EXCLUSIVE: Germany is widely regarded as a country that has dealt with the coronavirus crisis well. A six-week lockdown and a sophisticated track and trace system have kept the nation’s excess death rate among the lowest in Europe, while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ratings have surged during the pandemic.
German producers have faced the same issues as counterparts in the UK and the U.S. in terms of shutdowns and insurance nightmares. But, there are a couple of key distinctions: some big shows managed to remain in production and the Germans are now wading through the sticky issue of restarts far quicker than some foreign peers.
All3Media Deutschland CEO Markus Schäfer has been at the sharp end of the issues, both as the boss of one of Germany’s most prolific producers, but also as a board member of the German Producers Alliance, which has been at the forefront of safety protocols and government lobbying.
Overseeing seven production labels, he reports into group CEO Jane Turton, who ultimately answers to Discovery and Liberty Global. Entertainment is All3Media Deutschland’s specialty, and it makes German versions of shows including Undercover Boss and The Great British Bake Off, as well as local formats such as RTL’s The Marco Schreyl Show.
The latter was typical of Germany’s pragmatism during the crisis. Schreyl is a popular TV personality in Germany and his daily talk program launched in February, initially pre-recorded in front of a live studio audience. As the pandemic encroached, producers removed the audience, and then RTL asked them to transform it into a live format to give it a topical edge. “Not only did we have to make it under COVID conditions, we switched to a full live show. It was a great collaboration and we used RTL’s journalistic expertise,” Schäfer says.
All3Media prepared documentation for producers to show police so they could work from the office, but in the end, they were not necessary given that the German lockdown was not as serve as in other territories. It meant studio shows like Marco Schreyl were not derailed. The same can be said of Let’s Dance, Germany’s version of Dancing With The Stars, which also continued to broadcast on RTL.
While huge efforts are underway at BBC Studios to stage Dancing With The Stars and Strictly Come Dancing in the U.S. and UK during the pandemic, All3Media and BBC Studios’ joint-venture Tower Productions helped keep the show on TV at the height of the outbreak. Couples were treated as members of the same household, presenters socially distanced and perspex was erected between the judges (see picture above). Tower works with Seapoint to make the show.
“It was a steep learning curve…the producers were very nervous, but the show had its best ratings in 10-12 years,” Schäfer reflects. “In the very deep phase of the lockdown, viewers were looking for escapist content.” He adds that Endemol Shine Group also managed to keep The Masked Singer on air at the same time, despite having to go into quarantine after a celebrity singer contracted the virus.
All3Media managed to repeat the trick on its scripted reality shows Cologne 50667 and Day & Night, which paused in mid-March for around a week, before resuming production with safety protocols. At the heart of these efforts were fewer people on set and fewer outdoor shoots.
Made for TV movies, a staple of the German television diet, were also put on hold for a period in March. Around this time, actors and directors were among those who called for a more substantive shut down in Germany amid fears for their safety, but the blanket ban never materialized. This is in part a result of Germany’s public sector structure, with responsibility for broadcasting resting with local authorities rather than the federal government. So while Munich was “very strict” on shoots, says Schäfer, filming continued in Hamburg.
High-end drama shoots downed tools for a longer period of time, but All3Media was back in production on its adaptation of ITV’s thriller Liar by mid-May. This is not the case for all big-budget shoots, with many being postponed until next year, actress and director Maria Schrader told Deadline this week. Schäfer admits it has not been easy.
“According to my team, it went astonishingly smoothly, but it’s a huge effort,” he says. “They have the red zone, the yellow zone, the green zone. Team members must not switch between zones, and if they have to do so, they must enter through a lock system. On-set, you have a very limited number of crew members, there is the obligatory face mask, there are special protocols around handwashing and catering.”
And where actors need to come into close contact with each other, Schäfer explains that safety procedures dictate that they go into quarantine for five days before filming the scene, with coronavirus tests at either side of this period. There are some exceptions to this, including if the interaction is short and is not face-to-face. He uses the example of a police officer bundling an arrested suspect into the back of a car — this sort of shot would not require a five-day lockdown for the performers involved.
German producers may be a few steps ahead of counterparts in other countries, but they have not been able to avoid extra costs and extended shoot times. Insurance is also an issue, with the German Producers Alliance lobbying for a government fund to underwrite any future shutdowns.
“Our producers say complying with the protocol is causing measurable, substantial additional cost,” says Schäfer. “Our made for TV movies very typically have 21 shooting days. It’s likely that adhering to the protocols requires one or two more shooting days, which means 5-10% more time. As a rule of thumb, we say a shooting day is around €30-40,000, so you can do the maths.”
Ultimately, however, he is pleased to have momentum and is modest when reflecting on what Germany has achieved. He continues: “We seem to have been lucky and been doing a good job — it’s a bit of both. [The federal response] was not too tough and not too soft at the same time, and for the TV production sector, that enabled us to keep on producing some shows, and to go back into production comparatively early.”