Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we’ll shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we take a deep dive into Federation Entertainment, the production-sales studio behind Canal Plus’ hit series The Bureau and Netflix Italian hit Baby. Founder Pascal Breton and CEO Lionel Uzan give us the lowdown on the company’s ambitions and why now is the perfect time to be in the game of creating pan-European content.
When French producer Pascal Breton launched Federation Entertainment in 2014, the veteran television executive had a hunch that the international production and distribution landscape was on the precipice of great change. The year before, he stepped down as CEO of Marathon Entertainment after 23 years, because the old model “was no longer exciting for producers.” Federation, he vowed, would anticipate market changes and respond accordingly with pan-European content that had universal themes and a strong potential to travel, the ultimate holy grail of production.
“I realized the old world of producing for traditional broadcasters was disappearing and what was really just emerging were the streaming platforms and I thought to myself, ‘we have to do something’,” Breton tells Deadline.
Breton had already enjoyed an illustrious career as one of Europe’s major figureheads in the international TV space during his time at Marathon, having produced French hits Saint Tropez, Dolmen and iconic Gallic animation Babar. He also oversaw the distribution of international hit Millenium, the Swedish six-part miniseries from crime author Stieg Larsson that first launched computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to screens. The success of the series, notably, wasn’t dependent on the U.S. market, achieving what many pan-European distribution networks had failed yet to do. It was a watershed moment for Breton, who saw opportunity with international audiences.
Federation began as a TV production-distribution studio with offices in Paris and L.A. and, in its infancy, became one of the first producers in Europe to work with Netflix back in 2014 with its political thriller Marseille, starring Gerard Depardieu, which went on to become an international hit for the streamer.
“There were only three of them in the office at the time,” recalls Breton of the Netflix meeting in L.A. “When they agreed to do Marseille, I realized that something was really happening in this space and Netflix was going to grow and ask for many more shows in France, Italy, Spain and everywhere. I knew we had to be as fast as Netflix, and we would need to prepare for the competition of the other streamers.”
He swiftly recruited former Summit board member and M6 Group film producer Lionel Uzan to help steer the company with him and build the best collective of production talents in France, Italy, Spain and beyond. For Uzan, who was tiring of the feature film business after 15 years at the movie label of French broadcaster M6, it was a no brainer.
“I felt the future of features was a bit stuck and a bit linear,” says Uzan. “There was no real disruption, everything seemed to try and stay as it was. So, when Pascal gave me the vision of the company, it was a very disruptive vision of anticipating the market, which I couldn’t see existing anywhere else. So, I quickly jumped from the tricky feature world to the more complex and ever-changing world of television.”
Nearly seven years in and Federation has established itself as one of the top indie-European players that produces, finances and distributes original content. It’s active in drama, kids and family, documentary and light entertainment space. Currently, it has 65 shows in the works for both French and international broadcasters and streamers. Its roster includes programs such as Canal Plus cult spy series The Bureau, which has five series under its belt, financial thriller Bad Banks and Netflix original hit Italian series Baby. The company is also behind Israeli thriller Blackspace, which was recently acquired by Netflix and it has a local remake of hit Israeli drama BeTipul in the works, which is being produced for Arte and is titled In Treatment.
There are no language barriers for Federation, which is also producing a raft of English-language content. There’s teen dramedy series Find Me In Paris, which was shot in Paris and aired on Hulu and spawned three seasons as well as an upcoming adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic adventure Around The World In 80 Days, starring David Tennant as explorer Phileas Fogg. Federation is co-producing that project with Slim Film + Television.
“There was no real global plan like we want to conquer the world, because that doesn’t make sense to us,” says Breton. “I’ve been in this business for 30 years and Lionel for more than 20 so we know the good producers. It was all about convincing the best and most talented producers to join Federation.”
Sourcing these international production talents has been a key driver in the company’s unwavering growth. It’s got a foothold in Hollywood after having appointed Ashley Stern, former VP of development and production at Ensemble Entertainment, to head up the company’s U.S. television arm. A few years ago, it teamed with Patrick Wachsberger, former president of Lionsgate Motion Pictures, to launch LA-based joint venture Picture Perfect Federation with an eye to develop and produce premium TV content for U.S. broadcasters and international streamers.
Shortly after the company started, Federation took a majority stake in David Michel’s Cottonwood Media, which focuses on family product for the company. The duo continued to leverage their expertise in the subsequent years to acquire a 51% stake in Nicola and Marco de Angelis’ Italian production house Fabula Pictures, the company behind Netflix’s second Italian-language original series Baby. They also did a similar deal with top Spanish execs Juan Sola, Toni Sevilla and Nacho Manubens to launch Federation Spain in July last year.
Earlier this year Federation teamed with Fred Fougea’s Boreales to launch a new premium factual label Boreales Federation. They kicked open its doors with six-hour natural history show Mediterranean, which it is co-producing with France Televisions and BBC Studios.
And it doesn’t stop there: This year Federation secured a €50M ($59.5M) investment with Montefiore to fuel the company’s international expansion. They have their sights on Belgium, Scandinavia and Israel with acquisitions in the UK and Germany both “imminent.”
These outfits, say the execs, have “total freedom” with projects and that is the key to allowing the business to flourish – giving their companies a sense of ownership as well as implicit trust.
“Of course, at times we challenge them,” says Uzan. “We help them brainstorm and maybe help on the business side, the distribution side, all of those aspects. But the truth is, at some point your producer has a hunch, a feeling on a specific project or a specific talent, and they know better. So, it’s about giving them that freedom. It’s a lot about the trust that we have for them and that they have for us.”
Empowering these independent studios, he says is one of the major distinctions between Federation versus other, more integrated media groups.
“If we had a greenlight committee, we wouldn’t be the company that we are right now,” adds Uzan.
The goal is, says Breton, to help these companies raise the level of the product and design series that not only resonate with local audiences, but have potential to travel to international markets.
“The idea is to create shows that are local that have a potential to travel,” he says, pointing to streamer’s appetites for shows that can cross markets, such as Find Me In Paris, an English-language hit on Hulu, which was co-produced with Germany’s ZDF and shot in Paris. “[That show] is hugely international. It was number three on Hulu and sold absolutely everywhere.”
For Breton and Uzan, Federation has no limits. They’re encouraged by the health of the marketplace and the strong ties they have been able to make with global producers and distributors. The current climate, they say, is fertile ground for them and their network of producers to make a breadth of content that wasn’t always possible for the European producer in the past.
Breton points to an upcoming adaptation of Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time, which the company is turning into a TV series with Guillaume Gallienne, the French filmmaker behind Me, Myself and Mum.
“This was a project that we would never have had before as it’s almost impossible to adapt Proust for a TV series,” he notes. “But now we are working on this series and people are really looking forward to it. There is no limit in the content at the moment and even in the format. You can have a project and you don’t know if it’s going to be a movie, or a movie for a platform or the pilot of a series. And you can attract the best talents and best showrunners and directors. Everything is possible because there are plenty of opportunities and that is the very exciting part of our business right now.”