There aren't many folks at Ubisoft who have been here as long, or worn as many different hats, as Helene Juguet. The French native has been at Ubisoft for 21 years – long enough to remember when Ubisoft was publishing Batman games. In her various roles over the years, she's been put in charge of the Tom Clancy's brand, launched the original Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon, planned Ubisoft's E3 showcase, and now works as managing director at Ubisoft Film & Television's Paris studio.
What was your early career at Ubisoft like?
Helene Juguet: It was very different from what it's like now. I was working on Batman games back then. We had many licensed games back then, but we were very small. I remember when Yves (Guillemot) said we want to be the fifth-biggest publisher by 2005, and everyone was just like, "Yeah, right." It's funny to think of when we look back at it now. I was working crazy hours back then, because our US counterparts were waking up at 6PM Paris time, so I was starting a new day at 6PM. It was pretty stressful, and at one point, my counterpart in the US resigned, and I thought, "I should go do her job there." I had been at Ubisoft for about two years, and decided to transfer over to the San Francisco office in 2000.
When did you transition over to the Paris Film and Television studio?
HJ: I went back to Paris because I was offered another position as the head of the international brand strategy group, which was the head of all the brand managers within the development teams. I managed a team that was all over the world in all our studios. Along with that, I was in charge of E3 content with the communications team, so we were making recommendations about what to show, how to show it, and how to help the dev team make the best assets possible for the show. Eventually, the international brand strategy group was dismantled as each studio took over its own brand.
I transitioned over to the editorial team and was reporting to (Chief Creative Officer) Serge (Hascoet), helping figure out our worldwide content strategy. While I was there, I created the brand academy, which was the training program for all the brand managers worldwide, but also for creative directors and producers to understand what it meant to be building a brand. After three years of doing that, I transitioned to the Paris division of Ubisoft Film & Television in 2014. Originally, I was in charge of business development but soon, I was responsible for the entire Paris division. At our studio, we're focused on producing animated content for kids and adults, unscripted content, and short form content. Our counterparts in Los Angeles have more experience working with live-action productions.
That's quite a lot of roles.
HJ: Yeah, that's what keeps it fun and interesting; otherwise you don't stay for 21 years (laughs).
What does a managing director do?
HJ: I'd say there are three main aspects that correspond to different phases of what we do at the Paris studio of Ubisoft Film & Television. There's developing a project, which entails putting together a project that makes sense for the market: finding out what buyers are looking for, deciding which of our IP could fit into that genre, and what we want to say strategically about this IP or as a company. For that, I work with our director of development, who puts together the early parts of a project. Then we have all the business aspects, because we have to sell them to someone who will help finance them. You need to pitch to the likes of Netflix, YouTube, or Nickelodeon.
At the moment, Ubisoft doesn't self-publish our films and television shows. We need partners for that. Once we have the financing, then we can start the 3rd part, the production. A big part of my job is negotiating contracts and terms. But the most important thing is management and organization. That comes down to getting together the best team possible, structuring it in the way that makes most sense so the project can meet its potential, and giving it the vision for what we want the producing studio to become, so people can recognize what it means to be a Ubisoft studio production.
How to you manage all the different parts of the role?
HJ: It's a dual process. It's from top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top. Film and television isn't my background; my background is marketing and business management. I never pretend to be an expert in things when I'm not, so what I do is hire people who are more knowledgeable than me in certain fields, and listen to them to understand their point of view. To understand the job and the market, I listen to people in the industry and internally. I have a great team that represents both the development and production sides of things. We tend to discuss what makes sense in this environment, and then we form the vision based on that and what we've been asked to accomplish by my management.
Ubisoft is primarily a videogame company. Have there been growing pains expanding out into film and television?
HJ: It takes time. I would say it took me about two years to feel comfortable with our direction at the Paris studio and making sure it was aligned with our goals at Ubisoft. As we submit projects and get contracts, we realize what we're ready for and what we're not. For example, we have to learn every time we get a new contract, "Oh, so that's how you want to do business." Which isn't always the way we do business, so we end up saying no to some deals that other production companies would likely say yes to, because our objective isn't to produce just anything with the goal of just making money. It needs to make sense within the overall scheme of Ubisoft's world and brands, and the way we tell stories. We need to stay in control of our stories and brands.
What's the difference between producing a game and producing a television show or film?
HJ: The difference is, when it comes to games, the team is here. The creative lead is here. You're not contracting anyone from outside. When you're producing a show, you're putting together a team of outside talent. With a game, it's a collective work of people who are within Ubisoft. You still assemble a team, but you have people working around the world under a single vision. In film and television, you have an idea, then you have to find someone to write it, someone to storyboard it, someone to broadcast it. It's a very different development process. We're currently moving towards trying to emulate the internal process with the creation of our "incubator" because I think it's very enriching for everyone involved. When you have all your developers working together next to each other, they feed off each other, and we believe it stimulates creativity and shapes the process faster compared to when everything is done independently.
What was Ubisoft like back in 1998?
HJ: The company was so small in the beginning. When I arrived, we were working on Rayman 2. The Montreal studio had just opened, and they were making the Playmobil titles there, on which I was hired to be the international brand manager. We probably weren't even in the top 20 of publishers at that point. I think it was in 1999 that Yves said, "We want to be the No. 5 publisher in 2005," and everyone was thought, "yeah, right". But it was an exciting time, and it did come true. It seemed so far away at the time and sounded completely crazy, but we made it. After two years I moved to the SF office. The Clancy partnership hadn't even started yet, and when Ubisoft acquired Red Storm I was put in charge of the Clancy brand.
My "claim to fame" is that I feel personally responsible for Splinter Cell; not the game itself, obviously, but the fact that it exploded on the US market. Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon are MY babies, and I'll let nobody else say it's theirs (laughs). I pushed to make Splinter Cell a Tom Clancy game.
When I was working in the US, we were launching a Batman game with Warner Bros. It was really exciting, because it was a big franchise, and we were so proud that we sold 150K units. Then came Splinter Cell from the Montreal team, and we looked at it and thought, "Damn, this is so cool." It really had potential; there was something so cool about it, and the original Xbox was just launching, and I thought we could do something great with it. I remember a meeting with (NCSA Region President) Laurent (Detoc) where we were looking at the numbers and saying "You know, I think we could sell even more than Batman. Maybe we could reach 180K units." At the time, it seemed so big for us, and in the end we did 10 times that. It was really that first step that drove us to another level.
Splinter Cell exploded at E3 thanks to Xbox. I remember that conversation with the Xbox person in charge of showcasing third-party titles at E3, and they nearly didn't include it in their E3 press conference. They thought it was too dark, but I called him every day, telling him he was making a mistake, and that the game was awesome and really something special. But then the dev team changed a few things with the lighting to make it a little bit better, and then Microsoft decided to pick it up and feature it at their conference, and it exploded from there. First and foremost, though, it was an amazing game. None of this would've happened if it wasn't an amazing game.
After that came Ghost Recon, and working with Red Storm Entertainment. You had this French woman going over to North Carolina, knowing nothing about guns and US military tactics working on the most American title we could have possibly launched. I've even been SWAT trained, can you believe that? (laughs).
Ubisoft has many senior executives who are women. Is that rare in this industry? Is it something that's inherent to the company culture?
HJ: I do think it's rare in the industry, but it's part of the company culture at Ubisoft. It all stems from Yves who sets that tone and rewards employees regardless of gender for their hard work and accomplishments. I think it makes a huge difference in how Ubisoft operates our business.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into games?
HJ: If you manage to show that you have a point of view or vision that people can gather around, then that's more important than knowing the technicalities of videogames. A lot of what you're doing in management is bringing people together towards a common goal. If you can show passion, not even necessarily for videogames, you'll be able to bring something to the team. I've never pretended to be a huge gamer, or a movie maker, and I've never had to. No one ever asked me to be. But I do love games and movies and I get what makes people so passionate about them.
You mentioned Yves' proclamation of wanting to be a top-five publisher back on the videogame side. What is the big, lofty goal for Ubisoft Film & Television?
HJ: Ubisoft has the potential to be one of the biggest movers and shakers in entertainment, because videogames will become the next giant platform that will gather a lot of people. Everyone will be a gamer soon enough; the entertainment industry may not have completely realized it yet, but that's where it's headed.
For more interviews like this, check out our previous Women of Ubisoft interviews.