News | London, 05/16/2023

Creative Partnerships

Boost@Bertelsmann: Fremantle

When this year’s Academy Awards were presented in Los Angeles on March 12 and the film “All Quiet on the Western Front” by German director Edward Berger won no fewer than four trophies, Christian Vesper was cheering along. Vesper is CEO of Global Drama at the RTL Group subsidiary Fremantle, which means he oversees all of its fictional series and films, known collectively as “Drama” productions. He also has direct oversight of Fremantle’s scripted labels including Miso Film (“Face to Face”), Wildside (“My Brilliant Friend”), The Apartment (“Bones and All”), Element Pictures (“Normal People”), Lux Vide (“Medici”), Dancing Ledge Productions (“The Salisbury Poisonings”) and Passenger (“This England”).

A few weeks earlier, in early February, Vesper had signed a two-year contract with the award-winning director and his production company Nine Hours, under which Fremantle is Berger’s partner for all new TV projects. In the past, Edward Berger had already enjoyed international success with series such as “Deutschland 83” (UFA Fiction), “The Terror,” and “Patrick Melrose.” In an interview, Vesper talks about the importance for Fremantle of its partnerships with Berger and other creatives such as the well-known actress Angelina Jolie. 

Mr. Vesper, how important are collaborations with individual top creatives for Fremantle? 

Christian Vesper: They are incredibly important. At its core, Fremantle’s Drama business is about creativity and storytelling. Bertelsmann’s Boost strategy helps Fremantle deliver projects that people want to see and buy. Since I joined Fremantle seven years ago, we have consistently found that creative talent is what makes us grow and what makes us run. Good examples of this are Fremantle’s internationally successful productions such as “My Brilliant Friend,” “The Young Pope,” and “The Responder.” They were only possible thanks to the top-class talent in front of and behind the camera: filmmakers, screenwriters, directors. Talents like Paolo Sorrentino, Neil Cross, Luca Guadagnino, and Martin Freeman. Because TV series and movies or feature films are not standardized products, behind the success of each project is the vision of an artist. Our business is to work with our producers to find these artists and convince them to work with us and our producers. By the way, I see our producers as just as much part of our creative talent. Building relationships with creatives and creating an environment where they can develop is quite essential to our work. The market for fictional series and film productions today is incredibly competitive, especially in television. Whether you manage to secure funding for a new drama project and then get it made depends very much on the talent you can bring on board that project. If they are the people the networks want to see at that point, then you’re a big step ahead.  

And how do you convince this talent to work with Fremantle?


A mix of factors comes into play here. Another reason why creatives are so hugely important for Fremantle is that talent attracts talent. If they have good things to say about working with Fremantle, and if it’s clear that we’re helping them make their projects happen, then word gets around and leads to more talent wanting to work with us. That’s exactly what has happened over the past few years. It wasn’t so easy at the beginning of my time at Fremantle; one of the first creatives I was able to attract to Fremantle was Pablo Larraín, screenwriter and director of successful films like “Jackie,” about Jackie Kennedy, and “Spencer,” about Princess Diana. I knew him before, but it took some time to convince him to work with Fremantle. However, when he saw that our producers like Wildside were working with directors such as Paolo Sorrentino, he realized that he would be in good company. So personal relationships are extremely important to our business, and all of our top management cultivates these kinds of relationships with creative talent.

Another point is that we have a proven record of success. The resources made available as part of Boost, have enabled us to invest in supporting the vision of talent that helps us to maintain that record of success.

I also believe that we and the creatives we work with have similar ideas about how things should be done, we all value the hustle needed to produce. We’re a very entrepreneurial company with flat hierarchies and a mindset focused on supporting our creatives. Filmmakers, screenwriters, directors, producers, they all want to get stuff made, and at Fremantle we’re always asking how we can help them do that.

And finally, our global presence makes us interesting. We can deploy resources all over the world and distribute our productions internationally. That reach, and our skill at execution, is starting to resonate with the talent ecosystem. 

Fremantle has signed partnerships with many creatives in recent years. Probably the most famous among them is actress Angelina Jolie. How did that come about? 

In our industry, as in other creative industries, there is a business ecosystem comprised of agents, managers, lawyers, studios and networks. We all talk to each other a lot. Fremantle is now considered an experienced partner, willing and able to provide enough resources for challenging projects, so we’re getting more and more offers in that direction as well. In the case of Angelina Jolie, the contact was made through Lorenzo De Maio of De Maio Entertainment, whose contacts as a consultant have already helped us with a number of deals. Angelina Jolie is represented by the agency Lorenzo De Maio used to work for. That agency approached us on his recommendation. Sometimes the timing just happens to be right. Angelina Jolie is at a point in her career where it’s increasingly important for her to take control of her projects and the stories she wants to tell. And she has the profile and market presence to make that happen. It immediately looked like a good combination to us. One element of our deal that someone like Angelina values is access to our top management, and not only is she in regular touch with Lorenzo and me, she also has access to execs such as Jennifer Mullin and Andrea Scrosati – a key feature of Fremantle is our openness and availability. Our whole business is essentially based on the exchange of ideas. After that, of course, agents and lawyers discuss the terms in the background, but before that can happen, there has to be a good fit on a personal level, too. 

What exactly can Fremantle offer a star like Angelina Jolie?


In particular, Angelina Jolie found our track record with top directing talent very attractive. The opportunity to work with high-profile filmmakers like Luca Guadagnino, Michael Winterbottom, and Alice Rohrwacher appealed to her. It showed her that we were the right partner for someone with her ambitions. Because on the one hand she wants to tell important stories, but on the other hand she also wants to be able to shoot entertaining action films like “Salt.” Fremantle is able to support Angelina’s ambitions in many ways – either to help set up a big action project or to be more flexible, and to focus on smaller projects that might not be worth it for the big studios, but are for us. 

Please tell us a little more about your first joint projects with Angelina Jolie.

Our first joint project with her was the production of the film “Without Blood” in Rome last year. She’s in the process of editing it, so not many people have seen it yet. But I can say that it’s a really beautiful film and very personal to her. One of our producers is also involved in the production of “Maria,” a film by Pablo Larraín about the life of the famous opera singer Maria Callas. Angelina Jolie as Maria Callas; I can hardly imagine anything more glamorous. 

And how did the contract with director Edward Berger come about?

I’ve actually known Edward since he filmed “Deutschland 83.” I was responsible for the broadcast of the series on Sundance TV in the U.S. at the time. That was a really major success for a German-language project in the U.S. I met Edward in June 2015 at a Goethe Institute event in New York, where the series was first presented. Since then, we’ve stayed in contact, even after I moved to Fremantle. We actually talked about the TV deal that we announced this February on and off over the years. After Edward considered all the options for his TV projects, Fremantle ultimately made the cut. He does his movies with Netflix and his TV productions with us – he basically concluded that he had the best experience with these two companies, and that their profile makes them the best partners for him. Edward is exactly the kind of creative we want to work with. Wildside is currently working on his latest film in Italy: “Conclave” based on Robert Harris’s bestseller. Here we are a “service producer,” so we didn’t help develop the script, but are doing a lot of the actual producing work. Now that filming in Rome is over, and after the Academy Awards, Edward and his team at Nine Hours are working with Fremantle on developing his TV slate. 

Fremantle got big mainly with popular shows like “Idols” and “Got Talent.” How important is Global Drama for Fremantle today? 

Of course, if you ask me, it’s very important! (laughs). But seriously, Fremantle has put a lot of energy and time into building its own Drama business over the past few years. The company made some really smart investments in production companies and then actively supported those producers. Drama now accounts for a much larger share of revenues than it did seven years ago. Last year alone, we produced 17 films and 86 series in this area. Drama is now a substantial part of our business and continues to grow. The strategy behind this is to diversify Fremantle’s business. The Drama business is different from the entertainment show business in many ways. The pace is different, the margins are different, and the talent is different. But bringing both together under one umbrella makes us a major, interesting player in the market. On the one hand, we produce 100 episodes of “Indian Idol,” and on the other hand, we win the Jury Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival. I don’t think there’s any other company that can do the combination of TV, film and entertainment as well as Fremantle does it. 

In contrast to the past, Fremantle is also becoming much more financially involved in film and series productions. Doesn’t this involve a high entrepreneurial risk?


I would call it smart risk. We invest in creative talent and companies that have demonstrated success. However, the process requires patience. On average, it takes between 18 and 24 months to realize a series or film. It’s a lengthy process, and of course there’s an entrepreneurial risk associated with that. You basically have to be able to predict what content viewers and networks will want at a later date. Our business is highly dependent on time and the tastes of the audience – that’s what makes it so special.  


In an interview a few years ago, one of Fremantle’s producers, Wildside CEO Lorenzo Mieli, spoke of a “golden age of TV production” heralded by the rise of streaming services. Are we still in this “golden age”?

I believe that this golden age is still happening, but it is a golden age that demands much more discipline. Competition has become much tougher. Broadcasters and streamers have become much more cautious, they want to make sure they make the right decisions. So as a producer, delivering quality is more important than ever. In all the genres that Fremantle’s production companies cover, from commercial fiction to arthouse films, it’s always about delivering the best result within the genre. That’s what the market demands today, and fortunately, that’s what we can deliver. 

If it were up to you: Which other creatives would you like to work with and what kind of projects would you like to realize in the future? 

We work with a lot of really great creative people. But I would love to do more with screenwriter Steven Knight, who is working on “Ferrari” with The Apartment for Apple, and is the writer behind productions like “Peaky Blinders”, “Spencer” and now “Maria.” He’s just at home in so many genres and can tell stories from all different perspectives, which is remarkable. I would also love to work with some of the great directors from Asia one day, like Wong Kar-wai from Hong Kong. And I’d love to do a big, glossy, Reese Witherspoon-style melodrama at some point, something along the lines of “Big Little Lies.” Something like that is still on our list. For new projects, we have an in-house literary agent who is constantly on the lookout for suitable books to adapt. Of course, we also benefit from our connection to the Group’s sister company Penguin Random House; it helps us understand what’s interesting at the moment, who the big authors are. And we can explore Penguin Random House’s incredibly diverse catalog. Also, coming full circle, Bertelsmann’s other creative divisions, especially Penguin Random House and BMG, make us even more interesting to creative talent. That’s a pretty impressive global creative footprint Bertelsmann possesses.