HOLLYWOOD — Picture this: An Israeli-bred self-professed cartoon schlepper ends up with Germany’s top media assets, turns the hodgepodge into a going concern again and offloads it, for a pretty pfennig, to a clutch of Euro broadcasters.
Not such a far-fetched scenario when the wheeler-dealer in the picture is Haim Saban.
The Hollywood-based entrepreneur has just pocketed $1.5 billion from the sale of Fox Family Worldwide to the Mouse House. Now he has to figure out what to do with it.
Over the last six months, he has morphed himself into the biggest donor ever to the Democratic Party, a sought-after philanthropist, a corporate board member and a ubiquitous presence on the Hollywood social scene.
And, just weeks ago, he popped up as a likely contender for the bankrupt Kirch media empire in Germany.
Not your typical Hollywood corporate chieftain, the rough-and-tumble 57-year-old exec made his wad thanks to an unwavering focus on the DEAL and an uncanny sense of timing for making them.
While working in France in 1981, he fashioned new French-lingo theme songs for shows like “Dallas” and “Starsky & Hutch,” producing the lyrics for free but retaining the record rights. They became hits, and he made his first $10 million.
When it comes to Saban’s style, though, forget elegance and aloofness. Think down-and-dirty gutsiness. When it comes to his programming choices, forget fluffy bunnies and saccharine squirrels — think testosterone-charged X-Men.
Saban’s stock in trade has always been recycling cheap foreign shows, reformatting them or dubbing them into English. On the backs of global phenoms like “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” in the early ’90s, he set about enriching his library by snatching up rights to classic characters like Captain Kangaroo and Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Saban himself is easily worth several billion — he’s currently building a mansion in Malibu alongside Jeffrey Katzenberg’s and Arnon Milchan’s — and apparently has kept most of his assets out of the volatile stock market.
Thanks to a decade of hit kidshows like “X-Men” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” he successfully parlayed his eponymous company first to Rupert Murdoch in 1996 and then, as Fox Family Worldwide, on to Disney. Deal just closed three weeks ago.
In early August, Saban surprised media watchers by plopping down the highest bid, $2.5 billion, for the remains of the assets built up over 40 years by Leo Kirch. They include a majority stake in a top Teutonic TV station and thousands of hours of program rights.
Some say Saban, who knows Europe well, simply zeroed in on the unprecedented chance to get in on the most lucrative TV market outside North America. Detractors say he bid just to park his money or to keep his name in print.
Although the shortlisted handful of bidders are still partnering and decoupling, Saban (now in a joint tender with France’s broadcaster TF1) is reckoned a sure finalist for the Kirch assets. The auction is likely to announce a winner in the next six weeks.
Saban’s latest salvo is rife with ironies.
The company put together by the reclusive, very Catholic Leo Kirch in the most cosseted media community in Europe could end up in the hands of the colorful, even willfully coarse upstart who once made his living promoting wannabe rockers in Israel and France.
A programming library whose jewels include a solemn Euro miniseries called “The Bible” could now end up in the hands of the man responsible for “Beetleborgs.”
Notwithstanding the ironies, some pundits believe Saban’s continuing ability to knock down doors and get invited in is, well, “inspiring.”
“It shows that the indie spirit and street smarts can still keep the media behemoths at bay — they can even get the upper hand of those behemoths at times,” says one analyst.
Consider how Saban’s distribution company operated at international trade shows: From the late 1980s through 2001, Saban Entertainment staffers would set up shop at Mip and Mipcom, clocking nonstop meetings every 15 minutes — no parties, no press, no pretty plants on the stand.
The Hollywood majors openly sneered at Saban’s indie upstart for its plastic freebies — but secretly admired it for its chutzpah.
Saban Entertainment typically cut corners by hiring nonunion talent, drove hard bargains with buyers of its animated toons and TV movies, and worked its staff long and hard.
Most American indies fell by the wayside over the last decade, while Saban powered ahead like, well, one of the company’s animated action figures.
One can only imagine the gaggle of stodgy German bankers, who are Kirch’s main creditors and no doubt speak impeccable textbook English, dining with the hurly-burly distrib whose colorful language is peppered with Yiddish epithets like schlemiel and macher.
But insiders who have worked with Saban are not all that surprised at his latest media foray.
“No one who knows him thought he’d go lie on a beach after the sale to Disney. Haim has dealmaking in his blood,” says one longtime client. “He’s always one step ahead of you; before you’d know you’d been had in a deal, Haim would have moved on to something else.”
But why is Saban bidding specifically for Kirch?
Says one top studio exec: “He may genuinely see some long-term opportunity in Germany. Fox Family did expand aggressively abroad, so I suspect he has more than a passing understanding of the European markets and the long-term potential.
“And,” the exec adds, “I suspect he realizes that as a ‘lone player’ in the U.S., there are very few opportunities going forward. Players like Saban realize that just being a billionaire isn’t enough to get your phone answered quickly.”
If he does end up with the Kirch assets, Saban will not, per one former key staffer at Saban Entertainment, be so much interested in actually running the station called ProSiebenSat 1.
German papers point out that Saban was not “a particular good manager” of Fox Family.
Fortunately, he probably wouldn’t have to be one: The station, which enjoys Fox-like younger demos, is reasonably profitable and smartly programmed.
He might, however, relish the challenge of sifting through the Kirch catalog and might be astute at repurposing properties that others might easily pass over.
Even if he doesn’t end up in the winner’s circle in Germany, Saban is, by most accounts, bound to surface in some other bigtime deal. Likely targets in the U.S.: a talent agency or management firm. Other international targets might be the global music biz, where the mogul got his start 30 years ago.