Why do so many Americans use Netflix
Why are US series so much better? : Stefan goes to Hollywood
This report was published in the magazine Tagesspiegel BERLINER.
It all started with this insanely successful series with the deserted island in the Caribbean: two dozen people are struggling to survive after a plane crash. The older ones remember: "Lost" on RTL. 2004, when all of Germany cheered with Nicole, Berthold and Marita in nasty episodes such as "Durst", "Pregnant" or "Big Fish".
Back then, when YouTube didn't yet exist and the titles of all the good series still found space on a beer mat, word had got around in the industry that Disney was on to something big with "Lost". They sent a huge ensemble to Hawaii for months, shot the scenes on film instead of video, and hired orchestral musicians for the music!
Jungle in Ossendorf
Because Pro7 had snatched the rights to the original from the competition, RTL decided without further ado to implement the same idea themselves - or what they thought was the idea. Because at the time nobody knew exactly what the story was, only: plane crash, lonely island.
I still remember when, four weeks after starting my first job as a writer on an RTL show, I came into the office and heard the sentence as I passed: It's amazing how well the jungle has been recreated in the Ossendorfer studio. During the lunch break, I looked for internships for the first time. Not in Ossendorf, but in Hollywood.
Almost 15 years later, I myself am what would be called a showrunner in the US. I was the author of "Switch Reloaded" and the "heute-show", developed and wrote the series "Eichwald MdB" for ZDF and worked on many other ideas that did not or have not yet landed on the screen. But then I sit in front of the television or laptop again, watching German series, watching American series - and I don't understand why the class differences are so great. There is only one way to find an answer to this question: go there.
My first appointment in Los Angeles is practically around the corner from my accommodation: just down the street, left on Sunset Boulevard and then follow the street for 11,382 house numbers. The city has been really lucky twice in its history: with oil wells even before the first fields were discovered in Texas. And the film industry, which L.A. carried through the "Great Depression" of the 30s almost unscathed. Sunset is one of the most famous streets in the city: laid out in the 18th century by farmers who drove their cattle on it. This is where Netflix sits today and does the same with TV channels.
"Who are you here for?" The woman at the entrance asks me for the third time after she can't find my name in the visitor list. She can't do much with the German invitation e-mail that I show her on my smartphone, but at least: The small Netflix logo in the footer apparently looks fake enough to print me a visitor ID.
Seven types of nut milk
"I'm in," I write to Lucas, and sit down on a couch in the lobby with a view of a showcase with Emmys, the most important television awards.
When I met Lucas for the first time, we were sitting in a windowless conference room at ZDF in Mainz. There were five of us, which was important because you had to tell the housekeeping staff beforehand how many people were to be pumped oxygen into the room for. Then there was pasta with tomato sauce in the canteen.
Lucas looks more tired than back then. His previous job has taken him across the whole of Germany, his new one gives him colleagues in two time zones: when the people in the German productions he oversees call off, their colleagues in Hollywood have just returned from breakfast. It's free, as Lucas explains, like everything else at Netflix: the large canteen has the right food ready at any time, and if you don't have time for the long trip with the elevator - no problem, there is one every two floors smaller canteen. Frozen pizzas and six or seven types of nut milk are stacked in refrigerators. In addition, coffee machines, juice dispensers, plates with biscuits.
Lucas also looks more alert. At ZDF he needed up to 20 signatures to commission a production, and then finished films or series sometimes took a year to find a slot. Netflix, on the other hand, wants everything sooner rather than later - most of the people we meet in the hallways are young and in a hurry.
Sure, this is not a public institution, but debt-financed turbo-capitalism. Netflix has over 10 billion dollars in "Debt and Obligations" on its balance sheet. The whole company is a huge bet on the future of television. First the market is conquered, then money is made at some point later. So it's no wonder that the food is free if people stay late into the evening for it. And still: When I walk back to the car, I turn around again and look up at the red logo on the 15th floor. I have never felt as much energy as here in German broadcasters.
In Berlin there is the "Boulevard der Stars", a flat copy of the "Hollywood Walk of Fame". For years, this boulevard was, cast in concrete, proof of the provinciality of Berlin's city marketing. Now I'm standing on the original and notice: It's even more bleak here. Hollywood Boulevard is lined with a long row of two-story buildings that look as if construction crews had received a slip of paper with the desired number of shop windows and then simply did it. So this is what it looks like, the pinnacle of film and television fame.
I spot Marilyn Monroe's star - right in front of a McDonald's. A few hundred meters further on I pass a man relieving himself on the wall of the house. I step over the trickle that just runs past Orson Welles, look at the large sign on the wall and know: This is the right place for me.
Years ago I read a report about the actor Steve Carell. "Give me five alternatives!", The director says to him during a film shoot, whereupon Carrell improvises five different endings of the same scene, all of which are funny. At the time, I asked myself where do you learn something like that.
Beginner courses and master classes
"Alright, people, welcome to Standup 101!" Chris is a teacher at "Second City", a theater school with a focus on improv comedy. The graduate list reads like the Wikipedia entry on famous comedians of the past 50 years: Bill Murray, John Belushi, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert. Adam McKay, who produces the series "Succession" for HBO and has just been nominated for an Oscar with "Vice", started his career here, as did Bob Odenkirk from "Better Call Saul".
You can start at the very bottom here, with courses for absolute beginners, and then work your way up semester after semester. Those who have been there long enough and make it into one of the official master classes are only one lucky casting decision away from a great career. This, too, is one of the secrets of the American entertainment industry: that there is a clear path for every unlikely professional dream.
"Okay, let's start with some improvisational standup!" says Chris. "I'll give you a random word, and you just riff on it. Two minutes!"
There are twelve of us on the course, nine people are ahead of me. Okay I guess I'm not a native speaker though. But two or three will have a harder time than me, after all, I'm a specialist. Then the first one gets up, gets the keyword "short pants" and, almost without thinking, tells three funny observations.
Ok i guess Coincidence. In no case will it go on like this.
Of course it does.
Then I stand in front of the group, look at Chris and get my term: "Firefighters". I take a deep breath, grab the microphone and ... Let's put it this way: Nobody went home that evening with the feeling that they had underestimated German humor so far.
When I left for Hollywood the next morning, I hardly slept. I had too much adrenaline in my blood after the stand-up course - and too many ideas about firefighters that were too late. Still, I'm wide awake. Today I'm visiting my first Hollywood production: In the summer I developed the German version of a big American sitcom for a Munich company. I never did the internship in L.A., but this one here today is at least as good: I get to visit the authors of the original for a few hours.
As is so often the case in Los Angeles, the buildings in the CBS Studio Center are the opposite of what you would expect: Everything looks makeshift, most of it is made of wood, even the studio halls. On the one hand, it is more earthquake-proof, on the other hand, nobody is planning for eternity here. And yet: as I park in front of the barracks with the authors' offices, I send a photo of my visitor ID to a colleague in Germany. In the 1970s, the "Mary Tyler Moore Show", which revolutionized the genre, was filmed a few meters behind me, followed by series such as "Seinfeld", "Will & Grace" and "Parks and Recreation". This is sacred ground to me.
"So great to have you!" Says Dan, who really doesn't have to do this here. He co-invented the show, as a showrunner he has practically been the chief author and producer for years, which means: He is a millionaire. He produces 22 episodes every year, and more than 15 authors work on the books. When Dan waves me in, everyone is sitting on sofas in a huge room.
"This is Stefan," shouts Dan, "he's going to do the German version!"
That's not true, I want to object, no broadcaster has signed anything yet, but is being overruled by the American euphoria.
"Awesome, Stefan!" I heard.
"Okay," says Dan. "What do you wanna know?"
I look around. A dozen bulletin boards full of index cards, a model of a new location, five or six doors to additional rooms.
"Everything?" I ask.
Authors and a room? We have it too!
For a few years now, when anyone is discussing the secrets of modern series, there has been no getting around the Writers' Room - the room in which the authors work together on story arcs, characters and dialogues. Without that, everyone agrees, nothing works. As soon as there is an office somewhere in Germany that has at least two authors, a producer comes by and screws a sign that says "Writers' Room" on the door. The press release on the series later raved about the American working methods. But a real writers' room is much more complex than the name suggests. "Authors and a room", people think in Germany. "We have all that too!"
"And this room is mainly for rewrites ..." says Dan after spending ten minutes in four other rooms. One of Dan's co-producers goes through a script with five colleagues. For every joke I learn, the group collects four or five alternatives. The script is blown up from 30 pages to over 60 pages and only shortened a few days later, with a little gap. There is a clear authorship for every episode: Whoever has the idea for the episode writes the first version, is responsible for the selection of the revisions and later sits on the shoot as a producer.
The Writers' Room, I realize, is not a room. It's a principle. While in German series the authors are usually neither spatially nor temporally part of the production - it is first written, then shot much later at some point - here they are in the center. You know the actors, the directors, the people on the set. When an actor has an idea, he can talk to the writers and vice versa. In general, anyone can talk to anyone. When we are asked whether an author or a director should be the showrunner of a series, it is usually about who has the last word in case of doubt.
"That is Goethe's fault," a professor once explained to me. "Cult of genius." In Germany one thinks: Everything that is culture in the broadest sense has to be the product of a single, mostly difficult artist. But a real showrunner is not an absolute ruler. But a smart manager who can delegate.
Three million dollars an episode
"Let me show you the set!" Says Dan, leading me down a flight of stairs, across the street and into one of the studios. "This is for a new episode," he says, pointing to a long high-rise corridor that is being built. "Awesome!" I say. Great, I think. For the last series I wrote, I spent weeks adapting the books to the available locations.
The longer I walk around with Dan, the more frustration mixes with my excitement. With every studio hall, every author, every assistant and co-producer, it becomes clearer to me: This is not only more cleverly organized than in Germany, but above all much, much bigger.
When Dan and I stand in front of my car again, I have one last question. What is his budget per episode? "Three million," he says. If my producers and I sell the show in Germany, we wouldn't have to shoot one episode for the same money, but ten.
"So, who's having a good time?"
The next time I walk into a television studio, almost a month has passed. I'm in the audience of "Last Man Standing," where an animator tries to get me and about a hundred and fifty other people in the mood. "Last Man Standing" is, similar to "Friends", "Seinfeld" or "The Big Bang Theory", a so-called "Multi Camera Sitcom". Similar to the theater, the setting is open to an auditorium. Most series and films are shot with just one camera that focuses on just one actor or detail in each take. If everyone is satisfied, the camera is moved to the next actor and filmed again. The finished scene is created later, in the cut. Here, on the other hand, there are five cameras in front of the scenery, a bit like a soccer game. Here, too, it is precisely agreed which camera has which task, but everything is much smoother, more dynamic. The actors see each other, the camera team is on the edge of the stage, not between them. And above all: there is direct feedback.
The laughter is real
German friends who grew up with the dubbed versions of all of these series will ask me later on: "The laugh is real?" What for many in this country seems like a cheap gimmick to help get lukewarm jokes on their feet, is in fact the core element of these series.
Multi-camera shows are filmed scene by scene, in chronological order. As in the theater, you watch the story develop. With the difference that here each scene is filmed two or three times. Sometimes something just goes wrong, sometimes details in the acting are changed - and sometimes whole jokes are exchanged because they failed us, the audience.
"Don't give me that!" Shouts Tim Allen, who was the star of the series "Hör mal wer da hammert" in the 90s and who has been producing "Last Man Standing" since 2011, when we sigh pityingly in one scene. In the next take we purposely laugh too loudly, which in turn makes everyone laugh.
For a long time I find it difficult to shed my sober German being amid all the happy awesomeness. But then at some point I notice: What is happening here is incredibly consistent. Because it puts us viewers at the center of it so much that we physically - through our reactions and the influence it has on the actors - become part of the story.
"Remember when Rachel and Joey kissed each other?" Roger asks me a few days later. Roger used to be a director on "Friends", I meet him in the middle of downtown L.A., where he lives in a nice skyscraper. And I remember clearly: "Friends" was one of my favorite series.
"Well, when we shot that episode," he says, "they were supposed to end up together."
"What?" I ask, aghast. "But they're like brother and sister!"
When the passionate kissing scene was filmed on stage, a murmur went through the audience. So loud that the showrunners would have paused the recording to talk to the audience.
"Don't you want them to be a couple?"
And then, on site, you rewritten the script. As a result, as I and hundreds of millions of people know them, they both kiss, relatively awkwardly. And immediately decide that this is not a good idea.
Of course, Roger and I agree, it's not about always telling the story the viewer wants. And being so close to the audience, having to work so quickly, is stressful. But it's also a huge opportunity.
"You know it has never been done in Germany?" I ask him.
"You should do it!" He says.
When I was waiting for my flight home two days later in the terminal, I saw the tiny Hollywood sign on the horizon. I avoided it for three months, and it doesn't appear in any of my photos. Now it shines in the Californian light, behind a thick strip of smog and a heap of construction waste that is lovelessly fenced in on the edge of the runway.
It takes six students and one form to start a school in California.Job titles such as "carpenter" or "welder" are not protected - you can just get started.
If you think in the middle of L.A. that your house should look like a castle in the south of France, you don't have to fear a dispute with the building authorities. Where we in Germany adhere to rules and certificates, in the USA there is a deep belief in the right to self-fulfillment. The Americans are braver - with all the consequences.
No wonder that in a country like this there is less fear of trying out off the beaten track ideas. To produce series like "Breaking Bad", to teach comedy, to give authors more freedom, to have them direct and produce.
Be solid - and brave
Can we look in the mirror as an entire industry? In our pale, non-Californian faces, and be fifty percent less German in the future? Solid in one moment - but brave in the other?
I get on the plane and remember my first lesson on "Second City". The small, cold room on ugly Hollywood Boulevard. I'm sitting there with eleven other people and we all look like we're wrong here. And then Chris, our teacher, comes in, in a good mood and with a brightly colored knitted sweater, and claps his hands.
"Let's do this!"
Stefan Stuckmann, born in 1982, was the showrunner for the ZDF political comedy "Eichwald MdB" and chief author of the ARD sketch show "Kroymann". With a scholarship from the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg he spent three months in the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles. Every year the Federal Republic invites a small bunch of German artists here so that they can learn new things far from home.
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