Interview with Greenlight Media managing directors Nikolaus Weil and Stefan Beiten
Greenlight Media turned 20 years old this year. How would you describe, in one word, how you feel about this event?
Nikolaus Weil: Most of all gratitude! I am grateful that I had a chance to experience so much excitement and diversity. I am grateful that I had a chance to be part of such a successful story of wonderful projects, a story that also provided me with many challenges as well as “ups and downs.”
Could you briefly describe the vision you had when you founded Greenlight Media and how much of this vision has become reality today?
Stefan Beiten: In a media industry that is becoming ever more dynamic and professionalized, it has always been our business objective to occupy the critical intersection between creative content, marketing and financing.
Since its launch Greenlight has leveraged its position as an executive producer and packing entity. Its business model encompasses economic and organizational responsibility to create sustainable value for each project. The business model and focus has clearly been influenced by personal and professional experience of its owners and management as media and structured finance professionals with strong affinity to creative affairs. Greenlight Media’s continuous success has confirmed the prudence of its positioning in the market.
At the beginning, did you focus on any particular genres or projects?
Stefan Beiten: It is important to us that projects we plan meet certain criteria and risk-reward profiles. It was clear to us from day one that we would neither mass-produce films nor have a budget of €500 million per film, but rather would be highly selective in choosing our projects. What matters to us are high-quality material, long-term lifecycles, manageable production risks and budgets, and, of course, reliable partners, such as BBC and other major players.
Against this background, our content focus on family entertainment, in particular feature-length documentaries, probably was no accident. The development of the market for feature-length documentaries in recent years shows that, once again, we were correct. The many new and successful projects in this segment confirm the enduring nature of the success and continued viewer interest. On the basis of Earth, Disney introduced an entirely new label (Disney Nature). Even today, it is still the most successful feature-length documentary project by BBC. Deep Blue and Earth generated more than US$ 500 million in gross revenues worldwide. This tells you something!
What were your personal highlights in the last 20 years?
Nikolaus Weil: I am still excited when I recall the initial release of SimsalaGrimm on the children’s channel Kika with a market share of 48%. We could hardly believe our success at that time! Other highlights included the completion of our SimsalaGrimm soundtrack album together with N’Sync and others, our cooperation with Shrek producer John Williams on Happily N’ever After, and, of course, the worldwide success we achieved with Deep Blue and Earth. A current highlight that gives us much joy is the SimsalaGrimm musical live tour.
Were there any special challenges you had to meet?
Stefan Beiten: The Berlin Animations Fund (BAF) comes to mind. Macroeconomic developments in 2001 and 2002 had a major impact on us, as they did on all other market participants. The demise of the New Market at that time and the insolvency of Kirch Group, of course, had an effect on our studio partners and the entire production process. The resulting losses also hit us hard personally.
The fact is, however, that we were right about the integrated business concept. In cooperation with German and international animation studios we built up production capacities in Berlin. Unlike many other media funds, the BAF concept, a genuine operational production unit, also held up from a tax perspective. Despite many differences that naturally arose in connection with the restructuring, Dresdner Bank, the bank that had initiated the funds (later Allianz and then Commerzbank), acknowledged the value of our contribution and services.
What would you do differently today?
Nikolaus Weil: No doubt, I would much more follow my own business acumen and listen less to so-called advisors. Unfortunately, they were wrong to often in the past.
Things have become rather quiet around Greenlight Media in recent years. Why?
Nikolaus Weil: It has always been our goal to implement a small number of projects, but projects that are valuable and have longevity. Currently, our focus is to take pre-existing projects to a new stage of evolution. The successful SimsalaGrimm musical is a good example. More than 100,000 visitors have seen the musical alone in Germany. We are also looking at cutting-edge digitalization and dimensionalization technology. Our development activities include the potential use of 3-D technology and CGI for new sequel productions or re-releases. Another very attractive field is the creation of apps based on our brands. There are many examples in the area of children and family entertainment where apps have generated greater media reach than primary TV or movie theater exploitation.
In addition, we have increased our activities in the area of social responsibility. In addition to past projects supporting children in need, we support new efforts today, such as the Cinema Jenin, a media initiative in the West Gaza territory. We also support the B’tselem project, a documentation center for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. B’tselem offers people an opportunity to receive basic onsite training in the production of short films. This way, any resident has the potential of becoming a journalist or filmmaker and of bringing reality to the world. Using media content, we believe, we can do much to integrate and protect human rights.
In addition, we are now also involved in projects and companies other than those of Greenlight Media. This includes shareholdings in exciting startups, as well as in U.S. mobile phone infrastructure companies.
How have you developed or changed personally?
Stefan Beiten: We have experienced a lot, much of which we did not think was even possible. Those challenges provided us with an opportunity for growth. The good thing is: you become more mature, more stoic, and you develop a better sense of what is really important.
What are the plans of Greenlight Media, and what are your personal plans for the future?
Nikolaus Weil: We are currently reviewing different strategic options of adding complementary, suitable partners to Greenlight Media. We are currently also renewing a number of different distribution relationships with companies in other countries.
In the area of development we are concentrating on the continued exploitation of existing products using new digital technologies. In addition, we are currently negotiating the acquisition of film rights to an exciting novel in the espionage genre, a story that takes place during World War II. The result may be a magnificent live-action project that would be filmed mostly in Germany.
In your view how have the film industry and media market changed in the last 20 years, what has stayed the same, and how will the market change in the future?
Nikolaus Weil: Digitalization clearly has become fron and center. ITunes, mobile entertainment, and 3-D have had a major impact on global media market. Exploitation and distribution channels that formerly existed have literally died out. One example: the audio cassette tape for children. When we began to produce SimsalaGrimm in the mid-1990s, tapes probably were the most important form of sound carriers for children. Today, they no longer exist. The CD probably will eventually suffer the same fate, followed by the DVD. Online streaming is the entertainment medium of the future.
As a result of technological innovations, the entertainment market keeps reinventing itself. One must anticipate these developments as much as possible and make appropriate changes to one’s exploitation strategy. The average household will receive ever improving bandwidth and Internet access. Mobile devices are rapidly changing consumer behavior. As a producer and rights holder, you have to take all this into consideration. This also changes the parameters and requirements of the financing market. At the end, high-quality content will always find its rightful place.
What would be your advice to young start-up filmmakers?
Nothing is as constant as change. As an entrepreneur you constantly have to stay flexible, adapt to changing market demands, or, better yet, stay one step ahead of the market.