Cyber Group Studios’ chairman and CEO, Pierre Sissmann, tells TV Kids about his approach to managing growth at the company and his new label strategy that is allowing it to align with top independent creative talent.
TV KIDS: Why was a U.S. office important for Cyber Group’s international business?
SISSMANN: We opened Cyber Group Studios North America in January. It’s being run by Richard Goldsmith, formerly of The Jim Henson Company. With more and more of our productions landing in the U.S., we felt it was time to establish ourselves [with a local office]. It allows us to be closer to our clients, as we are increasing our presence there with our shows. At the same time, we will have new properties that are going to have a lot of consumer products potential, and the U.S. is a country where you can’t manage [licensing and merchandising] from overseas and we want to do it ourselves. It makes a lot of sense, as we develop our activity in North America, to be on the ground with someone like Richard. He is not only going to be able to grow the company with our existing content but will also find new content and develop partnerships in North America, including Canada. He’s also becoming a member of the executive committee of Cyber Group Studios. Opening an office in the U.S. is the first step in us becoming more global in a local way, both for distribution and creation of new content.
TV KIDS: On the distribution side, what have you been looking for to sit alongside your own IP?
SISSMANN: We would not take on something that competes with one of our own shows. For example, we have a zebra series, Zou, so we wouldn’t pick up a zebra series. We have a dinosaur series coming up with Disney, Gigantosaurus, so we wouldn’t pick up another dinosaur series. We have signed some shows recently just for distribution and a number of other shows where we’re co-production partners. For instance, we picked up two series from Natalie Altmann’s Media Valley, Ernest & Rebecca and Dragon Slayers’ Academy, just for distribution. Ernest & Rebeccais a great show for kids aged 5 to 8. It focuses on relationships. It’s a unique property, and we didn’t have anything like it. Dragon Slayers’ Academy comes from a very big book property, and we didn’t have this fantasy comedy genre in our roster. So we’re looking at series that are complementary to our shows.
TV KIDS: When you take something on just for distribution, do you still have creative input?
SISSMANN: Sometimes we’ll take something on for distribution at an early stage, so we do give quite a lot of input if asked. We always try to bring something to help the producer make a property more global, without distorting anything. We try to bring value when we’re asked and when it’s needed. There are some distribution deals that we do that turn into co-production deals. We’re trying to create what exists in the record industry: labels. We can bring the strength of our company to people who have creative assets. The big studios do it in the film industry. Record companies do it all the time. That’s the world I come from. You cannot pretend that you have internally all the artistic expertise the world needs. A few months ago I stumbled on an incredible series developed by an independent producer for a major network, and they were just looking for distribution. Then they said, we have two other series. So I said, OK, let’s do a label deal. We’ll give you resources and you will be attached to us like a label, but it’s still your stuff. We’re trying to enlarge our roster of properties, whether it’s through distribution or co-production, with people who have that unique talent for bringing new IP to the table. This is very exciting.
TV KIDS: You announced a move into feature films last year. How is that initiative progressing?
SISSMANN: The way movies are financed, co-producers sell territories and they call all rights, and sometimes the people that buy are theatrical distributors who have no idea how to handle television distribution. So I set [ourselves] a challenge of creating a roster of great theatrical movies for television or TV movies for television. We have our first one and are about to sign a second one. We’re also developing our own feature films. We want to create a stand-alone business in the next five years, knowing that it’s different from our slate of television series and digital series. I’m very cautious about this. I started [in media] working in feature films, running Walt Disney Animation Studios in Europe. When we founded Cyber Group Studios, we went into television because it’s far less dangerous. You can die with a movie if you don’t do it right. So we’ve developed a television production company, and I would say in the next five years we will move with a separate entity into movie distribution, production and co-production.
TV KIDS: How are you mapping out your growth strategies for 2017 and beyond?
SISSMANN: I always have two sets of objectives. One is creative because this is why I’m in the business—I’m always looking for the “wow” effect. And of course, you have to succeed and make money to go on.
Over the last 12 months, we’ve started this label strategy. We began it with Natalie Altmann and her company Media Valley. We just signed with Sylvain Dos Santos, who used to be part of I Can Fly, and his new company, La Chouette Compagnie. Chouette means “owl,” but it also means “cool.” We have signed four series with him: two are in early development, one is in development with a network and the fourth one was greenlit in development by TF1.
We’re developing more series. We have 15 of our own shows in development, in all genres—traditional and digital 2D, hybrid, CGI. This is a very important point. One of my goals, when I set up the company, was that we would never be stopped by, “I can’t do this series because I don’t know how to.” That’s why we developed a lot of our own technology. Today we can do any technique to give a project the best artistic rendering. The last thing we have to go into now is stop motion. We have four people just doing development. We have one head of studio doing pure development with resources that we hire, depending on our needs, and then we have three people doing literary development. We’re investing so much in creation and artistic resources. Our pure development budget is always far more than half a million euros a year. That’s a lot of money. We have to find ways to finance that: our own cash flow, subsidies, friends, whatever. Once you do this, then you need to sell the shows. So we’ve increased our distribution resources by having people in Paris and by opening the U.S. office.
I’m trying to build bridges upon bridges so that the passion never leaves me and never leaves my team. At the same time, we’re in business to make a living. And it’s difficult to reconcile all this. So we’re also trying to have a very mapped out plan. [When we started] the first thing we needed was to make a name for ourselves on the market. So we went into preschool CGI. Everybody told us preschool needs to be in 2D, but we did CGI and had a hit. Then we invested in technology—we were the first ones to do fur in a preschool show and on Zorro the Chronicles we created a tool that enabled us to have about 100 characters in the first episode. We went from preschool to kids. And then we said, that’s not enough—people are doing amazing stuff, how can we work with them, learn from them and help them? That’s the label strategy. Now, how do we understand the world better? Answering the needs of our clients, we have to be able to produce any possible type of show. And you can’t do that just from Paris—you have to be everywhere. Traveling all the time is not enough.
It’s really about passion, organization and structure. If we didn’t have organization and structure, [it would be impossible to] have eight series in production and over 15 shows in development.
TV KIDS: Is eight series your maximum capacity, or could you be making more?
SISSMANN: At one point we did five series, and we changed our organization. And now we’re doing eight series and we’re again changing our organization. I don’t think the objective is to produce 10 or 12 series. But can we do more? We’ve always found a way to reinvent and reorganize ourselves. If the Cyber Group Studios of 2010 had had eight series to produce, the company would have gone bankrupt in three months. We didn’t have the structure, the organization, the people, the money. Three years ago we had at the studio a head of production and a number of production executives. Now the studio is split in two. You have the ongoing production with more people, more lines of businesses, and you have development. It’s the same thing in sales—we restructured the territories, we hired people to do only trafficking, we hired an executive just to do sales materials. With this structure, we can probably increase our production slate. But that’s not an objective.
We are going to hire someone in the next few months to be a producer, only taking care of distributed or co-produced labels. We are changing every four months. We have to be humble because we are growing fast and we can make mistakes; we actually do. But we learn from others and we learn from our past. The more we grow, the more we need to change our organization. You can make incredible changes in the long run if you do them smoothly and keep the passion intact.