Profile: Jan Mojto
The head of German rights/production giant EOS/Beta Film is making his first call of the day -- to a French co-producer of EOS' latest feature, the World War II biopic "John Rabe." The issue is the choice of arranger for the film's score and if the mix should be done in Munich or Paris.
Music, film, European history and cross-border negotiations. Mojto's in his element.
He slips easily between French, German (to his deputy across the desk) and English (for the benefit of THR) as if changing the dial on a static-free radio. Mojto speaks eight -- yes, eight -- languages fluently, and watching him work feels like attending a session at the U.N. general assembly. In French, he's charming, eloquent and a bit flirtatious. In German, clipped, all business. In English, conversational and almost colloquial.
"I change a bit with every language. You have to -- it's a way of approaching people," Mojto says, before adding: "Does that mean I have no real character?"
In this business of hustlers and backstabbers, egomaniacs, Type A screamers and oily smooth talkers, Jan Mojto stands apart. You could call him Old Europe: Educated, intelligent, courteous and self-deprecating, he seems an envoy from a more gentile world.
Old Europe is what Mojto has built his business on. The empires of Napoleon and Caesar; the horrors wrought by Hitler and Stalin; the classical operas of Verdi, Wagner and Mozart -- this is his source material.
Beta was involved in the last two foreign-language Oscar winners -- "The Counterfeiters" and "The Lives of Others" -- and can boast five nominees in the last three years, including "Mongol," Sergey Bodrov's Genghis Khan biopic, and "Katyn," Andrzej Wajda's retelling of the massacre of thousands of Polish soldiers and civilians by the Soviet army in 1940.
"History, particularly 20th century history, is the well of so many stories," he says. "German history in particular -- which is, I think, exemplary for the story of European history as a whole. Here you find Europe's great ideological struggles -- between East and West, between Communism and Fascism. What fascinates me is the very human story, the moral moment of decision between good and evil. What is it that makes one brother join the resistance while the other becomes a collaborator?"
Mojto's own biography bears the scars of his continent's history. Born in the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia in 1948, he studied literature and history and dreamed of becoming a screenwriter.
"My father was an avid amateur filmmaker and had what must have been the only working film camera in all of Czechoslovakia," Mojto recalls. "Out of the war and all the chaos that followed, he saved three things: his camera, a reel-to-reel projector and his films."
Mojto slipped under the Iron Curtain at the age of 20 and quickly abandoned his screenwriting ambitions, reasoning that he could never be a great writer in a foreign language.
While Mojto has yet to pen a script, his TV production division, EOS, has been behind some of the biggest events in European television. All told, more than 100 million viewers across the continent have tuned into EOS miniseries, including "War and Peace," "March of Millions," "Dresden" and "Operation Valkyrie."
With subsidiary Unitel, Mojto also operates one of the world's leading producers and distributors of high culture. Unitel, which has more than 1,000 hours of classical music recordings, also operates its own pay-TV channel, Classica, in Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Japan. This year it is trying its hand in film production, with operatic feature "La Boheme," directed by Robert Dornhelm and featuring star soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Rolando Villazon in the lead roles. It's a passion project for Mojto, an unabashed classical music buff.
"I've always found it better to invest your money and energy in something you believe in rather than try to make something you think the market wants," Mojto says. "I've had the incredible good fortune, or whatever it is, to have been able to make a real business out of that."
The business Mojto will be taking to MIPCOM this year is stronger than ever. The gloom and doom hanging over the world financial markets is nowhere to be seen in Oberhaching, the sleepy hamlet south of Munich where Beta has its offices. In fact, the company is expanding. On the day of THR's visit, Mojto inspects newly rented facilities needed to house Beta's swelling workforce.
Beta and its subsidiaries don't publicize their finances, but Mojto confirms his companies this year will make revenues close to "triple-digit millions of euros."
Mojto's story looked very different six years ago. On the eve of MIPTV, he resigned as deputy CEO of German television megalith KirchMedia. At 53, with nothing but a secretary and his reputation, he had to start over.
"From one day to the next, (I lost) all the external emblems of importance and power. For 20 years, I didn't have a single free second," he recalls. "KirchMedia moved forward at a speed that's impossible to imagine. I went from being thankful for every phone call that didn't come to suddenly no one calling at all. But when you've survived it, it's not bad training. In my case, it was a positive experience because the people I knew before still knew me even though I suddenly had neither money nor influence nor power."
Mojto knew what he wanted to do: produce the sort of epic TV miniseries he had made under KirchMedia -- productions like "Napoleon" and "The Bible." His timing was terrible. Event epics of the kind Mojto was looking to make are as expensive as feature films. To make matters worse, 2002 was the year the media bubble burst, leaving European banks and backers running scared from anything that smelled of entertainment.
Mojto and his new company, EOS, had two titles -- miniseries biopics of Augustus Caesar and Pope John XXIII -- that he'd set up with Italy's Lux Vide. He had enough capital for one more bet. He picked an expensive, controversial German-language project that the producers hadn't been able to sell to international buyers.
It was "The Downfall," from producer Bernd Eichinger.
"I met with Eichinger, and after I saw his energy and engagement, I thought, 'Well, it could fail spectacularly, but at least it won't be a small film,'" Mojto says. "We invested a lot of money, more than your usual (minimum guarantee), taking the initial risk in exchange for international rights. And that, really, has been our business model ever since."
"Downfall" became one of the most successful foreign-language films of all time, earning an Oscar nomination for director Oliver Hirschbiegel and taking in almost $100 million at the global boxoffice.
In 2003, just ahead of MIPCOM, Mojto took his next big gamble and bought Beta Film, the massive TV rights library of the now insolvent KirchMedia. A few months later, he beat out Herbert Kloiber of Tele Munchen Group to acquire another jewel in the Kirch crown: Unitel. Suddenly EOS, that little two-project production company, had become a rights giant with more than 15,000 hours of programming.
11:30 a.m. Mojto is meeting with Beta's managing directors.
The quartet of smart sweater-and-shirt combos looks like a troupe of bankers on casual day. Among his staff, Mojto inspires the same fierce loyalty one used to see at KirchMedia. Beta's management structure -- with its twin pairs of ambitious, competitive managing directors -- also looks cribbed from the Kirch playbook, where Mojto and Dieter Hahn tussled for years over KirchMedia's No. 2 spot. What's missing is the air of silence and suspicion that made Leo Kirch's empire seem, to outsiders at least, like the media equivalent of Opus Dei.
Another thing Beta shares with KirchMedia is its long-tail view of the market. Unitel is a prime example. The division produces between 100-150 new productions a year, mainly recordings of operas and concert performances, all in HD and the highest audio standards -- a big money loser. In the short term.
"Refinancing in the short term is impossible because the production costs are high and the market (for classical music productions) is comparatively small," Mojto admits. "But I'm convinced it will pay off in the midterm as new distribution platforms -- like mobile and VOD -- become more established. Classical music is a niche market, but it is a market that is identical worldwide. And there is no language barrier. Good music is good music everywhere. There are some Unitel productions from 40 years ago that first turned a profit 30 years later."
4:30 p.m. Mojto is holding Beta's pre-MIPCOM sales meeting.
The room is packed. The atmosphere relaxed, casual. Mojto lets his sales team do most of the talking, with only an occasional wry aside. Watching Beta's new lineup for MIP, Mojto's obviously enjoying himself.
The company is bringing more than 100 new hours of programming to the Cannes market, and its portfolio is expanding internationally. The new slate includes the Canadian series "The Border," "Heartland" and "The Wild Roses" (all CBC); CTV's critically acclaimed comedy "Robson Arms" and "Across the River to Motor City," from Chum TV; as well as Sky Italia's hit "Quo Vadis, Baby?" and American TV movies such as Hallmark's "Every Second Counts," featuring "7th Heaven" star Stephen Collins.
While competitors are consolidating or collapsing, Beta is in buy mode. At MIPCOM, the company will launch a new nonfiction division called Autentic. A joint venture with Patrick Horl, the former head of Discovery Channel Germany, the operation will supply and package high-end documentary programming, targeting specialty pay-TV and VOD outlets worldwide.
Mojto is also eyeing a number of boutique production companies to add to Beta's corporate portfolio. One of the names on his shopping list could be Munich-based Dreampool Entertainment. EOS is already partnered with Dreampool in one of its most ambitious projects: "Fashion Week" an English-language series set in the international world of haute couture. Germany's RTL and CBC in Canada are already on board for the series, which is set to start shooting next year with a first-season budget of $30 million.
"When we started (with EOS), what did we have? Nothing, nothing really," Mojto says. "And now? Well, I'll leave it to you to assess, but we have built something here."
Something Mojto -- even though Old European reserve would never let him say it -- is extremely proud of.
Jan Mojto just turned 60. This will be his 28th MIPCOM. He estimates that, together with MIPTV, he's spent a full year of his life at Cannes' Grand Hotel. Judging by the current state of Beta Film, they should block book his suite for the next 28.