Oliver Berben didn’t just have idle dreams as a youngster about becoming an astronaut one day. He was actually working on a career in space by studying aerospace and space technology at a Berlin university well into his 20s.
But after stumbling into the movie industry through a part-time student job as a driver and runner, Berben realized that he had found his calling on the ground – so he gave up on the galaxies. And now, after a quarter century as a personable down-to-earth producer and executive at Constantin Film, Berben is about to take the controls of one of Germany’s biggest and most powerful production-distribution companies as its chief executive.
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“I never would have thought that I’d have the chance to work for this company let alone get into a position to lead it,” Berben says. “It still feels a little surreal.”
The lesson he learned from his own career path that veered from space to the movies – and especially Constantin’s experiences staying on course in a jumbled world – is that even the best laid plans can be dashed. The COVID pandemic, wars in Europe and the Middle East, sanctions that have closed off Russia, and other unexpected shocks have taken their toll. Making Constantin more nimble and ready for change is one of his main aims for the German independent as he gets ready to take over from Martin Moszkowicz on March 1.
“We’ve grown fast over the last 25 years to a company that produces and distributes 10 to 15 feature films plus 2,000 hours of TV per year,” says Berben of the company that has more than tripled in size in the last two decades. “My main focus will be to maintain that variety of production and distribution on the one hand but also try to be as maneuverable as a speed boat – to grasp opportunities that present themselves and to lead the pack, not just follow.”
Berben, who has worked closely with Moszkowicz as his deputy since 2021 and was Constantin’s board member in charge of TV, entertainment and digital since 2017, agrees the company is on a solid footing. But he is aware how quickly that can change.
“It would be too easy to just say ‘everything is fine and wonderful and it’s going to be an easy journey,’” Berben says. “But it’s never been that way for us. There has always been a lot of change. Continuously. Market conditions are difficult. What’s happening right now is being fueled by heavy technical developments combined with the situation around the world. The world is a not-so-easy place. On the other hand, there are opportunities opening that have the possibility of a bright future. I see this all as a big opportunity.”
Berben says he is not planning any radical changes at Constantin with its strong domestic production-distribution footing and success in making major deals in global markets, all underpinned by strong TV revenues.
“I believe in having this combination of possibilities – creating and producing the ideas that we have, or working with partners around the world, in creating these, and on the other hand, in the German-speaking territories, having the abilities to distribute our own movies in cinemas everywhere. I think that’s a perfect set up for the future. The one thing that gives you access directly to the audience is theatrical distribution. I believe in that. The variety of possibilities in both things – on the development and physical production side and possibility of distribution locally but also internationally in all media, from cinema to streaming to TV to the internet. That’s the key. That is something I want to concentrate on.”
He says he wants Constantin to continue to mine German history, especially its turbulent 20th century past, for films like “Downfall” and “Wannsee Conference” that it has done so well over the last few decades, ending a strange tradition in which German filmmakers had steered away from their traumatic history – leaving that to documentary filmmakers in Germany or Hollywood.
“That is one big IP we have in Germany, and I think we should continue to use it,” he says, referring to films set in recent German history. “We were tired of having our own history told by others. We’re not going to concentrate on these kinds of stories. But we’re going to keep on doing them.”
Berben, whose mother Iris Berben has long been a leading actor in Germany with more than 150 films to her credit, has enjoyed especially close ties with authors whose works have turned into hit films. His collaboration with Ferdinand von Schirach, a German criminal defense lawyer turned best-selling author, and French novelist Michel Houellebecq, were the result of his sincere and tenacious courting of the authors.
Von Schirach, whose books that have been turned into hit films by Berben include “Crime Stories” and “Shades of Guilt,” says: “When I met Oliver for the first time about turning my book into a film, I was skeptical, I thought it would be difficult to work with him. I thought he lived in a completely different world than mine. Producing films requires countless contacts, conversations and meetings. It’s a social process. Writing is not. It’s the opposite. Writing is lonely. I was afraid Oliver Berben wouldn’t understand books. I was wrong. Completely wrong.”
“When I wrote my first book 15 years ago, there were a lot producers and directors who talked at length about turning it into a movie. When I met Oliver, he said he had absolutely no idea how to make the stories into a movie. That was novel and, above all, it was clever. Then he talked about the book and I realized how much he really liked it. Oliver is of course an excellent businessman. But that’s not the most important thing. Oliver’s success is based on his love of stories. And that’s what’s important. He knows about all the hurts, he knows them inside out and that’s why he understands that there is nothing greater than being able to move a person. It’s the only criterion: do we move other people with what we do? Oliver and I have now made six series, three feature films and five TV films together. Oliver has never disappointed me, not once.”
Berben was recruited to join Constantin in 1999 by its founder Bernd Eichinger after he acquired Berben’s three-year-old production company Moovie.
And even though Berben, who has put together an impressive track record producing more than 150 German films, has been on a path to lead Constantin for the last three years, he was still surprised when he was quietly offered the CEO job two years ago by Moszkowicz and Constantin supervisory board chairman Bernhard Burgener.
“I really didn’t expect that to happen,” Berben says. “My first reaction was that I said ‘What?’” He says he needed some time to think about it and went for a walk to the Munich cemetery where Eichinger is buried. “Bernd Eichinger was the person who discovered me and gave me the chance to do work in the Constantin universe. So I went to his grave and had a conversation, in essence with myself, about it all. It was a purely emotional thing and a bit hard to explain because Constantin and Eichinger mean so much to me. All the milestones in my career were somehow connected to Bernd. I couldn’t really believe that I was in that situation of leading Constantin.”
But now he will be taking over. Is he worried that his erstwhile boss Martin Moszkowicz, who will stay on as a producer at Constantin, might end up looking over his shoulder or second-guessing him?
“I think Martin is really happy that he can concentrate on something else,” Berben says. “If he wants to give me his advice, I’d be very happy to get it. I’m happy that he’s staying on at Constantin. Can you imagine if he would be working as a producer but not for Constantin? It’s unthinkable. That was the only thing I asked of him. If you want to work as a producer, fine, but don’t work for anyone other than Constantin.”
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