MIPTV: Beta Film CEO Jan Mojto on 'Borgia,' Netflix and Why He'll Never Sell Out

Jan Mojto

Heading into his 26th MIPTV market, the veteran exec sees financing and the digital revolution as the biggest challenges facing the global TV industry.

CANNES - As deputy CEO at German rights giant Kirch Group and head of his own production and rights company Beta Film, Jan Mojto has seen, and help shape, some of the greatest transformations in the international television business over the past thirty years.

International co-productions of high-end drama series, something Mojto and Beta help pioneer, is increasingly becoming the standard model as European shingles including Gaumount International (NBC's Hannibal, Netflix's Hemlock Grove), Munich-based Tandem Communications (Crossing Lines for NBC) and Parisian group Atlantique (Netflix's Borgia, a co-production with Beta) combine financing and production know-how to deliver big budget shows outside the studio system.

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Beta has also been at the forefront of another trend: the move towards high-end local language series, with productions such as Generation War, a German war epic on the lines of HBO's Band of Brothers produced with Berlin-based teamWorx, which was a ratings hit on German public broadcaster ZDF, as well as an upcoming miniseries on the life of Adolf Hitler. On the 50th anniversary of the MIP TV market, Mojto took time to speak with The Hollywood Reporter's International Editor Scott Roxborough about how the global TV business has changed and what challenges the future holds.

The Hollywood Reporter: This is the 50th MIPTV. What number is it for you?

Jan Mojto: I first went to MIPTV in 1987, so what does that make, 26 years? If I added up all the time I spent - with MIPTV and (Fall TV market) MIPCOM, as well as the Cannes film festival 
and the classical music trade fare Midem – it's 400 nights I've spent in Cannes. It would have made more sense to buy a hotel at the start. Probably would have been a better business than TV sales.

THR: What have been the major changes to MIP TV over that time?

Jan Mojto: When I started, the public channels were the main buyers. Then at the end of the 1980s and the early 90s there was a big breakthrough with the launch of the commercial networks in Europe and with them came an explosion of money. That's when the private jets and the big yachts arrived in Cannes. And the moguls - Robert Maxwell, Silvio Berlusconi, Leo Kirch, Rupert Murdoch - they all came to MIP. 

In the mid-90s there was the Neuer Markt, the Internet bubble, which was over quickly but the technical changes it brought with it - the digital revolution -  made non-linear television possible. The changes that started then are just now becoming a real industry.

MIP was also the showcase for new programming, but what's changed is that today the world is a fully transparent place. I remember a time when you had to transport film copies. Someone would put a copy of the film on a train from Paris to Munich - an overnight train so you'd get it ahead of the competition. That's changed. Now if there is a new show anywhere in the world, everyone knows about it instantly. In theory you get rid of markets like MIP and do everything online. But in reality, when it comes to content there is always the human, irrational element that makes a market necessary.

THR: What about the TV industry as a whole – what has been the biggest transformation over the past two decades?

Jan Mojto: The biggest transformation is the banal observation that digitalisation has changed everything. Opening the bandwidth has liberalised the markets adding more digital channels and more customer demand for product.

THR: Beta has been pushing strongly into the English-language market, co-producing series such as Borgia. What's behind this?

Jan Mojto: Two different things are coming together. One is the English-speaking market, which is larger than that for non-English productions and the second is the increased pressure that comes from this global transparency. Because we live in a time when content producers know everything about what everyone is doing, there has developed an unwritten international code of quality. If you make a show in Europe these days, you know it has to compete on the same level with an American show. The international market is setting the standard and you have to measure up to that. So with a show like Borgia while we did the entire production in Europe we shot in English and used American creative talent (including actor John Dorman and creator and showrunner Tom Fontana.)

But because we produce at that level we need the American market to cover our costs so the question isn't whether you sell to America but when you approach that market - either at the beginning when you do the financing or at the end when you have a finished show. It is much easier now to sell a finished show into the American market because it is much more fragmented now. Before, when you just had the big networks producing all their own stuff, it was tough. There were occasional international co-productions, such as the miniseries The Bible we did at the Kirch-Group, but you were very restricted in what you could do. 
Now you can go out, produce the best show you can outside the U.S., bring it to market and, amazingly, you can find a U.S. buyer for it. 

THR: What about local-language productions? Your new WWII mini-series Generation War seems a break from the more traditional historic dramas you've done in the past.

Jan Mojto: It is much more radical, more extreme, than any other historic series we have done together (with producer Nico Hofmann and his teamWorx shingle) such as The Tunnel, Dresden – The Inferno or March of Millions. The success of Generation War, Borgia or a series like Grand Hotel in Spain has opened up new possibilities on a local level. European series are beginning to resemble U.S. ones in becoming more complex, with darker, broken characters as the main characters. It's no longer so one-dimensional. When we do a WWII series in German now, we don't have to make all the Americans heroes and all the Germans villains. 

THR: What's the biggest challenge for the international industry going forward?

Jan Mojto: The biggest challenge for the future is financing. Where will we find the money to pay for these productions, which are getting bigger and more expensive. Borgia is a good example. It was the biggest financial risk I have ever taken on a show. We've finished producing the second season and it looks like it's going to pay off but that's become part of the business now. Financing has become an important part of the production process. If you want to survive you have to take on greater financial risk. Financial knowledge is not enough, though. Content and content producers have to be at the center of production. 

THR: What about the Internet and new digital distribution outlets? Aren't they bringing in new financing for production?

Jan Mojto: New distribution methods - non-linear TV - are establishing themselves but the question is when and how much of this new Internet money will flow back into production. Since the concept of Internet TV emerged, it's always been "it'll happen next year." So far it hasn't, though developments at companies like Netflix and Hulu may be starting to change that.

When commercial TV started, advertising revenue was added to the business and the business grew. When pay-TV started in Europe, subscriber revenue was added and the business grew. With the Internet, we aren't seeing any new money come in, at least not yet. 

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What I have noticed is the American capital - private equity - is pushing into our businesses. It is much, much easier to get access to this kind of financing that it was 10 years ago. The next 10 years will be about finding the right financial models. Because of course these investors want regular returns, which is understandable, but the demands of regular quarterly performance doesn't match the way the TV business works.

But the money is coming. Not a week goes by that we don't get a call from some group wanting to take a stake in our company or invest in us.  We won't sell. Our independence is extremely important to us. It's difficult to keep that independence but I think it's key to how we operate and to our success. But being independent can be a negative in a market where size does matter. Growing to a certain size but remaining independent is the big challenge.