Deadline Disruptors: Vivendi Chairman Vincent Bolloré Demands “Urgent Change” For Canal Plus

Illustration by Bram Vanhaeren

Vincent Bolloré stands on the cusp of becoming the most radical, game-changing force in Europe’s film and TV biz since Rupert Murdoch bet his whole empire on satellite dishes in 1989. The billionaire businessman has always operated as an outsider. Hailing from Brittany, rather than the tight-knit business community of Paris, Bolloré has expanded the family business Bolloré Group—with interests in everything from media to maritime freight and paper manufacturing—into a global player.

He intends to do the same thing with Vivendi, the French media giant Bolloré is chairman of. The creation of no less than the world’s first fully integrated multimedia studio outside the U.S. is the ambition. Film, TV, music and video games all form part of the strategy and—ironically—to disrupt the great disruptors themselves, be they Netflix, Amazon or Google, by creating the leading pan-European OTT platform that stretches across France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the UK.

It takes a particular kind of chairman to tell his general assembly he is not above shutting down the company if a turnaround does not take place immediately. But that is exactly what Bolloré did for Canal Plus April 21 with a frank assessment of the need for urgent change at the French pay-TV giant.

As chairman of Vivendi, Bolloré presides over Canal Plus and its film division Studiocanal, along with Universal Music Group. In April, he closed a deal with Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset, described by insiders as an “industrial alliance,” and in so doing, he created a potential content giant right in the heart of Europe.StudioCanal

The most important aspect of the deal leaves Vivendi to run pay-TV arm Mediaset Premium. That will give the company access to free- and pay-TV operations in France, Italy and Spain; the latter through its relationship with Spanish telco Telefonica, which owns Canal Plus España.

To Vivendi’s advantage is the strategic relationships it has now with Telefonica and Telecom Italia, in which it now owns a 24.9% stake. In 2014, Vivendi sold its Brazilian telco GVT to Telefonica, allowing it to become the leading shareholder in Telecom Italia. The ability to leverage those assets, particularly in terms of offering consumers quad-play services across the UK, France, Germany, and now Spain and Italy, has given Vivendi a formidable platform.

That TV infrastructure in the key Western European territories should herald a new era of multi-territory content acquisition, creation and exploitation, creating a formidable competitor to Netflix, which is aggressively expanding in Europe, as well as pan-European pay-TV giant Sky and John Malone’s Liberty Global.

Bolloré likely won’t stop there, and may well add theatrical and home entertainment distribution operations in Spain and Italy at some point in the short- to medium-term. That would create a genuine global giant based out of Europe in Studiocanal, with direct distribution in the UK, France, Benelux, Germany, Australia, Spain and Italy.

Vivendi finalized its acquisition of online video channel Dailymotion last June, presenting a ready-made platform on which to expand into OTT delivery. Add to that Vivendi-owned German SVOD platform Watchever, which it re-launched in September last year, and the pieces are starting to form the strategy Bolloré has been working on ever since he acquired a stake in the company in 2012. He has since tripled that stake to 15%, and in so doing taken effective control of the company.

“If the losses continue, there is a moment where you have to close the tap, because Vivendi will not bring money indefinitely to Canal Plus,” said Bolloré, with a bluntness as associated to him as it is uncharacteristic for the French business scene. He was speaking of the ongoing losses at Canal Plus, estimated to reach €400 million in 2016, according to Vivendi.

And if Bolloré is fast becoming Europe’s most powerful media mogul, he may also be its shrewdest. The real message of his speech that day was not intended for those in the conference room, but for those in the corridors of political power in France. France’s antitrust authorities are yet to approve a proposed deal with Qatari-owned beIN Media over an exclusive distribution agreement in France. The move, if it is approved, would give Canal Plus execs a much-needed revenue boost while also giving beIN Media better carriage in France. The potential consequences of blocking the deal, Bolloré implied with devastating efficacy, could be no Canal Plus at all.

“He’s very courageous and extremely brilliant. He really has a vision of his strategy,” says Vivendi board member and longtime Bolloré friend and partner Tarak Ben Ammar. “He knows he’s got a hard job, to clean up Canal Plus and do what a manager needs to do. He’s responsible to all the other shareholders. Vivendi is not going to continue to lose money just to please the French.”

That kind of candor borders on revolutionary in red-tape heavy France, particularly given Bolloré’s relentless drive to get what he wants. This is a man whose actions prompted no less than advertising guru Martin Sorrell to describe them as, “the most fascinating thing going on in our industry at the moment,” during an April 19 speech at Advertising Week Europe.

Born in 1952, Bolloré runs the diversified holding company Bolloré Group, which has been running for almost two centuries; it was first founded in 1822. Bolloré took it over in 1981, overhauling its activities—which included making paper for cigarettes and bibles—and turning it into one of the 500 largest companies in the world.

“He’s very much a family guy, and he feels a great responsibility that he is head of a group that is almost 200 years old,” says Ben Ammar. “He feels he needs to pass on what he received from his great grandparents to his children and he feels a sense of family in a really positive way. He has a very strong sense of ethics and believes in God in a real way. It’s not like he thinks he’s going to get away with anything. Once you become his friend and partner, he is very loyal. Once he has given you his trust, it goes all the way.”

In one of the first expansive film acquisitions of Bolloré’s reign, Studiocanal acquired 30% of French distributor Mars Films, with Mars’s respected Stephane Celerier becoming a Studiocanal VP as a result of the deal last summer. At this year’s MipTV, Studiocanal also announced it had acquired minority stakes in three banners: the UK’s SunnyMarch, co-founded by Benedict Cumberbatch; Urban Myth Films, also based in the UK; and Spain’s Bambu. Each deal includes a distribution agreement. The company already has stakes in or fully controls Red Production Company, Tandem, Sam and Guilty Party.

To get a sense of the importance of Studiocanal to the local market, one need only bear in mind that parent Canal Plus accounts for some 15% of France’s annual film production spend between $230 million to $300 million, repping a major pillar of the filmmaking community.

And Bolloré isn’t shy of acting decisively when necessary. Last summer, he overhauled the entire corporate structure of Canal Plus in a series of moves that sent shockwaves through the French film and TV biz. The biggest exec shake-up in a generation at French pay-TV giant Canal Plus saw former Canal Plus chief exec Rodolphe Belmer and chairman Bertrand Meheut leave, along with a number of other execs including former head of cinema Nathalie Coste-Cerdan and Studiocanal chief Olivier Courson. The latter two were replaced by Didier Lupfer, the former head of production and development at its Ubisoft Motion Pictures arm. Ubisoft Motion Pictures was set up in 2011 to adapt the likes of Assassin’s Creed for the big screen.

Bolloré is also currently locked in an increasingly bitter battle for control of Ubisoft, and fellow French videogame publishers Gameloft. Vivendi in February officially launched its hostile takeover for Gameloft and the company has been steadily increasing its stake in both Gameloft and Ubisoft for some months now. Gameloft’s board rejected the first offer on the grounds that Vivendi’s takeover was not in the best interests of the company and “does not have a single business that could offer Gameloft synergies.”

That hasn’t deterred Bolloré, who returned days later and increased the offer to €7.20 per share from the previous offer of €6 per share. That would have valued the company at around €610 million ($660 million). Gameloft shares jumped almost 9% to €7.40 on news that Vivendi was coming back for the company.

Those moves, along with perceived attempts to control the editorial direction of Canal Plus with an ill-fated attempt to cancel long-running satirical puppet show Les Guignols, saw Bolloré attacked in the press for overreaching. It hasn’t made much of an impact. Says Ben Ammar: “He doesn’t really care what the media says about him. He doesn’t care about ego or image.” 

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