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Cannes Creative Space: Yoko Higuchi-Zitzmann, CEO of Telepool, on the transition to production and “more modest” expectations for the box office


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 of the German rights giant in December 2021.

The appointment was a bit of a coup. Japanese-born, German-educated Higuchi-Zitzmann has over a quarter of a century of experience at some of Europe’s largest media companies. She was acquisition manager for Constantin Film and scored 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 lifea romantic comedy that grossed more than $5 million at the German box office for distributor StudioCanal — and Studio Hamburg, where she made hits, among other things Herzog Parka 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 director.

Telepool has been a mainstay of German and European industry for decades – the Munich-based manufacturing, 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, led by Julia Weber, has achieved international success with everything from animated films and children’s titles — The great Maurice, School of magical animals — and action thrillers (Do not. To get. Out! by 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 vast German rights library whose recent additions include Will Smith’s Westbrook-produced feature film. King Richard and Millennium Media is coming Hellboy Restart 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 company led by Philippe van Doornick.

But it’s in production where Higuchi-Zitzmann wants to make her mark. “We are planning to go into production, we are in the unique position of being a German company that is a wholly owned subsidiary of a strong US production company,” she says, “that gives us great synergies to do international productions.”

Speak against 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, manager or doctor. That’s why I first studied law, because in our family you study medicine or law, nothing more. But I always knew, even as a kid, that I wanted to be in the movie. I was always my passion. As a child, first with Steven Spielberg films, and then, in my teens, I went through an extreme arthouse phase, I only watch French films. Later, when I made acquisitions for Constantin Film, I started to focus on a more commercial, audience-oriented cinema. Now my tastes are totally mixed. I like anything entertaining, anything that turns me on emotionally.

So first the question I’m asking everyone at Cannes this year: what impact do you think the Hollywood writers’ strike will have on business in the marketplace?

I don’t see any direct effect. We’re looking at some great projects on the market, which of course were already finished scripts or completed projects done before the strike. I think you won’t see the impact until later in the cycle, probably at the AFM. But then the impact will be felt. Like everyone else, 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 is your overall opinion of the Cannes market this year?

We have all come through the COVID crisis together, in the past two years we have seen many good projects pass by. I feel like the market is starting to warm up again. Of course, we also try to get the really top titles in every market, except for Germany, because it’s so competitive, that means buying at presale level. We’re even getting into the development phase, with our deal with Millennium (announced last November), where we’re going to be financially involved very early on, in the script development phase, where all the elements aren’t in place yet so we can get the rights to big, American star studded projects. Our first co-development project will be The crooked manportion of the Hellboy franchise, directed by Brian Taylor, who did garland, and featured dead pool 2 actor Jack Kesy. We will announce other projects soon.

What is the strategy behind the millennium deal for Telepool?

The strategy is that we take over all German-language rights, with the intention of bringing these films to theaters ourselves – we have a booking and billing agreement with Paramount – or our partners, and then licensing them in all German-speaking countries. We have longstanding contacts with the German free TV channels, 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 for all platforms.

How important is a theatrical release to overall performance these days?

The main source of income comes from ancillary services: free TV, pay TV and streaming. Back in the day, ancillary income was very, very closely tied to cinema success. 20 years ago, when I started in the film industry, cinema reigned 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 shown in cinemas increases the perception of viewers. People took notice, and it makes them more likely, even if they didn’t see the movie in theaters, to watch it later on a streaming platform.

The Has fallen franchise, which started with Olympus has fallen in 2013, was a big money maker for Telepool

But the cash register’s ambitions have been adjusted. It is no longer the case that we hope for 1 million visitors 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 are happy when a film gets 300,000 or 500,000 visitors. But a theatrical release is still useful, as it increases the overall value of a movie and elevates it from 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’re still doing a very good home entertainment business. Sure, the DVD business is declining, but digital resale is strong. On one of our titles — Serial bad weddings 3part of a very successful French comedy franchise – we made over 250,000 downloads in the first two weeks, which is very good numbers for us.

The one area where Telepool is traditionally not very strong is manufacturing. Given your background, I expect you to want to change that.

We want to use it to go into production more. We have started our first co-production, which will be shot in Germany in the fall: Do not. To get. Out! 2, the sequel to the first film by Christian Alvert, who will direct the young German filmmaker Tini Tüllmann. We only had the first movie 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 a lot more involved both creatively and financially. Co-productions are the first step for us. We are in a unique position as a German company that is a wholly owned subsidiary of a strong US manufacturing company, Westbrook. We are looking for cooperation with them. So if I choose a German bestseller that could have an international setting and it would make sense to film in English, I can arrange that with Westbrook right away. In the longer term, we want to be developers and main producers of our own projects. Next year we will set up our own production department here.

How closely do you work with Westbrook?

I speak every week with my production colleagues in Los Angeles, with the head of productions, with all departments: cinema, series, fictional formats, digital formats, etc. Together we try to find projects where we can exploit the synergies of the company. Do they have anything that would make sense to put on as an international production? Do I have a great project, from my network of authors and showrunners in Germany and Europe, that would work as a project for Westbrook?

What kind of projects do you want to do?

Commercial projects, ideally with a strong German creative lead, that can be well positioned internationally in terms of sales. We don’t limit ourselves, we could also make a commercial arthouse film that would run in cinemas and be sold to public broadcasters. We also watch series. I see great international potential in sophisticated, high-gloss crime series. English productions are a focus, but I think a movie is fun No news from the Western Front had taken German commercial arthouse to a new level by showing that 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 must fit within our core business of licensing and sales.

You were born in Japan, but did most of your education in Germany. Do you think your leadership style is more German or more Japanese?

Well, my courtesy is very Japanese. I am always very correct and polite. But I learned German directness, which is not so typical in Japan. But in a company it is important to speak directly. As a producer or director you sometimes have to say no to a project, that’s not easy, but you have to be able to make those decisions. I appreciate the very direct, uncomplicated approach, which is typically German. Even though 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 vacation. But when it comes to food, it’s all Japan. They could live on Ramen noodles and sushi alone. Their cultural roots are in Germany, but their stomachs are completely Japanese.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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