Second Prize: Berlin – Grundy UFA

“WE WILL ROCK YOU,” Berlin!
...This was our motto on September 15, 2011, when the RTL Group team from Talent Meets Bertelsmann 2011 met in Berlin to claim the second prize: a strategy workshop at Grundy UFA, including a visit to the GZSZ set, with tickets to a musical in the evening. Johanna Scheffer, project manager for Employer Branding, and Dr. Nico Rose, Director Corporate Management Development, accompanied us during our visit to Berlin. Participants included Leon Windscheid, Richard Pollack, Alina Lingau, Sarah Krüger, Lukas Kirchner and Anja Bothfeld. Nadine Strauss was unable to attend because she was spending a semester abroad in Greensboro, North Carolina, but she sent greetings to the group in Potsdam Babelsberg via the TMB Facebook page.

The early bird catches the worm
We met at 9:45 a.m. at Berlin’s main train station, which meant an early morning for the participants arriving from Gütersloh, Paris and Stockholm. But there wasn’t any choice, since we had a full day of activities ahead of us! After getting reacquainted, we took the train to Grundy UFA headquarters in Potsdam Babelsberg. We were welcomed by Thea Wulff, Head of Corporate Communications and Personnel Development, who revealed some of the secrets of producing a soap opera.

Grundy UFA has made history with its daily drama Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten, the first and most successful daily series on the German television market, and also the strongest offering in the RTL portfolio. Over three million people watch GZSZ every day, and it is especially popular among young women. These are impressive figures, but as Thea Wulff points out, it is the stories that are really important. And Grundy UFA creates wonderful stories, not only for GZSZ. The Potsdam-based production company is also responsible for such popular shows as Unter Uns (RTL, since 1994), Verbotene Liebe (ARD, since 1995) and Verliebt in Berlin (Sat.1, from 2005 to 2007). Grundy UFA is a subsidiary of UFA and an independent production company under the umbrella of Fremantle Media. As Europe’s leading producer of daily dramas and telenovelas, it has been very successful at distributing its shows both within Germany and abroad. Verliebt in Berlin, for example, has become a hit in France.

Filming never stops – no matter what!
Producing a daily drama is an enormous logistical challenge. It requires coordinating 23 main cast members, guest stars, children’s parts, a limited number of stage props, determining which scenes will be filmed in the studio and on location, and much more. 70 different episodes of GZSZ are in simultaneous production every week, and each is completed six weeks before broadcast. Communication within the production team is vital, and stories sometimes have to be modified at the last minute as circumstances change. Post-production at Grundy UFA meets Hollywood standards. If you have always wondered about the origins of the German saying “The worm needs to appeal to the fish, not the fisherman” – referring to the need to give audiences what they want – you have come to the right place. It was coined by Helmut Thoma, the former head of RTL, whose belief in GZSZ and the daily drama format never wavered, despite low ratings and strong opposition in 1992. It turned out that he was right...

Distinctive actors
It’s not necessarily important for the actors to be well-liked; rather, if characters are to be successful, the audience has to understand what they’re all about – as Rainer Hassenewert, Head of UFA Research, points out. And this brings us to the core message of the presentation on research and quality management: A successful daily drama requires a great deal of research and effective use of the findings. Quantitative research involves finding out what the ratings are, a task that is increasingly complicated by delayed viewing, diversified technologies and simultaneous use of multiple media. But there is cause for optimism, since television is growing and is still the leading medium for reaching audiences. Qualitative research involves measuring physiological and cognitive factors, providing valuable information for developing and fine-tuning stories and characters. The more distinctive an actor is, the better. One thing is certain: A character may die or go on a trip for numerous reasons, but it’s never a coincidence...

Rehearsal, tech rehearsal, film shoot
After lunch in the cafeteria, Christian Scheerer, Head of Production at Grundy UFA, gave us a tour of the GZSZ studio and back lot. For those who follow the story: Among the sets we visited were Tayfun’s Spätkauf shop, the Mauerwerk club and Jo Gerner’s living room, where a scene was being filmed during our tour. Seen from the front, the outdoor sets were remarkably convincing although they were “only” made of wood. Here, too, multiple episodes were being filmed simultaneously. We gradually came to realize how difficult it must be to shoot 80 scenes a week.

After we had returned to the Grundy UFA head office, Guido Reinhardt, producer and creative director, answered our last few questions and gave a detailed description of a producer’s job. And now for a test: How many decisions does a producer have to make every day? ... Approximately 120 – and that takes courage. Producers also have to deal with marketing issues: Every show is its own brand; what is its USP, its emotional payoff? What do the results of brand analysis reveal – have we stayed true to the original concept? “Concept days,” “future days” and “character days” are devoted to examining social changes, the goals/dreams/desires of the actors and connections among the actors.
Guido Reinhardt is optimistic about the future of the soap opera. He is a firm believer in the power of stories. Stories touched people in the days of Greek tragedy just as they do today; they were just presented in a different form. If you want to be successful, you need to tell stories that are more and more compelling – based on the idea that the most important characters should be put in the most difficult situations. And then you can see how they extricate themselves... Wherever the journey may lead – at GZSZ or other shows – market leader Grundy UFA is interested in playing an active role. New ideas are already in the pipeline. I can tell you this much: The characters will be relevant in new ways, and although content will continue to be crucial, there will also be more emphasis on cross-media distribution.

No time to lose
Our jam-packed program continued: We took a taxi to the Potsdam train station, where we caught a train to Berlin. There we checked into Motel One Ku’Damm, had a delicious dinner at the Italian restaurant Nuovo Mario, and finally arrived at the Theater des Westens. We appreciated the fact that the leaders of our TMB 2011 workshop – Kristian Costa-Zahn, Head of Creation at the UFA Lab/UFA Interactive, and Jens-Uwe Bornemann, Head of Business Development & Strategy/Head of the UFA Lab at UFA Film & TV Produktion GmbH – had canceled another engagement just so that they could join us in the evening. We sang, swayed and smiled along to WE WILL ROCK YOU, the Queen musical. And the evening wasn’t yet over when we left the theater. The day ended with a glass of Berlin’s famous “Berliner Weisse” beer... After breakfast the following morning, it was time to say goodbye. But we hope to see everyone again next year at the Talent Meets Bertelsmann alumni reunion. It was great fun! I’d like to thank everyone involved!
 
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