Company aims to link with Hollywood studios

PARIS Europe’s newest TV production player, Zodiak Entertainment, is swimming against the current downturn by expanding while others shrink.

The company is aiming to link with Hollywood studios on a slate of TV dramas, tapping top U.S. showrunners, North American casts and 50% European financing.

As U.S.series production comes under increasing fiscal pressure, Zodiak hopes to move in by using co-production to reduce all partners’ costs, and by offering to bring a production in at 30% less than studio costs.

The game plan, announced last week by Pascal Breton, senior VP fiction at Zodiak, has already hatched its first projects. These include “Kidnapping,” an hourlong cop series in the vein of “Without a Trace,” developed by “Highlander” showrunner David Abramowitz.

Breton says he’s near a deal with U.S. studio and Canadian partners, which he hopes to announce by next month’s Mip TV bazaar in Cannes. The show would shoot in Canada, with a predominantly U.S. cast and Marathon taking rights for Europe. Breton is founder-prexy of Gallic TV production company Marathon.

Zodiak Entertainment was formed in June when Italian media/publishing giant De Agostini bought Scandi Zodiak TV for $216 million. De Agostini owns Italy’s Magnolia Prods. and France’s Marathon Group, Gaul’s second-biggest TV company. Headquartered in Paris, Zodiak now groups 25 companies in 20-plus countries and is restructuring and expanding the conglom.

De Agostini, which saw $4.7 billion sales in 2007, needs to move into the TV content biz as profits from publishing plunge.

Breton’s holding exclusive talks to buy Gallic TV distributor Double V, French buyer of “Dexter.”

“We want to expand our big Canadian and U.S. series acquisitions for Europe,” he says.

Overseeing Zodiak’s acquisitions and co-productions, Breton’s developing a 12-hour miniseries set from World War II to Israel’s independence in 1948 and a series on the Hundred Years War, structured as a France-U.K. co-production.

Zodiak’s biggest plans involve international production.

“Our main target in the next two years is to have succeeded with one or two big American or Canadian series,” Breton says.

Zodiak aims to raise 50%-70% of the series’ budgets in Europe and Canada, mixing Euro distribution rights, handled by Marathon, equity from major Gallic or Euro TV players and Canadian subsidies.

“Our aim’s to attract the best showrunners in the U.S., Canada and Britain, giving them the opportunity to own part of worldwide revenues,” Breton says.

Zodiak’s in discussions with two London-based production groups, says Breton. One acquisition is almost completed.

Zodiak may be young, but Breton says it brings much to the table. The conglom has experience, cash and catalogs — Marathon alone owns 3,000 programming hours, and 2008 revenues will be approximately E400 million ($518.8 million).

(Gunnar Rehlin in Stockholm contributed to this report.)

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more