Foreign Chick Flicks

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When Europeans complain about American cultural imperialism, what they usually have in mind is McDonald's taking business from the local boulangerie or U.S. moguls vying to wire the Continent for cable TV. But an American entertainment executive named Sam Davis has a subtler method of infiltration: he introduced Germany to the made-for-TV movie nine years ago and liked the place so much, he decided to stay.

Davis, 37, has built a thriving business out of adapting to Germany the sort of fare familiar to viewers of Lifetime and other women's cable channels in the U.S. Consider The Woman, Her Friend and the Rapist, a 90-minute movie that recently appeared on RTL, a German commercial network. It's about a newlywed whose husband is accused of raping her best friend. The show was watched by 2.4 million people, garnering an enviable 19% share.

Though the actors speak German on camera, key members of the team that produced the movie speak English as well. The writer, Don Schubert, is a Canadian who grew up on air force bases in Germany. The director, Michael Keusch, was also born in Canada. The producer, Mark Horyna, is a German who lived in London until he was 11. The man who pulled them all together is Davis, who grew up in the New York City area. "I prefer working in the uninhibited American style," he says. "A lot of Germans find it refreshing to work in that environment as well."

At the moment, Davis is working on a TV mini-series, a sitcom and a feature film. He and two partners are cranking out about five TV movies a year for Germany's two private networks. Davis says, "My shows are almost all for women," who predominate among prime-time viewers and who appreciate "a strong societal component." The movie for rtl introduced the topic of date rape to many German households and, as part of the drama, explained what qualifies as date rape.

After earning a business degree at the University of Southern California, Davis worked at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles. When his French girlfriend told him she wanted to return to Europe, Davis accompanied her, first to France, where they married, and then to Germany. Davis produced a documentary for Britain's BBC about three generations of Jewish families in Germany. It proved an emotional experience for Davis, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. "My mother thought I was getting private reparations somehow, because everything of hers was lost," Davis recalls. "It was a real catharsis for me."

Davis went to work for RTL, owned by German media giant Bertelsmann, which wanted to produce the sorts of TV movies popular in the U.S. Davis delivered Germany's first made-for-TV movie in 1993, and the format has proved such a commercial success that more than 200 made-for-TV movies now appear each year. The disease of the week was an early ratings grabber, but now romantic comedies have come in vogue. After broadcast in Germany, the world's second richest media market, many of the shows are sold to networks in France and Italy.

Davis wants to give his production company, based in Cologne, "a starkly defined creative signature which the networks view as a sure thing in terms of ratings." Davis' next project is a feature film with an antiglobalization theme. The heroes will be French and German, to play to his markets in Europe. The villain will be an American working in Washington. And Davis will take full advantage of the globalization his movie decries: the film will be shot in Toronto, where moviemaking costs less than in the U.S. or Germany.