Marc-Antoine d’Halluin

This interview originally appeared in the MIPCOM 2014 issue of TV Europe.

With some 45 production entities in 17 territories, Zodiak Media, majority owned by Italy’s De Agostini Group, has established itself as a leading independent producer of a broad range of genres: from scripted series Being Human and Millennium to entertainment formats Wife Swap and Secret Millionaire to children’s fare Totally Spies! and Waybuloo. The distribution arm Zodiak Rights not only sells content produced by Zodiak’s many companies—including RDF Television, Touchpaper, Yellow Bird, Mastiff, Marathon Media and Zodiak Americas—but also represents product from third-party producers. While building upon the company’s core competence in formats, Zodiak Media’s CEO, Marc-Antoine d’Halluin, also wants to boost production of what he calls premium scripted—high-quality drama co-produced with international partners that has the ability to travel. He shares his view of the company with TV Europe.

TV EUROPE: There have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions in the media business. Are you looking to acquire more companies? In today’s media landscape, how big is big enough?
D’HALLUIN: It seems that big is never big enough! It’s interesting to see that acquisition goes both ways. There has been an American invasion into the U.K. and Europe, but the reverse is also true; many U.S. production companies are being bought by European players. There is a lot of activity for sure. Zodiak is one of the most recently formed super-indies. It was only four years ago that RDF joined us. Zodiak consists of about 45 different production companies, but four initial major acquisitions were made by De Agostini to create the group. Our focus is very much on organic growth and on making sure we have the right processes in place so that we leverage the value of local companies in spotting a few formats that have international potential. We have to make sure that these formats travel quickly inside the company. Since I joined, we have focused a lot on putting these processes in place. The focus is therefore essentially organic. It doesn’t mean that we are not looking at outside possible targets. We are looking at being as rational as possible and often we see deals where we think prices are very high.

TV EUROPE: How do you manage the companies in the group?
D’HALLUIN: When I came on board, I joined a company that was very much a federation, and it was a federation by design because it had literally just been put together. I saw an opportunity to move it a little bit away from that model and operate it more like a confederation, like a group: not distracting local producers from connecting with their local market and customers, and making sure they spent a little bit of their time, when relevant, sharing ideas. We created an International Development Board (IDB). It’s a forum where all our entertainment producers meet on a regular basis, every two months, to share ideas and select the few formats that can travel. Lots of our local successes remain local, but some of them have the capability to travel. We have to make sure that these formats have the opportunity to be brought early, in the best possible way, to every one of our markets. Our IDB has two chairmen. One was the chief creative officer of our Nordic business, Joel Karsberg, who recently relocated to Los Angeles to become the chief creative officer of Zodiak in the U.S. Joel is one of the guys who put together a new adventure game show that we think has a lot of format potential, called Dropped. Dropped was a big hit on TV4 in January and was recommissioned. We introduced it at MIPTV and we are going to make a stronger push at MIPCOM. We are in advanced discussions in six markets with key broadcasters. The other co-chairman of the IDB is Grant Ross, who just joined Zodiak in July. Grant was the head of global format acquisitions at Endemol. He now has a bigger role at Zodiak. He looks at formats outside the group but will also help select formats from inside the group. It’s a key role that these two guys have—they coordinate with the top creative production brains of this company, and select and fast-track the formats that we believe have international potential.

TV EUROPE: What has been the strategy for drama?
D’HALLUIN: Formats are key at Zodiak Media and we have a strong focus on the non-scripted, but what we call premium scripted is also essential to our strategy. This is a segment of our industry that is growing a lot faster than others with gradually more international co-productions. Prior to the last 18 months, Zodiak was focusing essentially on local scripted production, such as Being Human in the U.K. or Saint Tropez in France. We had met with some international success for sure with Millennium and Wallander, but it was essentially a local scripted business in three or four of our markets. Since then, we have put a big emphasis on bigger projects and we have three right now in production. One is called Occupied, produced by Yellow Bird for two primary customers, TV 2 Norway and ARTE. The second is a show called Versailles, a co-production between Zodiak, Capa Drama and Incendo. The main client for the show is CANAL+. It’s the fascinating story of Louis XIV when he was about 30 years old. Versailles will be shot in English, even though it will be produced in France. Zodiak will be handling international distribution. The third one, called Tatau, is a co-production at Touchpaper in the U.K., with BBC Three and BBC America as primary clients. We are actively engaged in that dimension and we believe that we have the right talent on board to play a key role in that space.

TV EUROPE: What trends are you seeing in entertainment or factual entertainment?
D’HALLUIN: We see evolutions of genres and genres blending together. We have great expertise in property shows. Storage shows is another trend we see developing well. At RDF we have a series on BBC One, Wheelers, Dealers and Del Boys, which did really well. Storage: Flog The Lot! is on Channel 5, for which we have very high hopes. Auction-type shows cross over well with game shows. In that category we have very high hopes for a show called Trash to Treasure that will air on TV4 in Sweden. Tipping Point is another game-show success from RDF that is about to travel. We also see strong demand for dance shows. So You Think You Can Dance is still doing really well. We’re launching Beyond Dance on MTV in the U.S., which mixes challenging innovative dance with a reality show. We have a show on [Life OK] in India called Dare 2 Dance from our local Zodiak company, Sol Productions. Finally, we see strong demand for, and have strong expertise in, big adventure game shows.

And we now have Dropped, which is a very innovative format. It’s an adventure reality game show. The pitch is simple: two teams are dropped into a remote location and they have to survive and find their way back to civilization.

TV EUROPE: In what genres do you see potential for growth?
D’HALLUIN: I mentioned premium scripted, which is in high demand, not only because Netflix and Amazon are very actively starting to compete in that space with the traditional pay-TV platforms but also because of the quality that is coming out of some European countries. It’s been quite incredible to see, over the last five years, series produced in Israel or Sweden like Bron or Hatufim become successful in their original versions, and then incredibly successful in their format versions. Being French, I never thought I would see the day when original French series like Les Revenants would be broadcast on Channel 4 and do well. The concept that successes can come from many markets now, as opposed to mostly from the U.S., creates a very interesting opportunity for a company like Zodiak and for the market in general because it does diversify the stories that are told, and that is good. A story like Occupied is shot in Norway and it will travel extremely well around the world.

In terms of non-scripted programming, what everyone is looking for is that particular show that will bridge with social media. Zodiak will put a lot of effort in that area. In factual, every season we see things that are a bit trendy; they come and go. In the U.K., employment benefit shows were very big this year, but I’m not sure they will last for long. Long-lasting trends like big adventure game shows, big productions that engage big audiences, have a very strong future, which is why we hope Dropped will deliver.