German film and TV distribution and licensing company Telepool, which is owned by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook, is moving into lead producing movies and series, its CEO Yoko Higuchi-Zitzmann tells Variety exclusively in her first interview since joining the company in January.
Munich-based Telepool is celebrating its 60th anniversary on Wednesday, and although it has a barrel-load of experience in selling, distributing, licensing, financing and co-producing movies and series, this shift into initiating and lead producing represents a significant step for the company. It also forms part of Westbrook’s broader strategy for international expansion, which – in part – lay behind its acquisition of Telepool in December 2021.
Higuchi-Zitzmann seems ideally suited to the task as she has worked for several leading German film and TV companies, giving her experience in both distribution and production. Most recently, she served as the managing director of Pantaleon Films, whose founders include German star Matthias Schweighöfer, before which she held leading roles at Studio Hamburg Production Group and Constantin Film. Her credits include RTL Television’s premium series “Herzogpark,” and StudioCanal international box office hit “My Blind Date With Life.”
Ko Yada, CEO of Westbrook, says: “We are thrilled to have found a leader who shares in our mission of connecting people through globally resonant storytelling. Yoko brings to Telepool over 25 years of experience — at some of the most respected companies in the industry — driving content production and distribution on a global scale.”
Asked how he sees Telepool and Westbrook working together in the future, he says: “As Telepool’s CEO, Yoko will work to further strengthen the bridge between the two companies, maximizing Westbrook’s presence in the global content marketplace. She’ll lead the expansion of Telepool’s development and production capabilities, and further extend Westbrook’s reach in European markets, helping us to build a leading, independent global content studio.”
Higuchi-Zitzmann sees the main advantage of being owned by Westbrook as being the “creative exchange.” She adds: “I am in production meetings every week with my excellent production colleagues at Westbrook. And it’s not only about strategy, it’s about specific projects. So, for example, if I discover a great novel in Germany, which could be something for a U.S. star, just to give you an example, I don’t have to knock at the door of the agent of a superstar, I call my colleagues, because they have direct access to the talents. So, this is a huge advantage. And also, we are exchanging know-how, creativity, scripts, ideas, and at a very high level.”
Telepool stands on five major pillars, Higuchi-Zitzmann says. The first pillar is international film sales and TV distribution through Global Screen, headed by Julia Weber. Its recent titles include movies “The Amazing Maurice,” “School of Magical Animals,” “My Sailor, My Love” and “The Conference,” and series “Davos,” which launches next week at MipTV.
The second pillar is comprised of licensing in Germany, led by Julia Müntefering, and theatrical distribution in Germany, led by Matthias Remmele. The recent theatrical release of “The Amazing Maurice” garnered more than 250,000 admissions in the territory. Telepool has recently closed a development deal with Millennium Media, with the first film set as “Hellboy” reboot “The Crooked Man,” starring “Deadpool 2” star Jack Kesy, and directed by Brian Taylor (“Crank”). These films will strengthen still further Telepool’s licensing and distribution pipeline in Germany.
The third pillar is home entertainment distribution in Germany through Telepool’s EuroVideo label, led by Daniela Pander and Kevin McDonald. EuroVideo just had a number one in Germany with crime comedy “Guglhupfgeschwader.”
The fourth pillar is the TV licensing business for Switzerland, which is led by Philippe van Doornick.
Production is the fifth pillar, which is “the most interesting in the future,” Higuchi-Zitzmann says. “We started doing co-productions a few years ago and would like to expand to include our own production together with Westbrook, which is a powerful production company. My goal as CEO, with Westbrook, is to move into more production from next year.”
Higuchi-Zitzmann says she is actively looking for projects to lead produce now. For example, one of her executives recently recommended a best-selling British novel, which could be adapted as an English-language series, and she is now pursuing the rights. At present such projects could either be produced through Westbrook, or by one of Telepool’s band of co-producing partners, but she also intends to set up a production unit within the company, which would allow it to produce films and series in-house.
Higuchi-Zitzmann identifies production as a growth area for Telepool. “By creating your own IPs and brands and scripts, you can stand out in the film and TV industry. I have a huge network of the best directors, showrunners and actors, international and in Germany, and through Westbrook I have this network also in the U.S.A., with first-class creatives. So, we are in a good position in the market to grow our co-productions and in the long run to start our own productions.”
Telepool recently signed a deal with Syrreal Entertainment to co-produce action-packed thriller “Don’t. Get. Out! 2,” following the worldwide smash they enjoyed with “Don’t. Get. Out!” The new movie will be shot this fall, with the talented young director Tini Tüllmann attached. Syrreal is headed by Christian Alvart and Sigi Kamml, the team behind the hit Netflix show “Dogs of Berlin.”
Talking about what Telepool can offer producers with strong projects who are looking for a co-producing partner, she says: “We have one of the best world distribution companies in Europe, but also we are very strong in the local market with our experienced team at German-speaking licensing. We have been in this business for 60 years, and so the advantage is all the people [in the industry] have known us for many years, and we know how to finance a project from A to Z. And many producers have good ideas but not the network we have.”
So, what attributes have allowed Telepool to survive and thrive for 60 years? “I think it is the quality of the projects and the quality of the people,” Higuchi-Zitzmann says. “It’s very simple, but you have to be consistently quality driven.”
She is keen to pay tribute to the Telepool executives who have come before her. “I wouldn’t be here with such a successful leading distribution company if I could not build on the work of my predecessors, like Dr. Thomas Weymar, André Druskeit and Jan Frouman, but also former deputy managing director Marc Gabizon,” Higuchi-Zitzmann says. “This is really important for me because I am now representing, together with [managing director] Kevin McDonald, a successful company that my colleagues have built over 60 years. So, I’m very grateful about that.”
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