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Industry Report: Produce - Co-Produce...

Berlinale 2006 Co-production Market - Case study: The Elementary Particles

- The Elementary Particles, based on Michel Houellebecq’s controversial French novel, was selected as a case study for the Berlinale Co-Production Market 2006. The German director Oscar Roehler and the producers revealed the background story of making the film including its adaptation into German cinema style, and marketing strategies for the foreign art house films.

Berlinale 2006 Co-production Market - Case study: The Elementary Particles

Moderated by Peter Cowie, in the presence of director Oscar Roehler, Hengameh Panahi (Celluloid Dreams – France), Martin Moszkowicz (Constantin Film – Germany) and Patrice Hoffman (Editions Flammarion – France).

Peter Cowie: Good morning! We are here today to discuss the relations between novel and film focusing on the case of The Elementary Particles [+see also:
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interview: Franka Potente & Moritz Ble…
interview: Oskar Roehler
film profile
. I would like to start from the beginning and ask Patrice Hoffman how Flammarion handled the request for optioning the book by Michel Houellebecq? Did you involve the author?

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Patrice Hoffman: Oh yes, certainly. As you know in France as opposed to many Anglo-Saxon or Spanish countries, Germany is a little bit in the middle at the moment, there are no major literary agents. If you are a young writer in London or Madrid, you have to look for an agent who will submit your manuscript to a publishing house, whereas if you are in Paris, you have to look directly for a publisher. Which means that we as a publisher share the rights with the author and represent the author who sells the rights. For two reasons, we always share the agreement to sell the right with the author. The first one is diplomatic, the second one, which is very important in Europe, is what we call the “droit moral” (moral right) that gives the author the right to assert his acceptance on sales of the rights. As you know in any contract there is the possibility for the author to ask at least to have his name and any reference to the book to be taken out of the credits of the film if he thinks the adaptation defers too much from what he wrote.

Peter Cowie: How did you go about this in this particular case?

Patrice Hoffman: It has been very tricky in this case. First of all, The Elementary Particles had been such a hit in France at that time. It has been successful in Germany too and sparked debate. What happened in France was very unexpected because Houellebecq’s previous book was a big success with 70,000 books sold and two years later The Elementary Particles was a real hit. We have had a lot of people approaching us.

Peter Cowie: Did you get any proposals from Hollywood?

Patrice Hoffman: No, not at that time. We have had proposals from Hollywood in the last 18 months. But … sorry guys. Too late!

Peter Cowie: So Martin, what attracted Constantin to this particular novel?

Martin Moszkowicz: Actually Oliver Berben who is a producer within the Constantin group was the one who was originally fascinated by the novel. He approached Flammarion and went through a rather long process to try to have the rights. The strange thing in this case is that originally there were two movies that were supposed to be made. One in France and one in Germany. When we bought the rights, we bought them to release our picture everywhere in the world of course, in any language except for France. And the same happened for the French movie, they were allowed to release their picture everywhere in the world except Germany. Now fortunately … or rather unfortunately, the French movie fell apart in the development process or in the financing process so that we got the permission from Flammarion to release the picture also in France which is fantastic. Hengameh will come to that in a minute, the picture has got an incredible buzz here at the festival and it has basically been sold to every major territory in the world in the last 48 hours.

Peter Cowie: I would now like to ask Oscar how you got involved. Were you approached by Bernd Aichinger or did you know the novel first before they contacted you?

Oscar Roehler: In the end maybe I was the first committed to the project. I recommended Oliver Berben, the co-producer connected to Bernd Aichinger, to read Michel Houellebecq just to get a feeling of what it was about. They all reacted like one week later and I think all of them were really attracted by the humanistic intelligence of the novel and quickly started looking for the rights.

Peter Cowie: When was this? Two or three years ago?

Oscar Roehler: I think I must have read it in 2002…

Martin Moszkowicz: We started discussing three years ago and we got the rights around seven months before the beginning of the shooting, one ad a half year ago.

Oscar Roehler: I never dreamt that I would get the chance to make the film because I thought there would be so many international companies interested in it that only a triple A director from Hollywood would get the rights. It’s a mystery to me.

Peter Cowie: You made the fundamental decision to switch the action of the film to Germany… It is a very German movie.

Oscar Roehler: Yes. I think we are very romantic somehow. We always try to get rid of it but it shows up again. When I attended the screening three days ago I saw the film for the first time as a spectator and I realised how romantic it was.

Peter Cowie: Hengameh, when did you get involved? When did you hear about the project and how did you decide to get on board?

Hengameh Panahi: I read the book first and it is one of my favourite books. It is very hard because I can’t find any woman around me with whom I can share this passion. Then I heard about the French project and got in touch with the producer and got the rights to sell the film. And in the process I found out about the German project. I didn’t understand the state of the rights because it made no sense to me but I said “whatever”. And then the French project which was supposed to be directed by Philippe Harel fell apart and I said: OK let’s try to get in touch with the German producer and get the rights of the movie. And Constantin is a big company, so I’m like you Oscar I don’t know how I got the rights. Because they could have worked with bigger companies and they have their own outfit. It was really a question of passion, following something you like and then going for it, which is something we all do in the movie business and which is in my opinion the strongest energy.

Peter Cowie: What is the fundamental thing that you feel are really charismatic in a way to sell the film?

Hengameh Panahi: I think that you have a great package here. You have a brilliant writer with worldwide success with a great German director, whose previous films were shown at major festivals. There is a great producer involved. You have the top creative people. The book has also triggered a lot of debate so people are very curious. It is already known without being seen so there are high expectations. This makes things easier but in a way also harder because when there are high expectations it is very hard to deliver. Even when the film is good sometimes you are disappointed because of the expectations. So, I was very nervous!

Peter Cowie: Did you do a lot of preselling?

Hengameh Panahi: No, because when I enter a relationship with a producer I like to know what they expect from me, why they picked up our company. With Constantin it was very clear, they wanted the most careful handling of the film. They really wanted someone who would care about the movie and who would really pick the best distributor in each single territory. I just tried to be on that level and deliver what was expected but it is also what we do, so it was nice.

Peter Cowie: Patrice, coming back to the moral right you talked about before, was Michel Houellebecq interested in collaborating on a screenplay or not?

Patrice Hoffman: No, he would not enter into this kind of collaboration. I don’t exactly know why…
You asked before why Constantin got the rights of the novel but this is not quite a surprise to me because they were just in the best position to get them. The surprise would be why there were not so many other competitors because the book was a great success with around 800,000 copies sold in France and the book was published all over the world.
Then there was this very unusual situation where the rights could be sold to two different producers. At the beginning I couldn’t see how it would work.
Michel was very much in favour of the French project too because he was very impressed by Philippe Harel’s previous adaptation of Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever). The film is a masterpiece, but it has been a complete failure in France! But Michel felt reassured by Philippe Harel. Finally, for a reason I don’t know, the producer and Harel were not able to produce the movie. Maybe it was the financing…

Hengameh Panahi: Yes, it was the financing. The producer just couldn’t put the financing together. I’ve read both scripts and they were completely different.

Peter Cowie: I want to ask Oscar about the challenge of this adaptation because for me the book seemed unadaptable. At what point for example did you decide to make the ending more emotionally positive than in the novel?

Oscar Roehler: About this I have a little of a bad conscience, but I think Michel will forgive me for that! When we first thought about making the movie with Bernd Aichinger, who was a kind of spirit inspector for the movie, we were discussing hard from the beginning and we didn’t really know if we could bring the whole screenplay together. It took us a while and I did another movie in between.
There were many reasons for that. I told him I didn’t want to do a mixture of a socio-cultural essay and a porno movie maybe, something very avant-garde, very intellectual. But we came very soon to the conclusion that we wanted to have a broader audience. We wanted to show the middle-life crisis of the two brothers and go back to the past by flashbacks. And Bernd always explains movies with some examples of American films. He says he would never have a film in which you show a love story with people who meet in childhood and death blowing the whole thing without the characters having the slightest chance to become happy. This would have sounded kind of nihilistic because in literature Michel Houellebecq explains somehow a different story than we do. He shows two biographies in front of a background of much bigger powers which are working on mankind. He quotes Huxley all the time and shows what Utopia can look like. And we could not show it in the movie.

Peter Cowie: How many sequences are in the film that had nothing to do with the book?

Oscar Roehler: I think we really went into the novel very carefully and took out the mosaic and the passion which we could not put together. There was one really interesting thing maybe what we did: we used the inner monologues of the book and put them in the mouths of the characters and this was very interesting, since I didn’t want to miss all these statements which you can cite all the time because they are so intelligent. We used them in the first half of the movie, we used most things of the book in the first half of the film. And then we got more emotional following the relationships of the two people. We tried to show them in a human light.

Peter Cowie: Martin, with all the experience Constantin has in literary adaptation, what does a book need to have?

Martin Moszkowicz: We are very very experienced in turning pre-existing material into films. Probably 80 or 90% of what Constantin does, 10 to 12 movies a year, are based on some pre-existing material, not only books but also cartoons, video-games and other forms of material. The commercial aspect is the easiest answer, you know it’s a great book, just make it into a movie. The film history is full of bestsellers that have failed on screen. Why? Because they are two different art forms. The commercial aspect doesn’t come during the development process, although the aim of our company is to make money. I have not been in the discussion between Oscar, Bernd and Oliver but I’m sure the word “commercial” never touched Bernd’s lips because we always try to stay true to the material. As a reader you get an image in the back of your mind, but for a movie you have to capture that and put it in front of the audience.
That is always the problem and the challenge. This time Bernd was very much involved in the development process, which was very fast in this case. I think they worked for about a year on the screenplay. Last year we produced a film adapted from the cartoon The Fantastic Four, whose rights Bernd bought in 1984! So it took us over twenty years to develop it and turn it into a huge $800 million success story.
But this time it was very fast because Oscar is a very fast writer and Bernd was very much dedicated to it. We went through a couple of drafts, 6 or 7, and it was ready. The essence of the discussion they had was to try and capture the essence of the novel.

Peter Cowie: Hengameh, in the world of arthouse, is it a real advantage for a film to be based on a book or are people mainly interested in the director?

Hengameh Panahi: On the one hand, it is a plus because again it is about positioning and you need market values, so it helps. On the other hand, it depends on the director. Then it depends on what ultimately the film is. In this case it is very interesting because everybody says it is a book that is not adaptable, that has created a lot of debate, not like a bestseller that everybody adores, some love it, some hate it. So you have already a very strong case, which is very challenging. Then there’s the director with his very specific style and you want to know how he is going to adapt it. Therefore you have all those expectations. And then you have the critics, the opinion-makers.
And what I wanted to say, because you asked why the sales were so successful so quickly, is that it is the first time in my career where I have come across a situation like that where a foreign language arthouse movie, because this is what it is, has so much interest from the buyers despite the lack of support from a single critic. Journalists have a problem because they find it too sentimental, too audience friendly; they wanted something more radical and intellectual. Normally my distributors would always agree with the media, especially for foreign arthouse movies because they say there is no way they can attract the audience without the critics. When you have a commercial film, you can always impose it on the market place. But when you come to arthouse, you really need the media. I have had so many cases of distributors that were about to buy a movie and said “let’s see what the critics say”. Even if the critics had only one line of observation they would say “Sorry but … I just don’t know how to do it”.
In this case, it is the first time ever, honestly I’m not making up for the case-study, that I have had this experience. We were really surprised and it says a lot about how the market is changing as well. The distributor now says, “this is a good movie”. Also what was very nice is that they were all personally touched. We had in many countries several distributors who genuinely wanted to buy the movie because they were personally touched by the film, which is rare because they are professionals – they are here to make money and not take extra-risks. And this despite a press that is not really behind the movie.
At a festival, we have a different type of press. But when you release the movie in each territory first of all it’s not the same circumstances because they have the time to properly watch it because sometimes they see too many films. Then you can take them one by one, have a media strategy, you can really talk with them about the movie. Often after a festival they just also change their mind. They are opinion-makers but sometimes you can also make them see things differently.

Peter Cowie: Martin, you told me before we came on stage that the film is not going to be treated like an arthouse film in Germany. You are going to release it in 400 theatres, am I right? Because of the cast I guess, such a great cast for the German audience. It will be a mainstream release.

Hengameh Panahi: It’s a crossover as we call it!

Martin Moszkowicz: Well, I’m a bit suspicious about this labelling. There is a great buzz about the picture right now and we’re going to take advantage of it when we release the film in Germany. Hopefully all the other distributors will have similar experiences in their territories.
We are not going to go into the small arthouse release. We were looking to get volume in the theatres but this is marketing, it has nothing to do with the movie. This is a very different world and if our Head of marketing was here he would basically tell you, “you go to the theatres where you think you will have enough space for the audience you are expecting”. We go after a certain amount of screens because we need to go for a certain amount of seats available for the audience interested. That’s what it’s all about. These days in the centre of the German cities there is no longer a distinction between arthouse and commercial movies because there is usually only one big multiplex. I would not make the distinction in general anyhow. There are movies people are interested in and others they are not so interested in. This film is one that at the moment people are very interested in.

Peter Cowie: Will you be dubbing the sequences in English? I guess, yes…

Martin Moszkowicz: Yes, the film will be dubbed and subtitled.

Hengameh Panahi: What’s interesting is in France. First of all we had no idea whether it would work or not because on the French market, knowing that there is a German adaptation of one their most important books, it was not obvious at all. But actually everybody wanted the movie! They liked it a lot and saw big potential. And it will be dubbed and subtitled, when normally for arthouse it is always subtitled. So coming to this king of labelling: arthouse means quality but if audience goes for it, it becomes a crossover. And if it attracts a bigger audience then it becomes commercial.

Question from the audience: To Patrice Hoffman, did the question come up in your publishing company to sell the rights to a German production company? Because now we can say German cinema is kind of improving but at the time you were giving the rights away it was not obvious at all.

Patrice Hoffman: There was actually no controversy about selling it to a German producer. It was more the surprise because in France the book made a scandal. Even in Flammarion, when people heard the book would be competing for the Goncourt (most prestigious prize in France) a lot of them were saying to the boss there was no way this “piece of trash” would get it. That’s why we were expecting more competition between producers, including French producers.

Question from the audience: Also to Patrice Hoffman, when you have someone who wants to option a book do you ask them their interpretation from the beginning?

Patrice Hoffman: In all our contracts, we have several steps where people have to send us their treatment, drafts and final script. But again, it is only for one purpose, and it has nothing to do with a control at all, it is just for moral rights.

Martin Moszkowicz: It is also something we are experiencing quite a lot with German publishers. A lot of publishers ask us before we negotiate the rights to come for a “beauty contest” so to speak and present a concept about how to make the movie. I think this is all basically rubbish because this is a very complicated process, a time consuming process, and you cannot do this quickly on one page. It depends on the director, on the producer. There are so many issues to take into account. We normally never do it. If someone asks us about a concept before we buy the rights I tell them we can do it together during the process, as we have done with Flammarion and Houellebecq, but to do it before we get involved I think it’s pretty crazy.

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