Q&A: Ulrika Saxon, CEO, Bonnier Growth Media
THE 209-year old family owned Bonnier Group knows how to see the big picture. Here, Ulrika Saxon, CEO of Bonnier Growth Media (BGM), the company that oversees Svensk Filmindustri (SF) and a raft of other TV and film shingles, talks up the future.
Q. SF celebrates its 95th birthday next year, making it one of the oldest film companies in the world. But these days, the talk of the industry is the crossover of film talent and money to TV. Cinema is no longer the first window. What’s your take on this?
A. I agree, although I might say, on many levels, there is nothing like the silver screen. At BGM, we don’t see cinema facing the same level of disruption as the rest of the film value chain. There is no question in our minds that cinema will be an important window for many years to come. We do, by the way, hold a significant share in the Nordic Cinema Group, the largest cinema chain in the Nordic and Baltic region.
Q. There are clearly big developments afoot in the value chain and BGM is staking its future on those developments, given some of your recent activities?
A. Oh yes! We believe in following talent, advertisers and audiences and this is reflected in our broad portfolio across the moving pictures segment, from co-founding Scandinavia’s first multi-channel YouTube network United Screens to our TVOD business SF Anytime, one of the few profitable TVOD operations in the world.
Q. SF's track record, the recent acquisition of Tre Vanner and the addition of a television division to your subsidiary Sonet Film, clearly has some bearing on your optimism, yes?
A. Absolutely. Bonnier has been around for more than two centuries, and it has 175 companies in more than 20 countries. We know how to look at the big picture. Windows and screen sizes will change. That is a natural part of the evolution of the industry, but the demand for quality content will always exist.
Q. You’ve made it clear that your primary brief for the future will be investing in and controlling rights? How long-term is that strategy?
A. Sustainable growth is a key theme at BGM and that won't change. Bonnier, after all, is a company that plans for generations, and we believe in building healthy companies that can be successful in both the short and long-term.
Q. BGM has four primary focus areas--Rights & Moving Pictures, Kids Media, Online Gaming and Media Tools. What’s the strategy for growth and international expansion over the next five years in these areas?
A. You can expect to see more mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and other organic initiatives. Bonnier was built by passionate entrepreneurs, and BGM is building the next generation for Bonnier using the same strategy, this time with 21st century groundbreakers. For M&A, we look for companies both internationally and locally, but on the local level, they must always have international potential. And strong entrepreneurs and management is, of course, a critical factor in our decisionmaking.
Q. What about SF? There's a new CEO and big changes ahead?
A. SF is part of the Rights & Moving Pictures area of our division. We believe consumer excitement in moving pictures across all formats and platforms will grow for years to come and consumer and advertiser spending will grow right along with it. We have an enduring confidence in the value of content. Many “new media” and “digital media” investors today aren’t comfortable venturing into content but for more than 200 years it has been a core part of our business, and it still is. It is a key part of our strategy to invest in rights that we can leverage on international markets, and or, that have a long tail. SF, as well as our other companies, is central to this strategy.
Q. SF is nearly a century old. Where does it go from here?
A. SF is now in a fantastic position and with new CEO Jonas Fors, the co-founder of Tre Vanner, in place, the teams are energized to start the next chapter of what by any measure might be called a remarkable history. Over the next five years we expect to see SF emerge as a major European studio, producing films for Nordic as well as European and other international markets and cooperating with Hollywood on a whole new level.
Q. What was the primary motivation behind the acquisition of Tre Vänner? It’s a company with a prestigious record and a nice little development deal with ZDF Enterprises. What drove the decision to acquire it?
A. We have a fantastic asset with SF, especially considering its glamorous history. SF helped build the careers of some of the world’s greatest film talent-- Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Ingmar Bergman, Victor Sjöström, Bo Widerberg, Lasse Hallström, Colin Nutley, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman, among others. It has a strong film production history and it is a strong international brand, but over the years SF has become predominately a distribution company. I mentioned our keen interest in investing in rights with international potential and that’s where Tre Vanner came in.
Q. Tre Vanner does seem to have a lot of creativity and energy behind it?
A. We noticed. Tre Vänner in just a few short years has become a leading Swedish film production studio with a sophisticated approach to developing, financing and risk management, and a good history of profitability in a volatile industry. The combination of our strategic interest in rights, the muscle of SF, and the agility of Tre Vänner’s management and processes plus their growing library made this an acquisition too good to resist.
Q. SF and Tre Vänner both have used a successful production model that includes taking a project such as the Fjällbacka Murders to both TV movies and film. Can we expect a lot more TV films as a result of the new acquisition?
A. There are a lot of synergies in the production of feature films and the production of TV films, especially within genres like crime and drama. Including TV films/series in the portfolio is also a way to stabilize a more volatile feature film production operation.
Q. So, clearly more high quality TV productions are in the picture?
A. Indeed. It’s no secret that on the consumer side there is growing demand for high quality TV productions and that the standards for those productions are increasing with every passing season. This has paved the way for fantastic TV in recent years and has attracted major film talent to TV. So yes, absolutely. Expect to see more TV productions coming from SF.
Q. And Scandinavian Studios? Its focus is on developing, producing and utilizing TV format rights? Where are they at in the five-year plan?
A. They have gained traction in Sweden but like our other companies, they have their sights set internationally. Their first format is launching in France shortly. Over the next five years we would like to see them with a portfolio of formats sold in strategic markets around the world. At the same time, we expect to see them experimenting with different models and formats and a mix of their own and third-party IP.
Q. Your toy app developer Toca Boca intrigues me. How much cross-pollination do you envision in the future between the different companies in BGM?
A. The companies within BGM are independent and have their own strategies, management teams, and ambitions but we are a close-knit group so cross-pollination between the companies happens quite naturally.
Q. So how does Toca Boca fit into the picture?
A. Toca Boca is breaking new ground for Bonnier by operating with digital economy of scale and thus, it is also teaching some of our companies about scalability and design for internationalization. Toca Boca is bringing a different model strategically to the table.
Q. You mean with Sago Sago?
A. Yes. With the acquisition of Sago Sago in February 2013 we saw the first move into what we call the Toca Boca model—adding smaller studios to be supported by a centralized “growth team.” Sago Sago produces kids’ apps and develops their brand from their studio in Toronto, while the San Francisco-based “growth team” handles, among other things, marketing and cross-promotion for all the studios. In the years to come, expect to see more additions to this group.
(top left) Bonnier Growth Media CEO Ulrika Saxon, with photography by Peter Jonsson.
(middle rights) Copyright 2013 Filmlance International. Nobody Owns Me, based on Asa Linderborg's best selling novel, to be released theatrically by SF November 2013. Produced by Filmlance, co-produced by Sonet Film, with photography by Alexandra Aristarhova.
(middle right) Tre Vanner co-founder and SF's new CEO Jonas Fors.
(middle left) Fjallbacka Murders, copyright Tre Vanner and photography by Ola Kjelbye.
(bottom) - SF production LasseMaja's Detective Agency - Von Brom's Secret. Copyright 2013 AB Svensk Filmindustri. Photography Frederik Hjertling.