Fremantle’s Jennifer Mullin

In the face of challenging headwinds amid recessionary fears, a squeeze on ad revenues and further fragmentation in viewing trends, RTL Group has earmarked its content arm, Fremantle, as a significant growth opportunity. Indeed, the European media giant has set an ambitious target of making Fremantle a €3 billion ($3.2 billion) company by 2025. The unit reported revenues of €2.3 billion ($2.5 billion) in 2022, a 22 percent gain on 2021.

RTL Group heavily invested in Fremantle’s growth trajectory in 2022, backing a string of acquisitions, including a 70 percent interest in Italy’s Lux Vide, 25 percent in Bosch producer Fabel Entertainment in the U.S., upping its investment in Dancing Ledge Productions—behind the award-winning U.K. drama The Responder—picking up an interest in film producer Element Pictures, taking full ownership of Eureka, and securing interests in the factual producers 72 Films, Wildstar Films and Silvio Productions. This was in addition to a string of first-look and talent deals, including a landmark alliance with Angelina Jolie. The M&A activity has continued into this year with a majority investment in the Belgian company A Team Productions (ATP).

Fremantle has a presence in almost 30 territories across its impressive footprint of production labels, producing some 12,000 hours of new content every year. Its international distribution arm helps to support those producers, and third-party ones, with market intel, gap financing and presales, representing a slate of finished tape and formats totaling more than 40,000 hours.

Arguably best known for its iconic format brands, including Got Talent, drama and factual are key priorities for the company alongside its core of entertainment, CEO Jennifer Mullin tells World Screen. Having been with Fremantle since 2005, starting in its North American business and rising through the ranks to become CEO in 2018, Mullin has tracked the evolving trends in the global media business. She remains firmly focused on keeping Fremantle as an attractive home for talent, an incubator of breakthrough IP and a pioneer in flexible models to meet its clients’ needs as they adjust to the fast-changing dynamics in the business today.

WS: Fremantle continues to deliver strong financial returns for RTL Group. What contributed to those gains in 2022?
MULLIN:It was a combination of different things. We had strong organic growth across all our content genres of entertainment, scripted and documentaries. We also had a number of M&A transactions last year, which added to the top and bottom line as we acquired or took majority stakes in a number of companies.

WS: Let’s discuss the target of €3 billion ($3.2 billion) in revenues for 2025. What’s the plan for getting there? Are you adjusting that strategy in the face of the increasingly challenged economic climate?
MULLIN: The roadmap does change and evolve, and hopefully, the key to our success is remaining agile. We are open-minded when it comes to our business models. We recognize the fact that our broadcast and streaming partners are refining their strategies, and our job is to stay on top of that, be communicative and make sure that we’re good creative partners. Fundamentally, it’s all about developing, producing and executing great content. That’s what we do locally and globally across all our content pillars. If we stay the course, remain flexible in our business models and continue executing at the level that we do, we’re in very good shape.

WS: Scripted has been a big push for Fremantle over the last few years. What’s the overarching strategy there, and how is it evolving given the cutbacks happening at the streamers and the ad pinch the broadcasters are feeling?
MULLIN: Our strategy is simple: We work with the best creatives that we possibly can. Great IP is key, whether it’s books, originals or reboots. My Brilliant Friend for Rai in Italy and HBO in the U.S. is a testament to that. The team in Italy has told the story beautifully over the four books for four seasons. As mentioned, we recognize where our broadcast and streaming partners are challenged and remain agile in our dealmaking, financing and distribution.

WS: Regarding the business models, are you finding that the streamers are a bit more open now to content licensing or co-productions than before, when they were so insistent on global rights and owning everything everywhere?
MULLIN: We are seeing a shift. It’s great to see because we’re well-positioned to support with our great content. We’re seeing opportunity on all sides of the business, including the entertainment side. As the streamers’ strategies evolve, we adapt.

WS: Let’s talk about the entertainment side. It does feel like The Masked Singer was the last breakout hit globally. What’s Fremantle’s approach to nurturing the megaformat brands that continue to dominate while also looking for the next big thing?
MULLIN: We talk about this a lot. Entertainment is our core. Keeping our great franchises alive and buoyant is a real focus for us at a global level, but also key to that is supporting our teams locally. Where those shows are on air, it’s of paramount importance that they stay on the air as long as possible. These big brands have longevity. For example, in Italy, Got Talent was on Sky for many years, and we are producing a new version for Disney+. So we have a global platform that three years ago needed global rights—and we now have our most successful franchise, and we are producing a local version. That’s a big shift right there. Fremantle is well-poised—because of our brands, global reach, execution and agility in the dealmaking—to add value to our partners.

WS: That format is remarkable in terms of its global reach and the number of spin-offs.
MULLIN: It’s a great format; I was part of the U.S. launch 17 years ago, and it’s amazing to see the number of versions, the quality of the show and the scale. The great thing about Got Talentis that it can be scaled. And the beauty of it and all of our entertainment shows is that you’re never going to run out of talent. New IP is equally important. You’re right; I think The Masked Singer is probably the last big one, and that’s four years [since the FOX U.S. launch]. We have great development teams around the world—if we see a great idea, we invest in it, we might pilot it. We have an acquisitions team on the lookout for content in some of our key markets that we could pick up the rights to, which is what happened with The Masked Singer. It was from South Korea, FOX did the deal for the U.S., and we picked up a significant number of other territories. We have also just done a deal for the global production rights for The Piano [outside of the U.S. and U.K., from Love Productions]. Those hits are hard to come by. With so many different platforms on which to view content, getting the massive numbers we were used to seeing 10 or 15 years ago is challenging.

WS: You mentioned Got Talent moving to a streamer. I’m curious if the DNA of a format like that, which has long been seen as a driver of live, linear viewing, has to change when shifting to an on-demand environment.
MULLIN: Great content is great content. People are consuming it on different devices and platforms. The value of big brands for these streaming platforms is instant audience recognition.  If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll go to the show regardless of where it is. We don’t want to tinker with the DNA of these legacy formats too much because they have proven successful.

WS: Is the strategy for factual still focused on high-end, premium blue-chip, or are you exploring other opportunities as well?
MULLIN: We’re looking at other opportunities. If you look at what Fremantle does, it’s a portfolio approach. In the factual space, we want premium high-end films or very limited [series]. Then there’s a whole middle tier that is quite commercial that our creatives are interested in. For example, our U.S. company Original Productions is doing a three-part series on the Waco, Texas, siege for Netflix as the 30-year anniversary of that is coming up.

WS: I’d like to talk more about the approach to the streamers specifically. There is so much change afoot, constantly. How are you approaching them as their needs shift and the sector matures?
MULLIN: We spend a lot of time talking to them; we hear what their current needs are. And again, it’s about staying agile and focused on their strategies and how we can support and be a great partner creatively and strategically.

WS: What are you hearing from your traditional “linear” clients about how they are facing increased competition from streamers and the pressure on ad revenues?
MULLIN: I think there’ll be a lot more scrutiny on commissions on both sides, whether streaming or linear broadcast, and, of course, there’s pressure on budgets. Linear broadcast networks have a schedule to fill; the streamers don’t. But recognizing the pressure they’re under and the challenges they’re navigating is key for us.

WS: We have to talk about M&A, of course! Are you looking at further acquisitions?
MULLIN: Because we’ve been so prolific over the last 18 to 24 months, we have a lot of incoming opportunity. We don’t do anything that doesn’t fit within our strategy. When we look for opportunities with either talent or companies, it’s quite specific. We’re either filling a need geographically or in a genre. That’s why you saw the slew of announcements in the documentaries space at the end of last year; we were filling that need externally and bringing amazing creatives into the fold to build our capacity. And with talent—what talent is out there? What great writers, directors and producers are out there? How do we bring them into the fold? But everything we do is complementary.

WS: How did the wide-ranging deal with Angelina Jolie come about?
MULLIN: We heard through a consultant we work with that she was looking for a home. We had a series of meetings with her; we heard her ambition and the types of stories that she wanted to tell. We felt we were the right home for her because we’re platform-agnostic—we can sell to anybody—and we’re global. She’s global, she wants to tell stories around the world, she’s a humanitarian and she has a unique voice and perspective. It just resonated with us that we could help her realize her ambition, whether it’s in film, television series or documentaries. We want to be the place creatives want to call home. We can provide talent with the best flexibility and support to realize their creative vision.

WS: It looks like it will be a difficult year for everyone. What are the priorities you’re focusing on as you navigate Fremantle through this challenging market?
MULLIN: Supporting our teams locally in their territories, supporting our creatives in their storytelling ambitions and given how prolific we have been in the last 18 months with M&A, it’s also about embedding those teams and ensuring they feel part of Fremantle’s culture.