“My work has always been met with hostility”
Known for his sometimes brutal controversy and rigorousness, Ulrich Seidl is one of the most talked-about filmmakers – as the premiere at the 71st International Venice Film festival of his latest movie “In the basement” has confirmed once more. As for many, going a different path was not easy for the Austrian but his major international success took off when he founded his own company. In our interview of the month he talks about his reasons to become a founder, why the French still don’t like him and how breaking contract terms led to an unexpected world premiere.
You’ve already been a successful filmmaker for years when you decided to found your own business, the Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion GmbH. Why did you take on all the effort at 51?
My first intention was always to make movies as an author and director, but not as a producer. Being a producer is a completely different profession. Producers take relatively minimal risk and, due to the contracts, they earn much more money if a movie is successful. So, authors and directors indeed get the credit but they hardly make a profit. One day I decided to not put up with this any longer and tried to modify my contractual relationships. When this didn’t work out, I said to myself: well, why not start a business myself.
Why did you decide to start the company with your wife Veronika Franz? Would you describe this as a family business?
Yes, that’s one way to look at it. We have been working together in an artistic context for a long time and also have collaborated closely on the movie Dog Days . My wife is experienced in many different areas – as a screenwriter and director’s assistant – and she also helped me with the casting.
Looking at things from a different perspective. Photo credit: www.sostaric.com
It seems that all of a sudden you’ve entered a whole new working area. Did you have to acquire a new set of skills when you created your business?
Yes, of course. You have to gain experience. But, at first it was an uphill struggle. I got to hear things like: ‘A director becoming a producer? Where is this going to lead us?’ And also the committee’s decision-makers told me: ‘Sure, you can start a business, but this doesn’t mean we will fund you.’ It’s quite a challenge in Austria because there are lots of producers out there. There is envy, and everyone wants a slice of the pie, which is much too small to share.
Speaking of struggle, you are not the only founder who has to deal with tension in this field. But how did you handle it?
We got our way. Our first movie that we also self-produced in 2007, Import Export, was a great success. No one from Austria had managed to participate at Cannes with hisdebut production before. So, it came about how it had to in this country: at first difficulty, then you achieve success, and finally there is peace.
I remember sitting in Kenya, having no money at all. My wife’s savings ended up funding for us.”
Has anything changed for you on a personal level?
Yes – suddenly my workload doubled. There’s a good deal of work in producing a movie, but it also takes a lot of effort to finance it. Actually, one needs bridge-financing for that, because the money usually comes only at contract closing – at the first shooting sessions and so on – but one really needs the money much sooner. Among European countries, Austria is a very successful country with regard to movies – and there is a reason for this. But what makes it more difficult here is the fact that there is no bridge-financing from banks.
Have you ever had a situation when you weren’t able to carry on anymore?
It was always a hair’s breadth away. When I think of the beginning of the shooting sessions for the Paradise-trilogy in Africa, I remember sitting there in Kenya, one week before the first shoot, having no money at all. Although everything was prepared already, I just wasn’t able to start. My wife’s savings ended up funding us for the first weeks. It was just enough to bridge the time until the money flowed again.
Do you have troubles sleeping in such situations?
No, I know that my work is and will remain risky. If you are afraid of that, you just shouldn’t do it.
What is entrepreneurial success to you, personally?
Economic success is if money comes back to you and if a movie gets international distribution. However, as a relatively small producer, what is hard for me is that my movies often take years to complete. Sometimes there is not enough money to finance the company. So, to enhance our entrepreneurial success, we started to produce TV movies, as well.
Indeed, many producers do act like bureaucrats.”
You said it takes years to finalise your movies – you are known for your rigorousness. How do you balance the competing goals of entrepreneur, director, writer and artist?
I’ve got a simple philosophy. I have a great responsibility as an entrepreneur – naturally, I don’t want to ruin myself. So, it does not make any sense if I overrun a movie – that would be my death. As an artist you just have to make the best movies because the greatest films have the greatest success, of course. But, as a film producer, you also have to be open to risk and sometimes even take those risks financially. Otherwise, you would be like a civil servant. Indeed, many producers do act like bureaucrats.
As an entrepreneur, do you have a target group?
No. I think I have to trust myself as an artist. In the end, I am also a spectator and, if I’m on the right track, there’ll be an audience for my work, I hope. However, I am aware that any movie can be a flop. With every motion picture we are doing, the financial success is quite modest. However, it can also happen that the movie wins a prize at Cannes and that helps, of course.
Speaking of flops: have you had any failures in the production of a movie, or from an artistic point-of-view?
No, and that was my great advantage. My work has always been met with hostility. Very often, I did not know whether I could do another movie. But, in the end every movie was successful and we carried on. For quite some time now, at least since Dog Days was released, my name is widely known, in Austria anyway.
Has your business grown in the meantime?
When I make a movie, I have about 50 employees. Between films, only one person works for me. I like to work mostly with the same core team on each film.
In business, there is the slightly absurd term, “Captain of Industry.” Do you see yourself as one?
No, they have much more money and a huge corporation behind them. At least this is how I picture them.
Photo credit: Film poster of Seidls latest movie “In the basement”; Photo credit: stadtkinowien.at
How important is autonomy for you when it comes to being an artist or entrepreneur?
Let me illustrate this with what happened with my film, Paradise. It had been planned as one, long movie, but while cutting the material we found out that the material is actually enough for three movies. If I hadn’t produced that project myself, another producer might have said: ‘No, that’s not gonna happen.’ So, we did something that’s probably unique in the world by turning one film project into three movies. But contracts have been broken with that strategy.
How did you resolve that?
In the end, I managed to convince the partners that this brings additional value. With three movies, we were in the public sphere for almost an entire year. But first, I had to get supplementary financial support because I wasn’t able to make three movies with the budget for one – even if my movies are very inexpensive. The total cost was about 4.5 million euros – that is 1.5 million per movie. This is very reasonable, really – in fact, most movies start at 2 million. One of Haneke’s movies would even cost 10 million.
Were you able to improve your international success through your company?
No, it’s rather growing with my personal international reputation. Since the movies are closely associated with me, the sellers use my name, which is the successful trademark. And with my Paradise-trilogy, it exploded again. No one in Austria, except Michael Haneke, has such international success.
Is this a burden or does it make you feel proud?
I like this Bauhaus idea from the 1920s – viewing success as a whole building. It’s not only the success that takes place in your mind – what I write and produce – but also technical success concerning marketing or sales.
With your name on it…
The entire marketing effort is our own. We make the press kits and maintain the homepage. It’s something that only pays off in the long run.
People often dislike my movies because they don’t want to look at them.”
Does chance play a role in your business? Touching society’s raw nerve at the right time?
That’s not what I aim for. If you look at the topics of my movies, they are always contemporary. But what often happens is that people dislike my movies because they don’t want to look at them – can’t look at them, in fact. France, for example, is a difficult market for me because the French don’t like this kind of explicitness. Everything is a bit whitewashed there – so the Paradise-trilogy had only moderate success there. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, it was very successful, also in Germany and the northern-European countries.
Does luck play an important role for you?
To a certain degree, yes. You always need luck, but there are many things you can control. It makes a difference if I plan a movie for release in July or for November. It’s different in each cinema, how big I start or if I rather start off in a smaller context. As a producer, I also have to think of these issues.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
No, my work is my passion. I think I can best express myself through my movies.
And concerning entrepreneurial issues, would you change anything if you could?
Well, sometimes you have different experiences – above all, concerning partners. Contracts, for example, are a complicated field and I think it’s not very exciting to always check whether bills have been paid. That’s why I have production assistants who work for me.
So you can concentrate on the most important things?
Exactly. You can’t do everything as a boss. And that’s a good thing.