Elfie Jäger reports on Greenlight Media, the unconventional German producer behind feature doc Deep Blue and upcoming epic natural history film Earth, both backed by the BBC.
According to Sophokles Tasioulis (left), executive VP and board member
of Berlin-based prodco Greenlight Media, the company’s secret lies in
combining the talents of an eclectic mix of people from different cultural
Greenlight’s portfolio consists of high-quality family entertainment
products that appeal to international audiences, according to Tasioulis.
“We have taken the ‘Made in Germany’ trademark and turned it into
global success,” he says.
Tasioulis has trod a remarkable career path. Born in Germany with Greek roots, he is an aerospace engineer and also studied media design and media arts. He and chairman of the supervisory board André Sikojev (below) form the creative heart of Greenlight.
Sikojev, who helped found the company, has an equally interesting
background, being a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. One of
his first major projects stemmed from an idea to animate the fairytales of
the Brothers Grimm for TV. This led to internationally successful animation
series SimsalaGrimm (26×30′), which has now sold in more than 120
“We are a small but international, highly effective company,”
Tasioulis says, pointing to the firm’s turnover of €20m (US$26.5m) in 2005
and its staff of just 15 people.
In 2000, when looking for a partner with which to make major documentary films for the big screen, Greenlight went to the Mecca of event docs: the BBC.
However, when the company approached BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) with a proposal to jointly produce high-end docs for a cinema release, the first reaction was disbelief. In the words of Rupert Gavin, former chief executive of BBCWW: “We thought they were crazy, but they made it happen.” Some weeks later, a meeting in Cannes with BBCWW marketing manager Alix Tidmarsh paid off, as Tidmarsh was driven by the same vision to bring docs to the big screen.
There were still some hurdles to overcome, however. Tasioulis explains: “The BBC is the biggest and one of the oldest broadcasters in the world. It was not geared up for cinema nor did the culture and appreciation of the theatrical market exist.”
In 2002 BBCWW and Greenlight eventually agreed on a 50/50 partnership and signed a five-picture deal – on the BBC’s condition that until the release of the first feature, Greenlight would have to bear all of the financial risk.
Nevertheless, it was a very big deal for the small company. As Tasioulis describes: “Regarding feature docs, the BBC is like an ocean liner in the media sea, and Greenlight serves as a pilot cutter to bring it safe into the port.”
The first joint Greenlight/BBC project was Deep Blue- “to me a film about the miracle of nature,” says Sikojev – which hit the screens in 2004. It went on to become one of the most successful German films ever released abroad.
“If you are going to the cinema, you expect other emotions than the ones you have watching TV,” explains Tasioulis. “Music is one factor not to underestimate, so that is why we worked with the internationally renowned Berliner Philharmoniker to create the music for Deep Blue. It was a first in their history.”
The film had a budget of US$5m and has brought in US$30m at the
box office so far.
The second Greenlight/BBC project, Earth (above and below), has a
budget of US$47m and will be released in October 2007. “The BBC
made the Planet Earth TV series for US$32m, and we put US$15m on
top for the feature doc,” Tasioulis says. “You have to tell new stories for
a cinema audience, so we have invested much more in things like
special camera systems invented for the Earth production.”
He also says the company opted to use a crane in order to film the
highest tree on earth – which is taller than the Eiffel Tower. “That
needed three extra weeks, but we got excellent pictures. These are
things that the TV world usually can’t afford, but cinema makes it
possible. It is a fruitful symbiosis for both worlds,” says Tasioulis.
As projects of this size need three to five years of development and production, talks are already under way with the BBC for the next film, but details are being kept under wraps.
Elsewhere on its slate, however, Greenlight is already in pre-production on a 4×60′ documentary TV series and a 90-minute feature doc about Siberia. “We will travel the four geographic zones and 11 time zones of Siberia, from the west to Kamchatka in the east, telling a highly emotional story of what is probably the world’s least known territory,” Tasioulis says. It is to be a major copro with Austrian pubcaster ORF, with the BBC also having recently joined the project.