Cyber Group Studios has made several strategic shifts since it launched in 2005 as it adapted to changes in the kids’ marketplace. But a few principles have remained key: an unending quest to drive innovation in animation technology, partnering with the best creatives and assembling a team that would grow the business across distribution, production and ancillary revenue streams such as video games and consumer products. Pierre Sissmann, the chairman and CEO of Cyber Group Studios, who founded the company 15 years ago, tells TV Kids about the outfit’s past, present and future.
TV KIDS: What’s been driving Cyber Group’s gains over the last 15 years?
SISSMANN: The first thing is having a great team. It’s always about people, whether they are great financial, production or development executives. When we started the company, it was a bunch of us who mostly came out of Disney. All of us had 10 to 15 years of experience with Disney. And then we started adding people. We looked for two different types of people: those who were looking for a challenge in their career and could hit the ground running, and young people we could train to go into big projects.
TV KIDS: Coming from Disney, how did you develop a sense for what the broader kids’ landscape was looking for?
SISSMANN: We spent a lot of time building relationships with our clients, trying to figure out what they needed. In the first year, we were going to the markets and following productions from everywhere to understand where the market was going. We didn’t take any active decisions. We started very slow. It’s wasn’t until we understood what our clients—and their audiences—were attracted to that we started developing a slate of series.
TV KIDS: How important has it been for you to drive development in animation technologies at Cyber Group Studios?
SISSMANN: When I was at Disney—you know I opened the Walt Disney Animation Studio in Europe—our team distributed the first Toy Story and we did the second-ever 3D scene (the first one was in Beauty and the Beast) in Tarzan. I realized how we could progress in the treatment of images and technology. We were one of the first companies to move into HD in 2007/08. We did a full 3D episode that you would have to watch with the glasses. No one could broadcast it, but we did it in 2008/09. We’ve always gone into technology, making the future become the present.
TV KIDS: How did you structure the company for growth?
SISSMANN: We put an emphasis on a few things. One was distribution. I realized when I was at Disney that if you want to control your future, you need to control distribution. We spent a lot of time setting up the distribution, setting up production with technology and looking at developing IPs that would fit our clients’ needs and that kids would like. Starting from scratch is difficult. Creating global entertainment [from Europe] takes a special effort. We started to put in that special effort very early on. I feel that’s the main reason for our success. We’ve worked a lot and have not taken anything for granted. That enabled the company to grow to this stage. When we look at our growth over the last 15 years, we’ve had 25 to 30 percent compound growth every year.
As we hired more people, we started doing different things. We started with preschool and CG. No one wanted CG at the time. I knew, coming from Disney, that CG was going to be a big thing. And the fact that nobody was doing preschool and CG was a big asset. We had one of the first preschool CG series in the world. And then we went into kids and co-pros. As we were developing our international slate, we were careful to see what other people were doing and trying to bring our know-how and learning from other people. We went into 2D and we developed our own systems. This desire to improve the image, to tell stories, is in the foundation of the company. We’re always trying to be better in terms of improving the storytelling, improving the production. We made Zou into a big brand, and Gigantosaurus, which was a book, we made into a bigger brand. At the same time, we are developing new ideas for kids. For example, 50/50 Heroes is in development with France Télévisions and has been acquired by Disney for Europe. Now we are in the process of getting huge brands, worldwide names, to develop into series.
On the business side, we’ve kept hiring and creating new departments around our production, development and distribution areas. For instance, we started a digital department a couple of years ago. We now have over 40 YouTube channels with over a billion views. That did not exist three years ago. We created an interactive division two and a half years ago. Our interactive video game division has pushed us to develop assets for video games at the same time as we were developing series. We now have 17 video games in production. We are not producing them ourselves, but we write and we produce the assets. We work with Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and various games publishers such as Outright Games, a big publisher in Europe, and BTC Studios, a major publisher in Eastern Europe. We’ve just released Gigantosaurus: The Game for platforms and we are about to release mobile games and new console games on Taffy, Gigantosaurus, Sadie Sparks and Droners, to name a few. After the distribution division, we also created a licensing and merchandising division, where we do our own licensing in the U.S. and Europe, and we have agents around the world. It’s pretty well structured and it’s very successful.
You couldn’t say it was a sketched-out plan from the beginning because we didn’t know we were going to create a digital division in 2005, we weren’t thinking about the video game business, but I think it was well thought out. We wanted to have great people, control our distribution and do a lot of developments that would fit our pipe. Right now, we are developing, between the U.S. team and the French team, 10 to 15 new projects. We’ve increased our development slate, and we’re now moving to preteen, teen and adult animation.
We’ve never stopped challenging ourselves. We’re opening a big animation studio in the next couple of months in the north of France. We’re working with the best real-time animation software. We are just in the process of making pilots and are planning to shoot our first show in real-time animation starting in October. It’s 40 original episodes in real-time animation, and then we have two other projects after that. They say real-time animation is the future, but for us, it’s the present.
TV KIDS: How have you been able to ensure that this growth was sustainable, without overextending yourselves?
SISSMANN: One of the things that was important to us was to make sure we had the money to develop the company. So we’ve put money in ourselves and we’ve raised money. Right now, one of our main shareholders is L-GAM. That’s fantastic because we know if we are successful, they will back us. At the same time, we’ve always reinvested. The most challenging thing is to schedule what the priorities need to be, knowing that you need to produce to make a living. What is the next big focus? Is it the technology? Is it to extend the distribution? Is it partnerships? We try to do a little of all of this at the same time. We allocated resources at different times to different stages of our development. For instance, we invested a lot in the video game division three years ago and now we’re in production on 17 video games, which are going to fund another development. We’ve spent three years establishing ourselves in China. In Russia, we have this great partnership with Soyuzmultfilm, the first French and Russian joint label of animated programs, Cyber Soyuz Junior, targeting the preschool audience around the world. Under this label, we are producing two series, including Orange Moo Cow and we are developing two other series, including Squared Zebra. We have made a great deal in China. Gigantosaurus is airing for the third time on CCTV. We’re setting up our own company with Chinese partners. Just before that, we set up our company in the U.S. headed by Richard Goldsmith, who is a great asset. Part of the success of Cyber Group is enriching the culture all the time with new talent and exploring new directions.
TV KIDS: What’s been the approach to co-productions?
SISSMANN: I like co-pros because I like finding others to work with. Not because we can’t produce ourselves, but because we’re not the only ones to have great ideas. We co-produce Droners with La Chouette Compagnie and Supamonks Studio in France. It’s a fantastic series created by Sylvain dos Santos. Taffy is a co-production with WarnerMedia. We’re co-producing with Canada, and we created a label with Soyuzmultfilm, Cyber Soyouz Junior.