamberg, "but that was more to do with is needing to have large crowd scenes and build extensive sets than because of the children in the cast."
Indeed, in the first Das Sams film, which was one of Germany's big box office hits in 2001, the child employment issue was cleverly circumvented by not having any children in the cast. "It was a film for children, but there weren't any in the story", Limmer recalls. "It didn't seem that anyone noticed."