Studio 100’s Hans Bourlon

Since its formation in Belgium 21 years ago, Studio 100 has become one of the largest independent kids’ and family entertainment businesses in operation today. It encompasses a thriving amusement park and live-entertainment business, production operations in Belgium, Paris and Sydney, and a Munich-based distributor, Studio 100 Media, that is home to megahits like Maya the Bee. Earlier this year, Studio 100 picked up a majority interest in German rights’ management firm m4e, home of the Mia and me brand. Hans Bourlon, CEO and co-founder of Studio 100, tells TV Kids about the rationale behind the investment, the importance of scale and his approach to building true 360-degree properties for kids today.

TV KIDS: What attracted you to investing in m4e?
BOURLON: We have Studio 100 Media, also a Munich-based company, and the activities were very similar. We have our strengths; they have their strengths. For example, we launched the Maya the Bee movie in more than 150 territories and it was pretty successful. We have built up a lot of know-how in terms of movie production and distribution. We have two animation studios, which they don’t have. There are a lot of things we could add to each other—that was one of the most important things. We can create an entity that can be very strong when forces are joined.

TV KIDS: Going forward, how will m4e’s business be integrated into Studio 100?
BOURLON: We are now reflecting upon how to create synergies and integrate activities in the long term. This will take a lot of time and thought. We have two organizations, and we are looking at what is possible and what we can realize.

TV KIDS: There’s consolidation happening in all segments of the media business. In the kids’ sector, how important is scale?
BOURLON: It’s a very important issue, but the most important thing is to have good content that makes a difference. That’s what everybody is aiming for: creating a fantastic new show that can be popular in many territories and that everybody likes. That’s something we’re working on daily.

TV KIDS: Tell us about your approach to building shows into full, 360-degree properties.
BOURLON: We started this more than 20 years ago with a puppet and a presenter on national TV in Belgium. These characters sang songs on stage; we grew them into comic books and launched merchandising items in the market. So that circle was already there with our first concept. We have created lots of new live-action concepts where we had the same approach. In 1999 we acquired an old theme park on the Belgian coast. We refurbished it [as Plopsaland Park], and it’s been very successful. We now have six parks in total, in Belgium and also in the Netherlands and Germany, and are planning two new ones. This is a real circle of activity that is unique, based upon local and international content.

TV KIDS: What growth opportunities are you pursuing for the theme-parks business?
BOURLON: We are working with partners on a theme park in Poland and are investing in some of the theme parks in our home territories. We are also in other partnerships to create new theme parks. Maya the Bee is very strong in Poland, and she will be the lead character in that theme park.

TV KIDS: You have a lot of classic brands like Maya. How do you balance reinvigorating classics and developing new concepts?
BOURLON: It’s our aim to have a mixture of both. There are a lot of [benefits with] those classic brands and the remakes we create with state-of-the-art techniques today. It’s about nostalgia; it’s about feelings you can share with your children or grandchildren. It’s also about broadcasters who are open to buying some history. It gives their initiatives, specifically for new broadcasters, some special feelings from the audience.

TV KIDS: Known brands are doing well in the L&M sector, too. What’s the key to cutting through the clutter to reach retailers and garner shelf space?
BOURLON: In retail you have to go in search of products that make a difference, are unique and are fantastic. There’s a person at our company developing game boards every day specifically for each character. You have to go in search of unique things and not just products that already exist. Some products we develop ourselves, as a sticker with a photo of your character doesn’t make a difference. In China and India we source those products and distribute them. For lots of markets we partner with companies that are very specialized in certain products or territories.

TV KIDS: What are your plans for Junior TV? Are you looking at other direct-to-consumer opportunities for your deep library?
BOURLON: We have some initiatives. Junior TV is on the Sky platform in Germany. We have Studio 100 TV in Belgium. We have an over-the-top platform called Wanagogo, which is only in Belgium. So we have some local initiatives. And we have strong partnerships with broadcasters like TF1, ZDF, TRT and Planeta for Spain and Italy.

TV KIDS: How much has the emergence of OTT platforms altered the way you operate in the kids’ business today?
BOURLON: A lot has changed. We have a local concept called Bumba, about a clown, for the small children in Belgium and the Netherlands. In terms of licensing, it’s almost our number one brand. There are not a lot of viewers on broadcasters at 7 o’clock in the morning. But if you have a child of 2 or 3 and you have an iPad or smartphone, you can go to YouTube, go on our platform, and they can watch the episodes when needed, whenever they want, wherever you want. Of course, these tools are fantastic, but you still need television.

TV KIDS: What are your key challenges and opportunities going forward in the next year or two?
BOURLON: We will invest in several new animation concepts, with the world as our target group. We have lots of them in the pipeline. We’ll produce them in the Flying Bark studios in Sydney and also in Studio 100 in Paris. And we want to invest a lot in our theme parks. In the leisure business—we also do theater shows—you cannot digitalize a ticket for a theme park. It’s an old-fashioned business, but when you do it in a proper, qualitative way, you can make a difference nowadays. In a sector where there’s a lot of crisis, this is a fantastic balance in our group. It gives stability and steady cash flows for the future, which we will need to acquire new companies and invest in new programs.

TV KIDS: The business has changed so much—what have been some of the constants for you?
BOURLON: A good story is still important, and characters you can care for are still key. But distribution and the target group have changed a lot. In Belgium, the situation is that on average, 35 percent of young children under 6 are not of Belgian origin. In the cities, it’s even [higher]. So this is a huge geographical change that we are confronted with, and those children have very different backgrounds, some are from Eastern Europe, and others are of different religions. Working with those new elements is something we have to reflect upon and work on.