Banijay CEO Marco Bassetti on Protecting Producers Against Bad Deals, Why He Bought Beyond and How to Survive a Recession (EXCLUSIVE)

Banijay Group CEO Marco Bassetti may be making a smart marketing move by delivering a Mipcom keynote on Oct. 18, but the Italian executive insists that “PR, for us, comes after.” At the first major TV market for the “Survivor” distributor since its $2.2 billion acquisition of Endemol Shine Group in 2020, Bassetti has a clear message: Producers, including Banijay, need a more equitable business model against the streamers.

“It’s the golden age of content, but I’m not sure it’s the golden age of revenue share for producers,” Bassetti tells Variety from Banijay Group’s Paris headquarters in late September. “We need to be careful if we want to continue creating value in the industry. We need to fight to allow producers to keep their model as it was before.”

That model, of course, refers to the rights and back-end revenue that keep Banijay’s 120-plus production companies around the world afloat. Bassetti’s concern is, by now, a perennial one for the international production community, but his timing is exactly right: As companies such as Netflix become accountable to Wall Street’s expectations and compete with expanding SVOD rivals, producers sitting on good shows could finally be in the catbird seat when it comes to deal negotiations.

“Sometimes, you create the next ‘Squid Game’ and you get nothing — just a little fee,” says Bassetti. “We try to avoid the model of being a producer for hire and giving all the rights to the other.” Instead, Banijay is increasingly emboldened to take bigger risks, invest more money, craft a product “that can be attractive to more than just one streamer” and retain part of the rights. (Banijay Group accounts for the period ending Dec. 31, 2020, reveal a “broad customer base” in which “no customer represented more than 10%” of the group’s consolidated revenue.)

That’s not to say, however, that the world’s biggest production outfit outside the U.S. studio system, which posted revenues of $1.6 billion in 2020, doesn’t occasionally play ball with the likes of Netflix. As Variety revealed earlier this year, distribution arm Banijay Rights, which holds the format and finished tape rights for “Black Mirror,” renewed its deal with the streaming service for Charlie Brooker’s dystopian drama. But the pact, which is still officially unconfirmed (Bassetti flashes a sheepish grin), came after almost two years of butting heads following Brooker and producing partner Annabel Jones’ exit from their then-Endemol Shine-owned production outfit House of Tomorrow.

Ultimately, Banijay’s go-to’s have been linear and pay TV partners, particularly for the format behemoths in its catalog such as “Big Brother” and “Survivor,” which recently scored huge deals in the U.K. on ITV and the BBC, respectively, and continue to sell around the world.

Another priority for Banijay is bulking up its scripted offerings, which form just 25% of its entire slate, with the vast majority being non-English language. Deals such as the company’s recent acquisitions of Sony Pictures Television Germany, “Romulus” producer Grøenlandia Group and “30 Coins” outfit Pokeepsie Films will go some way in helping create that next scripted hit, but there’s some urgency for more English-language home runs, particularly out of the U.K., now that shows such as “Peaky Blinders” have concluded.

“It’s the most important and expensive market because English-language finished tape can travel a lot, so it’s easier,” says Bassetti, who hints at a U.K. acquisition in the near future. For now, in Cannes, the company will hope that “Peaky Blinders” creator Stephen Knight’s new show “Rogue Heroes,” a dramatized account of how the Special Forces unit was formed during World War 2, brings in healthy sales.

Meanwhile, though some expected Banijay to shed some of its production entities following the Endemol Shine takeover, Bassetti confirms the business hasn’t technically cut loose a single label, but has instead integrated some companies in markets where there was overlap. That vast network also won’t stop the CEO from looking for more growth opportunities, such as acquiring the Australia-headquartered Beyond International — a move that will bring in valuable English-language unscripted shows, and add 20,000 hours to the catalog.

There are a few reasons to go Beyond, says Bassetti. First, the deal — which is still subject to regulatory approval — allows Banijay to grow into the Australian market. Beyond’s shows, such as “Mythbusters,” also introduce a unique brand of English-language factual that isn’t already present in the slate. Beyond also includes the unscripted TCB Media Rights catalog, which it bought in 2020 as TCB’s former parent company Kew Media went bankrupt.

“This is the kind of deal we love most,” says Bassetti. “They’re very solid, focused on the business and they’re able to exploit their IP.”

Of Endemol Shine’s estimate $1.9 billion debt load inherited by Banijay during the acquisition, Bassetti says the figure is now “at a totally different level” than before. “Everyone said, ‘But you embedded the debt that was in Endemol,’ and sure [we did], but at a different cost because we renewed all the contracts, and the ratings we have are totally different with the agencies than what Endemol had before.”

Crucially, this was also done before the pandemic, says Bassetti. “If it happened during COVID, we wouldn’t have been able to do that deal because the cost would have been [too much].”

At some point in the conversation, Bassetti gets a phone call from Banijay chairman Stéphane Courbit. At the time of this interview, Courbit was among the prospective buyers kicking the tires of the RTL Group-owned French commercial broadcaster M6. Ultimately, RTL decided to hang on to its controlling stake in M6 for a while longer, but when asked about M6 potentially joining the family, Bassetti opined: “I’m sure [Courbit] would do something that would create value for Banijay, as he’s done so far.”

However, the road ahead in the next year for superindies will be fraught given rising levels of inflation around the world and a looming recession — the real impact of which will only emerge in 2023. Bassetti says a “flexible cost structure” at the company, which keeps 75% of costs flexible, provides some buffers, but immovable budgets from broadcasters and streamers could prove problematic.

“You’ll have clients saying, ‘My budget has stayed the same,’ and we have to manage different costs. That’s the basic discussion we have to have with commissioners,” Bassetti explains.

More resources are to be had, says Bassetti, since the company went public earlier this year, moving into Netherlands-traded FL Entertainment, which also houses Courbit’s online gambling company Betclic. FL then merged with SPAC Pegasus Entrepreneurs.

“Now, we have such a large shareholder that they’re willing to invest money if we need it,” says Bassetti. That means, he adds with a characteristic glint in his eye, that if there is an opportunity to create more value, “we have the resources to do it.”

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