FremantleMedia’s Cecile Frot-Coutaz

With operations in 31 countries and ownership or investments in a diverse array of production companies, FremantleMedia is able to maintain a constant stream of scripted and unscripted product. It then sells both finished programs and formats around the world. CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz—who is stepping down this year—oversees investing in entities and talent and integrating them into the group. While a volume of output and depth of resources help mitigate risk, Frot-Coutaz cautions that what is more important than size is being in business with the right talent.

WS: It was recently announced that you are leaving FremantleMedia. What have you enjoyed most about your years at the company? What motivated your decision to take on a new challenge?
FROT-COUTAZ: I’m not leaving FremantleMedia until our shareholder, RTL, has appointed my successor, so it’s very much business as usual for a while yet. I’m still looking forward, not back. I’ve been really clear that two things would need to be the case for me to consider leaving. First, and most importantly, FremantleMedia would need to be firing on all cylinders—brimming with creative excellence and unstoppable momentum. Second, it would take a unique challenge that offers me something completely new and different. Both of those conditions have been met. I leave with a heavy heart but unshakeable confidence in the future.

WS: When you invest in talent or a production entity, how do you integrate it into the rest of the network?
FROT-COUTAZ: There are two types of integration, the business integration and the creative integration. The business integration is not very interesting and it’s what everyone does, which is making sure they run on the same finance platform and all that boring stuff! The more interesting part is to make sure that creatively they are integrated. That starts with making investments in people you believe buy into your culture and purpose and what you are trying to do. You then must make sure you have regular meetings with them and talk about goals and pipelines. And you want to live up to the promise, which is, as a global company, what do we have to bring to you? That comes in the form of distribution, extra funding for shows, marketing intelligence and resources. You want to make people know what’s available to them and integrate them and onboard them to make them successful. You want to be inclusive and make them part of the whole. But, ultimately, the most important thing is to get in business with people who are fundamentally collaborative. You can put all kinds of profits in place, but if you haven’t got people who are willing participants, it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s not going to work.

WS: Would you give some examples of how the production companies in FremantleMedia’s global network share ideas and best practices?
FROT-COUTAZ: We’re very good at getting people together on a regular basis, whether it’s around general themes or specific shows. For example, on the talent shows, we’ll get all the producers of Got Talent together and hold two- or three-day workshops. We go through innovations that may have taken place in different parts of the world, what we learned from those innovations and whether we roll them out or not. On Got Talent, the Golden Buzzer, which is now part of the show everywhere around the world, initially came out of Germany. It was the German production that came up with it, and we loved it, and then we rolled it out to the other markets. On The X Factor, the Six Chair Challenge was an innovation that came out of the Dutch team. They did it slightly differently; we then took it, rolled it out and improved it over time.

WS: There’s been much discussion since the announcement of the Disney/Fox merger about how big is big enough. How are the big tech companies affecting the content business?
FROT-COUTAZ: We don’t operate channels or networks—we’re suppliers, so I think we’re in a slightly better place than companies who have traditionally been on the channel-distribution side. With the big tech companies—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Netflix—I think the tables have just been set, and it’s only the beginning. They are global and they are very well-funded. They dominate, and I think they will continue to dominate. Obviously, they will get regulated at some point, but they will nevertheless dominate the landscape. That’s a fact.

WS: What is your acquisitions strategy? What are you looking at? And does size matter in your business?
FROT-COUTAZ: Yes, I think size does matter. It matters in different ways. First of all, it’s important to have a global presence both from a production standpoint and also from a distribution standpoint. It matters with funding and access to capital. Our drama strategy requires significant resources. Then you have to be able to weather the ups and downs, because we’re in a business in which not everything works. Some things work, some don’t—so you have to be able to weather the downsides. Not everything is going to go according to plan, so that’s when size matters, because if you are too small a company, then you can’t have a portfolio approach, and if you can’t have a portfolio approach, then you are very exposed. Having said that, if you are going to be a creative company focused on being a home for creative people—which is Fremantle’s ultimate ambition—then you can’t be too big, either, because creatives need to be given time, focus, resources and attention. So if you’re too big, you have to be driven more by process, and in the end, that’s not conducive to creativity. For a company like ours, certain aspects of size do matter, but having a very aggressive M&A strategy is not necessarily the be-all and end-all. It’s more about how we can be in business with the creatives we want to be in business with, as opposed to, let’s buy a whole bunch of companies. In the end, we’re very specific about what we do and what we don’t. We’re in the business of making a small number of shows that have a big impact. For us, it’s not just about pure size.

WS: There is a lot of drama in the market. Has the increased volume impacted your drama strategy in any way?
FROT-COUTAZ: You are right—there is a lot of drama and a lot of good drama out there. Does it impact us? Of course it does. We’re not a volume player, and we’re never going to be. So far we’ve focused on a small number of what we believe are great titles that are also original and different. I think that is the key—focusing on shows that we believe will cut through. And hopefully we will continue to do that. Obviously, it’s not easy to do that. I’m not saying this strategy applies to everybody, but for us, that’s the path that we’ve chosen: do a lot less but focus on shows we believe bring something new and different. I suppose that having a global footprint makes it a little easier to deliver, because most of the content so far has come out of the U.S. or the U.K. So if you can bring—even if it’s just one show a year—a show that comes from Italian creators, French creators, German creators or Israeli creators, then you will by definition bring a slightly different viewpoint. That’s how we’ve been tackling it.

WS: Would you give some examples of the type of drama you are producing across your territories?
FROT-COUTAZ: American Gods was a big show for us. It was a very distinctive show. It’s based on a Neil Gaiman novel that had been deemed unadaptable until now. It was a show that was ambitious in its scale, but the way we approached the narrative is very different from a more traditional, linear type of narrative. It’s a show that had central characters, but it also had a lot of vignettes that try to tackle important themes. In some ways, that was its focus more than the narrative. So that is an example of a big, ambitious show that we brought to market. It’s been a huge hit for Starz in the U.S. and Amazon Prime Video internationally, and we’re excited about season two.

A show that we produced in 2017 and will be launching this year is Picnic at Hanging Rock. We took a legacy title, a book and a ’70s movie, [and produced a six-part series] directed by Larysa Kondracki, who was instrumental in doing this and told the story from a different viewpoint, from the viewpoint of the girls. Although it’s a story that takes place in 1900, it feels contemporary because it’s told through their eyes. It’s a real coming-of-age story, and it explores a lot of themes around femininity and being a woman and is quite modern even though the backdrop is period.

Another show I would mention, because it’s going to be brilliant but also very unusual, is The Miracle, which is coming out of Wildside, our Italian production company. It is written by Niccolò Ammaniti, a best-selling Italian novelist. This is his first television screenplay. He wrote it for Wildside. It’s about a statue of the Virgin Mary that cries tears of real blood, hence the title, The Miracle. But it explores how today we are pushing science very, very far and at what point it bumps into faith. It’s going to be a brilliant piece and one that people will talk about because it’s so unusual. It’s also beautiful, very filmic, incredibly modern in terms of the imagery and very disruptive.

We’re doing My Brilliant Friend, the television adaptation of [the first in] Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. What all these shows have in common is they are incredibly authentic stories. And Ferrante is a good example of how exciting it is to be in the space today, because this a story based on globally best-selling novels. It’s based in Naples and we’re filming it in Naples. Wildside—who also produced Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope in 2016 and are working on the follow-up—has recreated the neighborhood and cast a whole bunch of unknown actors. They are from Naples and, because a lot of the people are from the neighborhood, they speak the Neapolitan dialect as opposed to pure Italian, so the director insisted that he cast actors from those neighborhoods who could speak the dialect. It’s an incredibly authentic rendition of the story, but one that is co-produced with HBO. It’s done on a fantastic scale. It’s absolutely beautiful, well directed and incredibly emotional. That show is going to have a lot of impact when it comes out.

We’re also really proud of Hard Sun from Euston Films, our U.K. production company. It was written by Neil Cross, launched in January on BBC One and goes global this year. It’s a show that will resonate in today’s environment and will be part of the zeitgeist. Agyness Deyn, who has never done television before, delivers an absolutely brilliant performance, and it’s great when you also get to create stars. Thematically, it’s a story that hasn’t been told before. It’s a procedural and a thriller but with a fantastic backdrop.

Finally, our German production company, UFA, is also on a roll. It had a 2017 to remember, celebrating its 100th birthday and producing Charité, the number one drama in Germany. Looking ahead, Nico Hofmann at UFA is working with Kate Harwood at Euston Films to bring Robert Harris’s best-selling thriller Munich to the screen. That’s a great example of the kind of pan-European co-production that only Fremantle can deliver. UFA has also teamed up with the legendary filmmaker Michael Haneke on Kelvin’s Book. A ten-part drama set in a dys­topian world, this will be Haneke’s first-ever TV series. Forging creative partnerships with such acclaimed visionaries as Michael Haneke, Paolo Sorrentino, Neil Cross and Neil Gaiman is a real testament to Fremantle’s creative ambitions.

WS: How do your teams differentiate between drama they have in development that remains local and those pieces that have the potential to become global?
FROT-COUTAZ: It’s an art and not a science. Some of that is judgment and it’s also about a number of things. For instance, is it based on a book? Ferrante’s is an Italian story, but because it’s a best seller it has international potential. If it hadn’t been an international best seller, we would never have been able to do it as a big international project. That’s one. It’s also a family drama, it’s the story about the relationship between two women, and that transcends cultures and language. The theme will resonate globally, but I don’t think the show would have had traction internationally if it weren’t for the books.

The same applies to Munich, Robert Harris’s big spy thriller about those four days [involving a meeting between Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier], which had a huge impact on the history of the world. It’s a U.K.-German story, but it’s something that we believe will resonate internationally.

Then there’s a project such as Deutschland 83 [and the follow-up Deutschland 86], which isn’t based on a book but does have themes that are of international interest and relevance—in this case, the Cold War.

So whether or not a project has global potential is a matter of the themes that are tackled, whether it’s based on a book and sometimes also who is involved. If you have something that is a local show but it has a big international film director attached, then it will be interesting internationally. We look at the subject matter, who is involved, the material and whether we believe the subject matter will resonate outside its country of origin.

WS: Has the increased volume of drama in the market impacted your unscripted strategy?
FROT-COUTAZ: We continue to nurture our big shows. Generally speaking, if you look around the world at the legacy unscripted franchises, not just ours, we’re doing better than anybody would have predicted eight or nine years ago. Remember, of all these dramas we’ve been talking about, some 70 percent of this output is either for pay-TV or SVOD platforms. Hard Sun is for the BBC, that’s public service, but the majority is not geared toward prime-time commercial linear broadcasters. And for those broadcasters, these big unscripted events are hugely important, now more than ever. So you’re looking at two different parts of the market. ITV is in the business of big dramas, and so are the U.S. networks, but it’s a different kind of drama. They are procedurals. The networks tend to play less in this auteur-driven serialized drama that we’ve been talking about because they must appeal to broad audiences and are advertiser-funded. Typically these auteur pieces are a lot more niche and not suited to them. So the unscripted world still needs to cater to the traditional linear broadcasters.

WS: Is constant innovation necessary in unscripted programming?
FROT-COUTAZ: Like everything, these big shows need to stand out, but they also need familiarity. If you look at shows that have worked recently, The Great British Bake Off is a huge hit in the U.K., and I don’t think people saw it coming. It has a simple premise, but it worked because it was incredibly authentic and warm and relatable. If you look at television over the last 50 years, genres have pretty much all been the same. The talent shows have existed this entire time, and so have game shows and documentaries. When it comes to the big unscripted shows, a lot of it is about tweaks to something that is a formula people know. Until there is some new big technological advance that means we can do something that is completely different, then [unscripted] will continue to be about finding interesting characters and telling authentic stories about the characters, which isn’t so different from scripted. But until now there hasn’t been some big, new thing that is completely disrupting the genre.

WS: Tell us about American Idol on ABC. How did it come about?
FROT-COUTAZ: They expressed interest! We believed there was a good match between the American Idol audience and ABC. Idol is very much a family show, and ABC is very much a family network, so we thought it was a good fit.

WS: Why is the American Idol franchise so important to FremantleMedia?
FROT-COUTAZ: Yes, it’s important, but it’s not more important than America’s Got Talent or American Gods or Britain’s Got Talent. There was a day 10 or 11 years ago when it was hugely important because the show was a phenomenon. Now it’s a good show and a great brand, and obviously we hope it will do well, but it’s not more important than our other shows. We are a very different company now. We’re a much more diversified company. American Idol is in a portfolio of other important shows, but it is no longer the beacon that stands above everything else. It lives among its peers.

WS: What initiatives do you have in digital and branded content?
FROT-COUTAZ: We’ve learned a lot from the digital space, and there are a lot of things that go into the digital bucket these days. For us, digital is about what we do in social media; it’s about our Facebook and YouTube presence, and we have a very large presence on both those platforms. Last year, for example, our content had over 26 billion views on YouTube alone—that’s more than any other television producer, network or film studio. It’s about how we collaborate with those platforms, and that takes several forms: it’s how we market our shows to those platforms, how we cross-promote and how we engage the fans while the shows are on the air, both scripted and unscripted. Going forward, it’s also going to be about producing for those platforms. Facebook has launched the Watch tab; we’ll hopefully be producing for the Watch tab in the future. We’re looking into doing some projects with YouTube in various places around the world. The one thing that the past few years have taught us is that producing original short-form video is a very difficult business and one that so far hasn’t found its economics. So for a company like ours, it’s going to be about the social media piece of it—how to engage our fans through the platforms and how over time the platforms will become commissioners of premium content. But the notion that you can create a business producing short-form video—maybe one day the money will be there, but right now it isn’t.

WS: What are the most significant challenges and opportunities in the next 12 to 24 months?
FROT-COUTAZ: The big challenge is access to talent because it’s incredibly competitive out there. You have to be sure you are in business with the right people at the right time. Everybody wants to work with the same writers and the same producers. There is an ongoing challenge with the shift in the business model of linear broadcasters as they are losing reach with the younger demos. How they react to that and how they move to a B-to-C strategy impacts us indirectly. As for opportunities, the new platforms represent fantastic opportunities for content suppliers like us and will continue to do so.