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Veteran media executive Yoko Higuchi-Zitzmann took over as CEO of Telepool in January, barely a year after Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook took full control, in December 2021, of the German rights giant.
The appointment was a bit of a coup. The Japan-born, Germany-educated Higuchi-Zitzmann has more than a quarter century of experience in some of Europe’s biggest media companies. She was an acquisitions exec for Constantin Film — scoring Olivier Dahan’s Oscar winner La Vie En Rose for the German market among other deals — and producer at renowned German groups Ziegler Cinema — where she delivered sleeper hit My Blind Date With Life, a romantic comedy that earned more than $5 million at the German box office for distributor StudioCanal — and Studio Hamburg, where her hits included Herzogpark, a Desperate Housewives-style series for leading German network RTL. She joined Telepool from Matthias Schweighöfer’s production outfit Pantaleon Films (Army of Thieves), where she was managing director.
Telepool has been a mainstay of the German and European industry for decades — the Munich-based production, sales and distribution group celebrated its 60th anniversary last month — and Higuchi-Zitzmann inherits a well-oiled machine. The company’s international film sales and TV distribution arm, Global Screen, headed by Julia Weber, has international success with everything from animated and children’s titles — The Amazing Maurice, School of Magical Animals — and action thrillers (Don’t. Get. Out! from Dogs of Berlin director Christian Alvart). In Germany, Telepool’s licensing and theatrical distribution operations, led by Julia Müntefering and Matthias Remmele respectively, oversee a massive German rights library whose recent additions include Will Smith’s Westbrook-produced feature King Richard and Millennium Media’s upcoming Hellboy reboot The Crooked Man. Telepool also runs a home entertainment division under its EuroVision label, led by Daniela Pander and Kevin McDonald, and a Swiss TV licensing business run by Philippe van Doornick.
But it’s in production where Higuchi-Zitzmann wants to make her mark. “We plan to move into production, we’re in the unique position as a German company that is a fully-owned subsidiary of a strong American production company,” she says, “that gives us amazing synergies to do international productions.”
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of her first Cannes market as Telepool boss, Higuchi-Zitzmann outlined her company’s strategy for the future, explained her combination of German and Japanese executive techniques, and
How did you get into this business, did your family have a media background?
No, I come from a family where everyone is a lawyer, a manager, or a doctor. That’s why I first studied law, because in our family you either study medicine or law, that’s it. But I always knew, even as a child, that I wanted to be in film. I was always my passion. As a kid first with Steven Spielberg movies, and then, in my teenage years, I went through an extreme art house phase, I only watch French films. Later, when did acquisitions for Constantin Film, I started to lean into a more commercial, audience-oriented cinema. Now my tastes are totally mixed. I like anything that’s entertaining, anything that excites me emotionally.
So first, the question I’m asking everyone in Cannes this year: What impact do you think the Hollywood writers strike will have on the business at the market?
I don’t see any immediate effect. We are looking at some great projects at the market, which of course were already finished scripts or finished projects, done before the strike. I think you’re not going to see the impact until later in the cycle, probably at AFM. But the impact will be felt then. Like everyone, we want the strike to end as soon as possible. Creatives are at the heart of our business, they always come first for us.
What’s your general take on the Cannes market this year?
We all got through the COVID crisis together, in the last two years, we’ve seen a lot of good projects coming through. I’ve got the feeling that the market is starting to heat up again. Of course, we also look to get the really top titles in every market but for Germany, because it is so competitive, that means buying at the pre-sale level. We are even getting in at the development stage, with our deal with Millennium [announced last November] that will see us get involved financially very early on, at the script development stage, where not all the elements are in place so that we get the rights to big, American star-studded projects as early as possible. Our first co-development project will be The Crooked Man, part of the Hellboy franchise, directed by Brian Taylor, who did Crank, and featuring Deadpool 2 actor Jack Kesy. We’ll be announcing other projects soon.
What’s the strategy behind the Millennium deal for Telepool?
The strategy is that we take all the German-language rights, with the intention of bringing these films into theaters ourselves — we have a booking and billing deal with Paramount — or our partners, and then licensing them across all German-speaking countries. We have long-standing contacts with the German free TV broadcasters, but also with the streamers, and we also have our own home entertainment house through EuroVideo, which not only releases on DVD and BluRay but also licenses digitally across all platforms.
How important is a theatrical release for overall performance these days?
The main source of revenue comes from ancillaries: free TV, pay TV, and streaming. It used to be that ancillary revenue was very, very closely linked to cinema success. 20 years ago, when I started in the industry, cinema ruled supreme. This was before Netflix. Things have obviously changed but cinema is important. We have the Has Fallen franchise and the fact that those films screened in cinemas raises viewers’ perception of them. People noticed it, and it makes them more likely, even if they didn’t catch the film in theaters, to watch it later on a streaming platform.
But box office ambitions have adjusted. It’s no longer the case that we’re hoping for 1 million admissions for every commercial film we release, which used to be the benchmark for a hit in Germany. Now, especially after corona, we have more modest expectations. We’re happy when a film gets 300,000 or 500,000 admissions. But a theatrical release is still helpful, because it boosts the overall value of a film, and raises it about the level of being “just” a home entertainment title. But home entertainment is better than its reputation. A lot of people think it’s dead and gone, but we still do very good business in home entertainment. Of course, the DVD business is declining more and more, but digital sell-through is strong. On one of our titles — Serial Bad Weddings 3, part of a very successful French comedy franchise — we did more than 250,000 downloads in the first two weeks, which are very good numbers for us.
The one area where Telepool is not traditionally very strong has been production. Given your background, I expect you want to change that.
We want to use it to go into production more. We’ve begun our first co-production, which will be shooting in the fall in Germany: Don’t. Get. Out! 2, the sequel to the first film, from Christian Alvert, which young German filmmaker Tini Tüllmann will direct. We had the first film just as a sales title and it was a huge success, we licensed it all over the world. So for the sequel, we’re getting involved as a co-producer with Alvert’s Syrreal Entertainment, so we can be much more involved creatively, as well as financially. Co-productions are the first step for us. We are in a unique position, being a German company that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a strong American production company, namely Westbrook. We are looking to cooperate with them. So if I option a German bestseller that could have an international setting, and would make sense to shoot in English, I can set it up with Westbrook right away. Longer-term, we want to be developers and lead producers on our own projects. We’ll be setting up an in-house production department here next year.
How closely do you work with Westbrook?
I speak with my production colleagues in Los Angeles every week, with the head of productions, with all the departments: Cinema, series, fictional formats, digital formats, etc. Together, we are trying to find projects where we can use the synergies of the company. Do they have something that would make sense to set up as an international production? Do I have a great project, from my network of authors and showrunners in Germany and Europe, which would work as a project for Westbrook?
What sort of projects are you looking to do?
Commercial projects, ideally with a strong German creative lead, which can be well positioned internationally in terms of sales. We’re not limiting ourselves, we could also do a commercial art house film that would open in cinemas and sell to public broadcasters. We’re looking at series as well. I see great international potential in sophisticated, high-gloss crime series. English productions are a focus but I think a film like All Quiet on the Western Front had taken German commercial arthouse to a new level, showing a German-language film can win four Oscars. I see potential in the German market, both in terms of film and series, if the productions can be made at a very high, international level. But at least 50 percent of our development projects will be in English. And everything we do has to fit into our core business of licensing and sales.
You were born in Japan but did most of your schooling in Germany. Do you feel your management style is more German or more Japanese,?
Well, my courtesy is very Japanese. I’m always very proper and polite. But I’ve learned German directness, which is not so typical in Japan. But in a business, it’s important to speak directly. As a producer or managing director, sometimes you have to say no to a project, which is not easy, but you have to be able to make those decisions. I really appreciate the very direct, straightforward approach, which is typically German. Even if I’m probably a bit more polite about it. But I think honesty is a great German quality. I have two children, my son is 14 and my daughter is 7 and they are pretty much German, they go to German school, etc. We only visit Japan on holiday. But when it comes to food, it’s all Japan. They could live on just Ramen noodles and sushi. Their cultural roots are in Germany but their stomachs are fully Japanese.
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