In his first interview since becoming Zodiak Media’s CEO, Marc-Antoine d’Halluin outlines his plan to turn its group of worldwide production companies and studios into a unified confederation, while putting international format development at the heart of the business. Jesse Whittock reports.
With an office perched at the summit of a west London business village, Zodiak Media’s CEO Marc-Antoine d’Halluin literally has a top-down view of his company. After a year with the business he says that Zodiak’s different units are getting better at talking to one another.
“What we were was a federation, and what we are gradually becoming is a confederation or a group that’s trying to leverage our assets in a more coordinated way,” he says.
After travelling to meet Zodiak staff at companies in 16 markets, his view of the firm’s strengths and weaknesses crystallised. “What I saw was a great federation of excellent production companies in many of these markets, which were still at the very early stage of working together.”
This is where opportunity lay, he says. However, before any progress could take place, d’Halluin made a series of management-level changes at many of Zodiak’s top companies. Having replaced Zodiak Media founder CEO David Frank in November last year, the French-born chief exec named new bosses at Italian prodco Magnolia, Marathon Media, Yellow Bird, Zodiak France, Zodiak Russia, Zodiak UK, Zodiak Nederland, Zodiak Kids and Zodiak Rights. Some were strategic moves, while in other cases execs had decided to move on.
The move that sparked the changes – Frank’s decision to exit – was less dramatic than it might have first seemed, says d’Halluin: a case of a seasoned media CEO (d’Halluin) taking the reins from a creative entertainment entrepreneur (Frank) who was keen to create something new, but shackled by the restraints of running a multinational business.
“David is an entrepreneur,” says d’Halluin, “and entrepreneurs’ DNA is special and different to the rest of us. They like to create, develop and that is what he cherishes and is good at. He wants to create, and that is what he is doing with his new company. Perhaps you need a different kind of skillset to drive this bus, and maybe he realised that.”
Since leaving Zodiak, Frank has launched Dial Square Eighty Six, a digital and production investment start-up. His brother, ex-Zodiak Rights CEO Matthew Frank; former Zodiak Kids chief Nigel Pickard; and former Ludorum COO Charlie Caminada are all involved. d’Halluin describes the changeover at Zodiak as the “most constructive transition” he has experienced and predicts success for Frank’s new vehicle. “He’s a great guy, very funny and we speak all the time,” he adds.
So what happens now and why is d’Halluin the man to effect change? His CV gives some clues. Before joining Zodiak, he was at Rubis Media Partners, an investment and advisory consultancy that he launched with the now-Zodiak UK boss Rod Henwood in 2011. Prior to that, he was CEO of Middle Eastern pay TV broadcaster OSN, where he oversaw the 2009 merger of Orbit and Showtime. Further back, he was chief executive of Canal+ Nordic and before that worked in the children’s TV business as managing director of Fox Kids Europe. This range of roles gives him a unique perspective on the global content business, but d’Halluin is under no illusions as to where his strengths lie.
“What is absolutely clear is that I’m not a producer by background,” he says. “I’m from the broadcasting world, and channels tend to produce in-house, so I have an understanding. Now I’m 100% production, but my role is to coordinate and make sure we leverage our strengths in the best possible and way, that we are as rational as we can be when we make investment decisions, and that we understand the market place and generate proper returns.”
To d’Halluin, this means one key thing – landing a knock-out format hit. “We’re being a bit more systematic at capturing opportunity, favouring a few formats with international potential,” he says. “We were incredibly strong at delivering local successes in local markets, but in reality not as good when we came together to make them travel.”
Zodiak has some winners in its locker – Wife Swap, Fort Boyard and Secret Millionaire – but a key initiative has been the establishment of an International Development Board, which aims to identify and create Zodiak-branded formats.
Grant Ross has been drafted in from Endemol as executive VP of global creative development and format acquisitions to lead the IDB with former Zodiak Nordic creative chief Joel Karsberg, who has been transferred from Scandinavia to LA along with Cem Yeter (“We’re parachuting in the Vikings,” d’Halluin says).
“This board is not meant to develop centrally, but to provide a selection process for in-house formats and formats from outside the group, and try to identify those three or four formats that we will systematically push across our network of companies,” says d’Halluin. “It sounds simple, but it wasn’t really in place before. There was some central development before, which I think was a little bit of a hindrance and a disturbance. Now, when things are very clear they can move very fast.”
The first show to benefit from this process was TV4’s Swedish adventure format Dropped (pictured, second above), which launched at MIPTV and is now in “final stage negotiations” for format adaptations in six territories. “We have quite a few others in pipeline, some of which we will push at MIPCOM,” says d’Halluin.
The new Zodiak boss hopes this will help the company’s UK and Stateside firms better penetrate the US cable market. “We’d done a good job at ignoring it. That’s US$25 billion of content, so it’s good time to engage with it,” he says, pointing to recent commissions such as MTV’s Beyond Dance.
“We also want to engage a bit more practically in premium scripted,” he continues. “We have two big high-end scripted shows in the pipeline – Versailles and Occupied. Both of them have the opportunity to become worldwide successes.”
Meanwhile, ex-BBC Worldwide drama chief Caroline Torrance has joined Zodiak Rights as head of international scripted in a bid to better connect Zodiak’s numerous drama outfits.
However, don’t expect to see Zodiak following Endemol and Banijay in launching a US studio. D’Halluin says the pilot process is far too risky and expensive, and sees more value in packaging its drama formats with local production partners. “We’ve brought Keith Quinn, the ex-Paramount Digital Entertainment exec, in to look at our scripted IP from Europe – and there are plenty of them such as Swedish comedy Solsidan – that have incredible potential to be adapted in the US.
“He’s looking at it deal-by-deal, property-by-property, at agreements whereby we don’t produce ourselves, but have an involvement and gain production fees and take international distribution rights to the shows. That’s the right model for us.”
The growing trend for straight-to-series commissions in the US offers an “interesting model”, but another emerging area offers more opportunity, he says: “What’s for sure is that the incredible rise of the new digital players, Amazon and Netflix, has changed the game and opens new doors. To some degree they can take more risk; they’re less under pressure of ratings.”
In the week’s following TBI’s talk with d’Halluin, Zodiak Kids announces it is selling a pair of Amazon kids TV series at MIPJunior and, separately, that its UK-based children’s producer The Foundation will produce preschool toon Buddy: Tech Detective for the SVOD service. D’Halluin’s vision is beginning to come together.
Marc-Antoine d’Halluin stresses Zodiak Media is a younger company than many would think. “It’s only seven years since the story started with Zodiak TV’s acquisition of Magnolia, but only four years ago that RDF joined Zodiak. We are only really four years old, which is by any standards very young.”
France-based Zodiak Entertainment and the UK’s RDF Media merged in 2010 in a deal that saw Italian publishing firm De Agostini take majority control of the new Zodiak Media Group, and the John de Mol-affiliated Dasym Investments convert shares in RDF into Zodiak holdings.
D’Halluin describes this set up as “very productive”, as both Dasym and De Agostini “know what the industry is about”.
“They understand production and the lead times, the importance of attracting the right people, and that making creative people work together is a delicate process that doesn’t allow you to be brutal or just look at the bottom line,” he says. “I feel blessed and lucky to have these shareholders because they are what is needed.”
Dasym, which was an investor in Endemol before losing control to Apollo Global Management and is also close to de Mol’s Talpa Media, has a “very interesting perspective as a production investor and good connections”, d’Halluin says, while De Agostini provides pipelines to its children’s channels in Italy and Spanish broadcaster Atresmedia, which it part owns through a joint venture with The Planeta Group.
“There’s a lot of discussion about the upside of making things bigger,” says d’Halluin, which is unsurprising given the huge consolidation moves taking hold of the production industry at present. However, Zodiak is unlikely to be subject of another major M&A deal just three years after the RDF merger at this stage, d’Halluin predicts. “Of course, it could happen tomorrow or in six months, but the plan we have agreed upon with our shareholders is to develop the company to its full potential. We still have some way to go there.”
He talks about working to time-frame of between two and four years to achieve that growth, and adds: “Along the way it’s quite possible that we look to create something bigger out of Zodiak, and it could happen this way as much as the other way. It’s still very early days, and I’m not distracted by it.
“I’m very optimistic about our growth. We have the right ingredients, and with the right ingredients you can make the cocktail. Right now we have all we need to make a very successful company.”