German movie and television company Telepool – which is co-owned by Will Smith and Swiss investor Elysian Fields – and its sales arm Global Screen are embarking on a strategic realignment to board projects at an earlier stage as co-production and co-financing partners, in addition to handling world sales, and have revealed the first three projects they have boarded as part of this adjusted approach.
Jan Frouman, who joined Telepool as CEO in September, and Julia Weber, who was promoted to be head of international acquisitions and sales at Global Screen in January, spoke to Variety about the projects and partners they are looking for, and what the company can offer in return. This is the first media interview Frouman has given since his appointment.
Frouman, who was formerly chairman and CEO of Red Arrow Studios, says that when he joined Telepool, he saw that while the company was strong in feature films, the series side of the business was under-developed. “What’s crystal clear is that there is this rich heritage in the film space, both domestically across German-speaking Europe, as well as internationally. And while there was a series component to the company, it wasn’t where the company had typically leaned in. And frankly speaking that made no sense to me.”
He adds: “On the one side, I love the fact that there’s such a rich tradition of features, in terms of distributing, co-producing, licensing, etc., because to my mind, some of the best producers out there come from that lane, and are now embracing all that series production has become largely because of streamer proliferation, etc.”
From now on Telepool and Global Screen will take a unified approach to film and TV production. “For me, the notion of merging or marrying the way we speak to the market, whether it’s domestically or internationally, simply made a lot of sense,” Frouman says. “I didn’t see any value in having a split model, speaking to creators, to producers, etc., I think it’s essential that producers know whether it’s a film project or a series project of European roots, or hailing from elsewhere, that we’re interested, capable and ready to have both conversations.”
As well as this agnostic approach to content and embracing the TV series business more tightly, Frouman and Weber are seeking to board projects at an earlier stage, and to co-produce and co-finance more series, rather than just sell the international rights.
“That’s just where the market is. If you want to sort of plod along as a final stage investor, paying a minimum guarantee, or whatever we want to call it, and adopt that rhythm of engagement with producers – with the competition in mind and with the current landscape … if you think that that’s going to really advance the business, I think you’re dreaming, frankly speaking. I mean, the market has changed.”
He adds: “If you’re not looking at stuff at a development stage, at a bible stage, at script stage, if you’re not assisting in the packaging, contributing to that financing plan along the way, you’re really going to get the dregs, in my view, you’re just going to get what’s left.”
Frouman sounds a note of caution, however, and warns that selecting successful projects is tough, and the company will eschew an overly “speculative” approach. “I don’t want to give the impression we’re ready to just throw cash around,” he says.
He continues: “You need to know what you’re doing. You’re going to be investing money at a much earlier stage in the game. And you are going to have to really lean on your packaging and ultimately sales capabilities. But if you believe in that and you think you have the right team to do that, and you have excellent relationships across the creative landscape, then that’s frankly, where the energy is, where the action is and where projects are.”
In return, Weber says, producers will be able to benefit from Telepool and Global Screen’s substantial knowledge of the international market, and access to the leading acquisition executives.
“It’s much appreciated by producers that we can bring in our international experience. We have an idea whether that story or that subplot works within the world market, and not only within the home territory of the producer. And we can also always bring in the contacts and the networks that we have, especially when we are selling to TV broadcasters or streamers or whatever it is,” she says.
Frouman adds: “I’ve seen this early on, Julia and her team have rich, deep, long-standing relationships with film producers, and – almost to a producer – they are all making TV, as well. They’re all developing TV, they all have ambitions for TV, or they’re knee deep in the business already. And the light bulb goes off when we mention we are in TV already, and we plan to align those things much more closely. And it’s sort of like, ‘Oh, we had no idea you were doing that?’ Well, it’s time to put an end to that.”
The Telepool and Global Screen team can also draw on Frouman’s 20 years of experience in the media industry. He joined the company a decade after first launching and subsequently serving as chairman and CEO of Red Arrow Studios, a leading production and distribution group with more than 20 production companies worldwide. During that time, he was also on the executive board at leading German broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE, where he led the group’s global production and broadcast TV divisions. Previously, he was a director at Saban Capital Group, a media-focused private equity firm in Los Angeles, and was part of the transaction team that led the 2003 acquisition of ProsiebenSat.1.
“With Jan’s huge experience from building up more than 20 production companies worldwide for Red Arrow Studios, we now can really kick-off in the segment of co-development and co-production. His proven track record is a great chance for our company, and now it is the right moment to start taking advantage from it,” Weber says.
“Inside Global Screen and Telepool, co-production and co-development will be handled by Ulrike Schröder and Dana Höfinger. Both come from our acquisitions department and they are highly experienced and well-connected colleagues,” Weber adds.
Weber says that the company is willing to consider projects in almost any genre as long as it is of a high quality and has a story “that can travel.”
The company has already attached itself to three projects at an early stage as part of its new strategy.
The first is political thriller series “Hinterland,” which is in development with Ringel Film. In the show, a former neo-Nazi is sent back to the far-right scene as an informer in order to find the mysterious head of an extremist network. This hunt confronts him with the dark chapters of his past life: his unstable brother, an archaic world full of hate, and his own struggle for strength and security.
The director-creator is Sven Bohse, whose credits include TV ratings successes “Ku’damm 56,” “Ku’damm 59” and “Dark Woods,” which Global Screen sold worldwide. The producer is Gian-Piero Ringel, whose credits include the Oscar winner “Pina,” “Everything Will Be Fine” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Ringel and Bohse presented “Hinterland” to potential partners this week during the European Film Market’s Co-Pro Series program. Shooting is planned for May 2022.
The second project is the 10-part historical family saga “Storm,” which is in development with Summerstorm Ent. and Gaumont. Based on an idea by Marco Kreuzpaintner and Gabriela Bacher, the series will be written by the team behind “4 Blocks” and “You Are Wanted”: Hanno Hackfort, Richard Kropf and Bob Konrad. The producer is Gabriela Bacher, whose credits include “The Aspern Papers,” “Endless,” “Siberia,” “Krabat” and “What a Man.”
The series follows the events of Germany’s March Revolution of 1848 via the story of one family. It focuses on two brothers, Carl, a law student and passionate supporter of the revolution, and Gustav, a proud officer in the Prussian Army, who bring the conflicts of the street into the home of the aristocratic Silesian von Breckow family. The two men are polar opposites, who view each other with suspicion. They are torn between brotherly love and a hatred born of their conflicting political positions. While for a time the revolution is triumphant, this conflict threatens to tear the family apart.
The third project is the English-language animated feature film “Out of Frame” (a working title), which is in development with Ulysses Films and Preamble Media. It centers on the shaggy stray Mimi and the spoiled art museum dog Harold, who discover that all of the animals in the paintings of the museum have gone missing. Harold has to find those missing animals and bring them back by sunrise, or his beloved master will go to jail for the destruction of the paintings. When they accidently fall into one of the paintings, a “perilous and hilarious adventure” inside the paintings’ worlds begins.
Ulysses produced the “Ooops!,” “Niko” and “Luis and the Aliens” franchises, as well as “The Amazing Maurice,” all of which Global Screen distributed.
Frouman also refers to Telepool’s relationship with Will Smith and his L.A. company Westbrook. Frouman serves as a senior advisor at Westbrook, providing strategic direction on its global expansion through content company investments and partnerships.
Telepool and Westbrook are “already deep in co-development,” he says. “We’re really putting skin in the game.” He adds: “We’re getting behind projects that Westbrook is getting behind as a studio, which is clearly going to produce a different type of series to those we may had access to historically. And I just think that’s going to round us out in a much different way.”
As the company will be boarding projects early on, many of them will not have an anchor commissioner – whether it is a broadcaster or platform, or other licensing partner – attached, but Telepool and Global Screen will be able to assist with that. “We are open to saying, okay, let us work with you to shape this. Figure out how the package looks best, and then take it out selectively to find that one or those two anchor partners,” Frouman says.
Global streaming giants will, of course, be a potential buyer of the content Telepool backs. The question is: “What’s the commercial logic of a streaming deal versus a multi-territory, piece-by-piece deal, but I think every leading distributor or producer thinks this through each time, and you find out what works best for that project,” Frouman says.
“We offer – as I think any capable co-producer would – optionality. Let us get in partnership with you to champion a project. And then we will collectively map out the best commercial route for the project that also serves the creative ambitions.”