A hit Bavarian export
Cameras and light at the highest level: To Dr. Jörg Pohlman, customer focus is the secret of ARRI’s success.
He’s had a lot of reasons to be proud since then. Of the productions most recently nominated for an Oscar, seven out of eight in the “Best Picture” category and every single one nominated for “Best Cinematography” and “Best Foreign Language Film” were shot using ARRI cameras. And the ten most successful German films of 2019 all passed through the in-house post-production department. The film technology company from Munich carries the reputation of German craftsmanship to more than a hundred countries around the world. Recent films shot with ARRI cameras include Bohemian Rhapsody, Blade Runner 2049, Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, Lady Bird, Mudbound, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The camera model ALEXA, which was launched on the market in 2015, dominated the show. The magazine Filmpuls wrote: “Worldwide, it was Hollywood filmmakers’ most widely used secret weapon.” And when a company has that much success, it also has a positive effect on employees. “We definitely feel a very special ARRI spirit here,” says Pohlman.
ARRI got its name from the initials of its founders, August Arnold and Robert Richter. For a long time, the company was owned by the two families. Today, Stahl Beteiligungs GmbH, owned by the descendants of co-founder Robert Richter, provides a LONG-TERM perspective for the future. The founders were tinkerers, just eighteen and nineteen years old, and they wanted to make movies of their own back then, in the early days of cinema. That meant they needed equipment, so they built it themselves. That was how their first camera came about. The company was founded in 1917, during the war – not in a garage, but still in an unusual setting: a shoemaker’s workshop in the heart of Munich. And much of the founders’ pioneering spirit seems to have survived to this day – at any rate, their successors have produced various innovations over the years, most recently the digital film camera. A specialized device like this from ARRI is available today for prices of between 35,000 and 100,000 euros.
The largest model, the ALEXA 65, is only used by the in-house rental service. It delivers incomparably crisp, high-definition pictures and is worth several hundred thousand euros. In some respects, ARRI is a typical medium-sized German company. On the one hand, it has deep local roots and a down-to-earth attitude; its headquarters are still located right in the same spot where the company was founded, on Munich’s Türkenstrasse. On the other, ARRI operates globally and is the world market leader, with a century of close contact with its industry. The company’s key indicators also point to a healthy medium-sized company of the kind that has made the German Mittelstand famous: revenue of some 400 million euros, around 1,500 employees and a very high proportion of research done in-house (more than a hundred developers work in camera production alone). The close quarters at the company’s home base on Türkenstrasse, which has been called “almost labyrinthine” in layout, will be a thing of the past as of late 2019, when a new building is opened three kilometers to the north, including open-plan offices and a shared cafeteria for all employees. And incidentally, some of those camera production workstations must be so clinically clean that there isn’t the faintest hint of even the tiniest speck of dust or skin particles.
Precision and common ground are both major priorities at a company where everything from camera construction to post-production, the digital post-processing of the images, has to dovetail together perfectly. The company is best known in Germany for these post-production activities (ARRI Media), while its international reputation stems mainly from its cameras and rental service (ARRI Rental). The lighting sector is catching up, though. When Pohlman took on his role, in 2014, LEDs accounted for just eight percent of the lighting sector, a figure that has risen to around 70 percent today. The SkyPanel LED panel lighting system, which is particularly successful in the film and TV landscape, is the product of ten years of research. The system delivers ultra-bright and soft illumination, infinitely adjustable, that is increasingly in use at film and TV studios and beyond. The company’s efforts to diversify also include medical technology. After all, a company that can deliver razor-sharp images for movies can also show their excellence at ear-nose-throat imaging, for example. As far back as the 1970s, the analog ARRITECHNO35 was already one of the most successful X-ray cameras. The company now employs almost 30 people for the medical division, and the business has room to grow, including expanding into neurosurgery. Most of the employees still work for the camera section, followed by the lighting sector and then the service divisions of ARRI Rental and ARRI Media.
Jörg Pohlman, born in 1963, worked in the automotive industry before joining ARRI, at a joint venture between SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers and BMW. Does he see his new industry facing the same or similar challenges as the automotive industry with its move toward electric mobility? There is tremendous pressure to change in both industries, Pohlman says. For him as a board member, the contrasting developments come as a challenge: Post-production has become much cheaper, so it requires cost management to match, even as the pace of change in digital production of cameras and lighting is accelerating enormously, necessitating change management and ongoing efforts to recruit the best people. Pohlman is crystal clear that customer focus remains the top priority: “Our particular challenge is to identify exactly what the customer wants and needs from among the multitude of new technical possibilities.”