Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we’re speaking to Romain Bessi, CEO of French group Newen Studios. The company, which is producing Liaison, the first English and French language original for Apple TV+, is ramping up its global ambitions and Bessi takes us through the overall strategy.
When French media giant TF1 Group was eyeing a complete takeover of Versailles producer Newen Studios in 2017 after buying a 70% stake a few years prior, the company knew it had to line up an exec that would transform the French-centric company into an international operation capable of meeting the demands of the ever-changing content market. Step in Romain Bessi.
The well-respected Bessi had just come off of a near-decade long-stint at Studiocanal, which at the time was considered the major success story of the Vivendi-owned Canal Plus Group. As COO there, Bessi was the driver behind that pan-European giant’s most significant deals including steering the €150M ($164M) slate financing deal with Anton Capital Entertainment as well as the acquisition of Germany’s Tandem Communications and its equity stake in 3D company nWave. These deals were all paramount in transforming that French-centric company into an international behemoth spanning across France, the UK, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, ultimately turning Paddington into a billion-dollar global franchise.
“It was pretty clear that TF1 wanted me to do something similar,” Bessi tells Deadline in a rare interview from his Paris office. “The goalposts here are different in that Newen is a pure production player that is diversified in terms of content. That is something that is really important to us.”
Since Bessi joined Newen in 2018 the company has mushroomed from a Gallic-focused and drama-heavy public service content producer to having a presence in eight countries with more than 40 labels including: Newen France in France; Newen Connect (its distribution arm) and TF1 Studio in France and the UK; Reel One in Canada, the UK and the U.S.; iZen in Spain and the UK; De Mensen in Belgium; Tuvalu in the Netherlands; Blue Spirit in France and Canada; Ringside Studios in the UK; and Flare Film in Germany.
The company is fast becoming one of the most dynamic players in the global content game with a diversified mix of genres and talents. It’s producing series such as Vincent Cassel and Eva Green thriller Liaison, the first English and French language original from Apple TV+, eight-part historical drama Marie Antoinette from The Favourite writer Deborah Davis for Canal Plus in France and its German thriller Funeral For A Dog, based on Thomas Pletzinger’s novel of the same name scored well with audiences and critics.
Newen is also a strong player in the European daily soaps genre, something Bessi is “very proud” of with French series Ici Tout Commence delivering strong ratings on TF1 in France and Belgian series Lisa launching on VTM Belgium earlier this year.
Bessi, who was upped from managing director to CEO of Newen in January, has always seen opportunities outside of his local borders. Born from parents who both worked in the public entertainment sector, Bessi began his career at Ernst & Young after graduating from France’s prestigious international Neoma Business School. There, he found himself drawn to assignments in the audio-visual sector.
He joined Canal Plus Group in 1997 to work as management controller for pay-tv channel Canal+ before he was appointed financial director of Sport+, where he controlled international negotiations for sports rights. After stints as financial director at Canal+ Nordic in Sweden, Canal+SA and Canal+ Group edition, he moved over to Studiocanal in 2007 where he helped spearhead the company’s international growth. In 2017, he was hired by TF1 for a year before he began building out Newen’s international footprint and diversifying its productions.
It’s clear that Bessi is a man who delivers: In 2021, after acquiring a majority stake in German production company Flare Films and the acquisition of Spanish outfit iZen, activities outside of France accounted for 47% of Newen’s total revenue.
For the approachable and enthusiastic internationalist, the strategy is simple: to align with like-minded companies in key European markets that Newen can support through its rich library of IPs, financial muscle and its experienced team while, in turn, diversifying Newen’s portfolio.
“We try to bring additional tools to companies so that they are able to do things that they couldn’t do before,” says Bessi of the strategy in acquiring and partnering with labels. “But the goal is, of course, to make sure that they can also continue to do things they could do before.”
It’s a very organic approach that is unspecific in terms of structures for its companies. Newen, Bessi notes, is nimble enough to be open to any kind of structure, whether it’s majority stakes, minority stakes or entire acquisitions of companies. Newen backs these companies when they need it through business or legal affairs or through Newen Connect.
“It’s more about making sure that the person thinks that together we can do things that are bigger than what he could do on his own and if the person is really convinced about that, then it’s about finding a structure that aligns interest.”
While the goal was to create a pan-European production hub, Newen did not shackle itself to this approach when in 2019 it took a majority stake in Tom Berry’s Reel One, the Canadian outfit behind the series Detective McLean. Newen saw an interesting opportunity to ramp up its English-language TV movie slate and exploit European IP in the U.S, Canada and the UK as, at the time, Reel One generated 90% of its revenue outside of Canada.
“It was an interesting model for us as they were producing English-speaking movies that you would see on Lifetime in the U.S. or TF1 in France,” he says. “It was an opportunity to really diversify our portfolio.”
Since the deal, Reel One has tripled its production activity and has been working with Newen’s Belgian outfit De Mensen on an English-language remake of drama series Team Chocolate (Tygat Chocolate). Last year, Lifetime parent A&E Networks took a 35% stake in the company.
For its collective of producers, Newen offers an extensive library of more than 6,000 hours and 1,000 films, giving them access to a wide range of IPs. In 2020, Newen appointed Rodolphe Buet, a former colleague of Bessi’s at Studiocanal, to head up its distribution operation and bring together Newen Connect and TF1 Studio’s activities. Its companies, says Bessi, are regularly updated about formats and films that could be exploited for local remakes.
Bessi describes creating opportunities for these creative synergies as more of a “Shengen approach to content.”
“It’s about making IPs available to everybody, facilitating co-productions, bringing some gap-funding for bigger projects and more. Our companies are still independent, but they have opportunities to do things together if they want and we try to facilitate that.”
Earlier this year, financier Anton increased its investment in Newen by 40% to €50M ($54.5M). The extension of the agreement came after two year’s worth of Anton investment in which Newen has backed the likes of OCS’ The Opera, France Télévision’s/RTBF/ARD’s Crossroads and VRT/Arte’s Lost Luggage. Newen’s upcoming documentary on fashion designer John Galliano from Whitney director Kevin Macdonald is also included in the new extension.
“It’s a risky business and in a risky business you want to share the risk,” says Bessi of the deal. “It’s about sharing the distribution and investments and of course they share the profits as well, but Anton are the trustees. They don’t interfere creatively or in the selection of content.”
Moving forward, Bessi says the next steps are to move into Italy and expand further into Scandinavia (the company currently only operates within Denmark). Then, he says, it becomes more about growing within its existing territories.
“The trends of the last few years have shown that local is actually the new international,” he says, adding that the current climate is “very strong for local producers.”
“Local players want local content that makes sense for local regions, but the platforms now also want local content,” he says. “There are many more producers in the market right now, which makes it a bit complex but it’s a buoyant market and it keeps changing all the time. What is interesting is the fact that the streamers want local content but also most of them have local organizations. So now you’re talking about a French project with a French person in a French market and it happens to be that they work for a global player.”
His main concern, however, is the health of the public sector and traditional broadcasters, something he feels as an integral part in ensuring diverse and creative stories.
“We don’t want all of the traditional players to disappear,” he says. “I know it’s challenging, and they keep fighting and they find new ways to reach audiences but, of course, territory by territory they don’t have the power that the global players have. So, as a local player, I want to make sure that I keep working with the public service in ten years as well as the Netflixes and Amazons of the world. That is really the key to preserving this competition, which is very important for creativity because it opens up different sorts of opportunities for producers.”
He adds, “There’s no such thing as ‘the European way of doing things’ but there is a common culture.” Even if we speak English, it’s not enough. We must adapt to the different cultures and respect the different cultures to make things work. It’s not about the French way of doing things or an English way of doing things, it’s about trying to find a middle way, which is really the key.”
This week’s edition of Deadline’s International Disruptors is presented by Guillotine Vodka.
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