Frank turns combo of indies into production heavyweight

PARIS — A BBC journo-turned-TV vet, David Frank has accomplished what most entrepreneurs can only dream of: He sold his company for a multimillion-dollar profit, and became CEO of the company that bought him out.

In 2010, pan-European group Zodiak Enterainment puchased Frank’s RDF Media, which Frank founded in 1993, developing it into a prominent purveyor of factual entertainment in the U.K. and U.S., for more than €200 million ($261 million). Zodiak installed Frank as CEO, overseeing all the company’s subsidiary shingles.

Before Frank came onboard, Zodiak, owned by Italian conglom De Agostini, was identified mainly as a pan-European combo of three major companies: Paris-based producer Marathon, Italo shingle Magnolia and Swedish production company Yellow Bird, all launched by independent producers and bought by Zodiak. The RDF buyout, Westcott says, has allowed Zodiak to get a much bigger foothold in the English-language market.

The RDF deal is the third biggest merger or acquisition of an independent producer in the past five years, ranking behind the Endemol deal in May 2007 ($4.5 billion) and News Corp.’s purchase of Shine in March 2011 ($424 million), according to Tim Westcott, senior analyst at IHS Screen Digest.

“(Frank) built RDF on factual formats like ‘Wife Swap’ and managed the transition from being an independent company working for hire to building a business owning and exploiting its own intellectual property,” Westcott says. “That’s the Holy Grail for independent producers.”

The first thing Frank did was to rechristen Zodiak Entertaiment as Zodiak Media, in order to reflect the company’s new focus as a single entity that celebrates the diversity of talent and programs under its umbrella.

“Zodiak is pretty well an entrepreneurial outfit developed around talents who’ve established themselves independently,” Frank says, referring to subsids like Marathon Media, launched in 1999 by French producer Pascal Breton, and Sweden’s Yellow Bird, which had hits with “Wallander” and the “Millenium” trilogy, based on Stieg Larsson’s bestsellers.

Frank has launched a “creativity and innovation unit,” comprised of eight to 10 people, whose job it is to look for shows and formats with the best chance of becoming international hits, as well as to share intelligence and skills between the companies.”

In 2011, Frank’s first full year at the helm of Zodiak Media, the group notched nearly $784 million in sales, and beefed up its comedy output in the U.K. and the U.S., notably through the acquisition of London-based shingle Bwak (“The Inbetweeners”).

And the company participated in the American Film Market for the first time last fall.

“The art of what we do is to create content that’s very attractive to a local audience, and make it international,” Frank says.

The ratings success of supernatural skein “Being Human” — first a U.K. hit, produced by RDF-owned Touchpaper Television, and now in its second U.S. season on cabler Syfy from Canadian shingle Muse Entertainment — proves that Zodiak Media is on the right path.

” ‘Being Human’ is a model for the future,” Frank says. “We aim at financing our shows independently from the studio system and controlling the intellectual (rights) outside of the U.S. Having access to Zodiak’s catalog is crucial.”

Meanwhile, the group’s sales arm, Zodiak Rights, has a slate comprising 40% to 50% of third-party pickups. Frank says the number of shows the company acquires for its catalog will increase.

“We much prefer having 10% of a big hit than 90% of a small program,” he says.

One of the titles repped by Zodiak Rights is Olivier Marchal’s hard-boiled cop drama “Braquo” recently acquired by producer Asylum Entertainment (“The Kennedys”) for a U.S. remake.

Present in 20 different countries via 45 shingles, Zodiak Media is looking to expand its geographical footprint further; Canada and Germany are the next targets.

“Canada is an interesting market because of the tax breaks and public funding system; it’s also full of talented TV producers,” Frank says. “As for Germany, we’re considering acquiring a company or even starting a new business.”

Underscoring the company’s strong assets and credibility, Zodiak has just concluded a five-year refinancing plan for a total of $418.2 million, including $267.9 million from a bank syndicate and $150.3 million from shareholders, principally Da Agostini.

Laurent Boissel, Zodiak Media’s chief financial officer says the deal took about a year to be complete.

Next up, Zodiak Media’s French shingle Marathon Media, best known for toon skeins like “Totally Spies” and scripted fare like “Saint Tropez,” is developing an adaptation of the popular Swedish comedy “Solsidan” produced by Zodiak Media’s subsid shingle Jarowskij. “Solsidan” recently won best comedy nod at the Kristallen, Sweden’s television awards.

Marathon is also producing the pilot of a daily soap for France’s leading commercial network TF1. Called “Qu’est ce qu’on attend pour etre heureux” (What Are We Waiting for to be Happy), the light-hearted social comedy series will be set in La Rochelle.

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