Cannes 2012: Senator Entertainment CEO Helge Sasse on His Company's Comeback (Q&A)

Helge Sasse P 2012

The savvy exec discusses the success of "Intouchables" and partnering with best-selling author Nicholas Sparks.

Risk-adverse is not a term you’d use to describe Helge Sasse, CEO of German indie Senator Entertainment. Since taking over the insolvent Senator, together with producer Marco Weber, back in 2005, Sasse has brought the distributor-producer to the edge more than once. But the financial wizard has always managed to re-structure and re-finance the company to keep Senator afloat.

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It wasn’t until last year, however, that the new Senator had its first bone-fide box office hit with The King’s Speech and signed its biggest U.S. deal — an output arrangement with Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media. This year, Senator had its first blockbuster with the French comedy The Intouchables, which has earned more than $75 million for Senator, out-grossing the last installment of the Harry Potter franchise in Germany. Sasse sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about how Intouchables’ success has changed Senator, his future strategy and why the company’s roller-coaster finances are a thing of the past.

The Hollywood Reporter: Is it fair to say Intouchables saved Senator?

Helge Sasse: Intouchables didn’t save the company. We had a big hit already last year with The King’s Speech and all the elements of our restructuring were in place beforehand. The Relativity deal pre-dates the Intouchables release. We refinanced our debt last year, before the film came out. So we were already on our way. What the incredible success of  Intouchables does is allow us to move a lot more quickly with our plans and it also gives us more breathing room. I don’t have to focus on the day-to-day survival of the company but can think more long-term strategy.

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THR: Has the film’s huge success had an impact on how Senator is perceived?

Sasse: Well, on a practical side, Intouchables showed that, as a distributor, we can handle a really big release. The film sold more than 8 million tickets in Germany, with a box office of more than $75 million. It is really a tribute to our team. It’s rare that an art house distributor can make that step up and handle a big film. But we did it with King’s Speech and then, to an even greater degree, with Intouchables.

THR: You are expanding quickly on the back of your success. How big do you want to get?

Sasse: We plan to move from releasing around 17-18 films this year to 25 next year and then to around 30 a year. It depends a bit on how many films we get from Relativity. If we get 10 films a year, that alone would make us one of the biggest indies in Germany and bigger than some of the smallest studios.

By 2014 our plan is to release around 30 films a year. 8-10 as in-house or co-productions, 8-10 European acquisitions and 10-12 U.S. films, most of which will come from the Relativity deal.

So far this year, thanks to Intouchables, we are the number one distributor in Germany. We’ll likely slip behind the studios by year’s end. Though there’s a good chance we’ll be the number one independent in Germany this year. After all, we still have a few big films left to come. I’m particularly optimistic about the chances of Paul Rudd’s Our Idiot Brother and the surfer film Mavericks with Gerard Butler.

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THR: What impact is taking the step up going to have on the company structurally?

Sasse: We will grow a bit but structurally not much is going to change. We are growing our production side of the business — co-productions and in-house productions, with our production outlets in Berlin, Cologne and Munich. We’ve taken a 50 percent stake in Bavaria Pictures (along with co-owner Bavaria Film), which produced Mr. Morgan’s Last Love with Michael Caine and Death of A Superhero (starring Andy Serkis) and will be doing the German-Irish co-production Run and Jump. Bavaria Pictures gives us access to Bavaria Film’s production infrastructure and sales network but we aren’t giving up our own local operations. For bigger complex productions, it might make sense to work together.

THR: What’s coming up on the production side from Senator?

Sasse: Our Berlin operation has joined Amusement Park and Potboiler Productions’ John le Carre adaptation A Most Wanted Man which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and directed by Anton Corbijn. FilmNation is selling it here in Cannes. And we’re moving forward with the filming of the Hermann Hesse classic Narcissus and Goldmund, which we will be doing as a big, English-language production, along the lines of The Name of the Rose. And we just announced our partnership with bestselling author Nicholas Sparks, where we will co-produce German-language film adaptations of his books. The first will be The Rescue and we hope to do a series of films based on his unfilmed books.

THR: Would any of this have been possible without Intouchables?

Sasse: All this was in planning before Intouchables, but of course this kind of huge success — it’s really once-in-a-lifetime — does have a psychological effect. It gets our partners excited, it gets us excited about what we can do. It’s made everything go faster.
THR: Since you took over Senator in 2005, it feels like the company has been on an economic rollercoaster. Have things got a bit calmer now?

Sasse: The economic rollercoaster that Senator has been on is over. We are going to issue new shares in the second quarter, a move which will further shore up our finances. We will have a comfortable financial base to take us through to at least 2015. So I can step back from handling the day-to-day crisis and work on the future.