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Fred Kogel on Building German Indie Studio Leonine and Harnessing Disruption (EXCLUSIVE)

With a moniker inspired by Bavaria’s heraldic lions, Leonine is a rare beast: a new German indie studio in the making.

After just a few months in existence, the company has positioned itself as a major player across film, television and digital, mainly through a raft of choice acquisitions, including film and TV giant Tele München Group. German media veteran Fred Kogel heads the operation, which is bankrolled by U.S. private equity firm KKR and aims to take advantage of the changes roiling an increasingly globalized entertainment industry.

“In a world that’s very disruptive and where every consumer can watch any content on any device, there’s more need for content,” Kogel tells Variety in his first interview with an English-language news outlet. “Users don’t care where the premium content comes from. The most important aspect is that it delivers top quality in terms of story and production values.”

Europe’s largest economy has a number of big, established media groups that are trying to maintain their footing on the shifting landscape. Constantin Film, which has a rich history of moviemaking and distribution, has moved into TV. The same is true of Bavaria Film and its Bavaria Fiction banner, producer of the new “Das Boot” series. RTL Group, which owns Fremantle, is investing heavily
in online services, as is ProSiebenSat.1.

Unlike its peers, Leonine has been set up to work in both old and new media from day one, in tune with the new market conditions. “You probably couldn’t have done this five years ago,” says Guy Bisson, research director at Ampere Analysis. “But the market is moving so quickly, and the demand for co-production partnerships, the changes in financing and the need for rights have led to the point where you can create European mini-majors.”

Leonine’s story started in February when KKR bought Tele München, which gave it film and TV production, distribution, home entertainment and digital operations, plus a suite of TV channels, in one stroke. The acquisition of hot production outfits Wiedemann & Berg Film and i&u TV followed. On the library side, Kogel persuaded RTL to carve out and sell its Universum Film business. With the Tele München catalogue, that gives Leonine about 7,000 movie titles. “The plan was to create this one-stop-shop for content,” Kogel says. “Then we chose the companies that fit around the plan and started negotiating and making the deals.”

The focus is now on getting all the assets under one roof — a new office for 300 to 350 staff that’s under construction and will open next year. “We have a great management team, great people and want to grow organically,” Kogel says. “We have 10 to 12 months of M&A behind us and we’re now consolidating the group.”

In Germany, Leonine hopes to capitalize on what remains Europe’s biggest ad market in traditional TV and second-biggest in pay-TV, in revenue terms. Internationally, the company sees opportunities in the rise of the global streamers and the growing appeal of non-English-language drama around the world. “Five or 10 years ago, if you made content in German, it had a market of Germany, Switzerland and Austria. That has changed with breakout hits like ‘Babylon Berlin,’” says Bisson. “But the real opportunity will be in English-language and co-production. European and other broadcasters are very heavy co-producers; it’s a big opportunity for a new European studio.”

That jibes with Leonine’s plan to invest more in international co-production. An early English-language move by the company is action series “The Professionals,” starring Brendan Fraser and Tom Welling, which has been presold to Leonine-backed TV channel
RTL II in Germany.

On the film front, Leonine has acquired local rights to pictures including STX’s “Hustlers,” “Moonfall” from AGC and the Daniel Craig starrer “Knives Out.” Kogel says he wants “a strong and viable relationship between Hollywood and us. ” Leonine’s release in Germany of “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” was an early hit, registering 1.2 million admissions in August. 

Overall, the German box office has been in the doldrums, with earnings down 16% in 2018. Kogel thinks that the market can rebound — but that it needs to adjust. “I strongly believe in theatrical. What I don’t believe in is 800 films, which is what will be released in 2019,” he says. “What we can do is release films properly and get at least 200 to 400 prints and have reliable P&A. We achieve that, and people will go to the theater again.”

Ultimately, Leonine is a child of its time: a fledgling studio that doesn’t major in one area but embraces content on different screens and has an international dimension from the get-go. “In this disruptive environment you can either complain or see the opportunity,” Kogel says. “In five years, our goal is to be the No. 1 company to talk to in Germany when it comes to content — and by that, I mean all types of content.”  

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