Bernd Eichinger wore many hats in his long career, but is celebrated here as a ground-breaking Germany-based producer of English-language films tailor-made for the international markets.
Bernd Eichinger, who died suddenly last month in Los Angeles at the age of 61, was that rare breed, a figure who changed the business in Germany but also became a major player on an international level and in Hollywood.
He was principally a film-maker: a producer and writer, sometimes director.
He was central on the German production scene, originally through his production company Solaris Film, instrumental in the early careers of Edgar Reitz, Wolfgang Petersen, Wim Wenders and Uli Edel.
More recently he tackled key moments in 20th century German history writing and producing intelligent local blockbusters like Downfall and The Baader Meinhof Complex.
But he is best known by Screen readers for his distribution prowess and his ambition in producing movies for the international market.
He joined producer/distributor Constantin in 1977 and assumed leadership in 1979. The company had been around since 1950 and had co-produced Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns in the 1960s.
But Eichinger, riding the wave of VHS, built Constantin Film into the number one independent distributor in Germany for more than two decades, scoring massive hits from the US along the way such as The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow, American Pie, Seven and The Passion of the Christ, and producing and distributing local megahits like Der Bewegte Mann, Schtonk!, the Werner series, Das Superweib and Maintou’s Shoe.
Constantin, like Entertainment in the UK and Metropolitan in France, grew to become one of the most powerful independent distributors in the world, scoring package and output deals with the likes of New Line, Mandalay, Cinergi, Spyglass, Hyde Park, Escape Artists and Intermedia.
And then there was Summit Entertainment, probably the industry’s pre-eminent international sales company since the late 1980s, in which Eichinger was a founding partner alongside Arnon Milchan and Andy Vajna. Although that shareholding structure changed and Summit has evolved since then, Eichinger maintained a close friendship and business relationship with Summit chief Patrick Wachsberger, as both a supplier of films and, through Constantin, a buyer.
I think what most impressed me through the years about Eichinger’s multi-faceted career was his impact as a producer of “international films.” From a German base, he managed to get a score of films financed and produced in the English language with A-list stars but mostly telling European stories and directed by Europeans.
It started in 1984 with Petersen’s The Neverending Story, based on Michael Ende’s German children’s book, which Warner Bros handled in North America and PSO sold in international, then continued with great success in 1986 with The Name Of The Rose, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film of the Umberto Eco bestseller which starred Sean Connery and which Fox released in the US.
His Christiane F director Edel directed the hard-hitting film of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit To Brooklyn in 1989 and he made two films with Andrew Birkin as director – Salt On Our Skin set in France and The Cement Garden in the UK.
The films were ambitious and not always successful. You can’t get much sexier than the package Eichinger put together in 1993 for the film of Isabel Allende’s Latin American beststeller The House Of The Spirits. He hired Bille August, fresh off the Oscar and Palme d’Or, to direct and the cast included Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas and Vanessa Redgrave. The movie tanked, as did August’s 1997 film of Peter Hoeg’s Danish thriller Smilla’s Sense Of Snow with Julia Ormond.
But you win some, you lose some. Films followed of the comic strip Prince Valiant, a spoof of The Fugitive called Wrongfully Accused with Leslie Nielsen, satan-themed horror flick The Calling and hit TV movie The Mists Of Avalon directed by Edel and starring Anjelica Huston and Joan Allen.
Eichinger owned the rights to Marvel’s Fantastic Four comic book and in 1992, about to lose his option on the film unless production began by the end of the year, he enlisted Roger Corman to make a cheapie film which was never released. Still it enabled Eichinger to keep the rights and team with Fox on the big budget movie of the story in 2005. It grossed over $300m worldwide and spawned 2007 sequel Rise Of The Silver Surfer.
In 2000 he set up an LA joint venture with Jeremy Bolt and Paul Anderson’s Impact Pictures which would yield a string of successes led by the four Resident Evil movies which between them have grossed over $650m.
And his film of Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume directed by Tom Tykwer in 2006 was a huge hit, raking in over $50m in Germany, $9.4m in Spain, $9.3m in Russia and $6.2m in France. The fact that it barely caused a blip in the US hardly mattered when it finally pulled in over $150m in the rest of the world. Oh, and it won awards all over Europe.
I see Eichinger as a pioneer in the field of making commercial movies tailor made for independent distributors like Constantin. He was never afraid of Hollywood, as many Europeans can be, but accessed the US system for talent and distribution when needed. He always identified a smart property, be it a bestselling novel, a comic book or a video game and fearlessly got the films made, mainly outside the Hollywood infrastructure. And through his company’s distribution infrastructure, he always had an eye on the marketplace and what audiences wanted.
His legacy is considerable.