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Canal Plus’ Accent on Content Starting to Pay Dividends for Parent Vivendi

When Brittany-born billionaire Vincent Bolloré took the reins of Vivendi in 2015, the struggling media conglomerate was being compared to the Titanic. To right the ship, Bolloré fired a number of top managers, scrapped programs at subsidiary Canal Plus Group and set about trying to integrate the different pieces of the company, including Studiocanal and Universal Music Group.

A little over two years later that strategy is starting to bear fruit, although some analysts remain skeptical, and Vivendi is trying to position itself as a dominant media player in Southern Europe.

Its revenues hit €8.62 billion ($10.14 billion) during the first nine months of 2017, up 11.8% compared with the same period in 2016. The rise was bolstered by the growth of Universal Music Group and the stabilization of Canal Plus Group’s pay-TV unit, Canal Plus, which ended three straight years of declining numbers by picking up 1,000 subscribers in France in the third quarter, through restructured subscriber packages and alliances with telecom operators such as Orange.

Canal Plus Group as a whole, which includes TV and film production and distribution arm Studiocanal, is on track to grow by 5% this year, helped by the recent release of “Paddington 2.” Studiocanal now distributes directly in France, Britain, Germany and New Zealand, and just inked a deal that will see Lionsgate release six of its films in the U.S. Among the titles are “Shaun the Sheep Movie 2” and Liam Neeson action thriller “Hard Powder.” Canal Plus Group chief Maxime Saada tells Variety that his company plans to launch Canal Plus and Studiocanal movie channels in the U.S. and to collaborate with U.S. partners on TV drama.

Some of the group’s gains have come through painful belt-tightening that began last year, including the ouster of several top execs and TV hosts, the elimination of various positions and renegotiated contracts with rights holders. Saada says the company expects to have saved about $410 million by year’s end.

The group’s next phase will be to increase investment in content — but more wisely than in the past, Saada says. The goal is to find film and television franchises and strong IPs that can be exploited across Vivendi’s subsidiaries, and to produce or co-produce the company’s own TV series and movies. “Paddington,” for example, is being developed as an animated series and as a video game through Vivendi’s Gameloft banner. Studiocanal is about to announce a movie and/or a TV series it will produce with Universal Music Group.

“We want to build synergies, bridges between our subsidiaries, capitalize on our IPs,” Saada says. “American studios have been producing more and more films geared toward teenagers, and at Studiocanal we think we can tap into audiences’ appetite for diverse European stories.” The studio has just boarded a big-screen adaptation of “Magic Faraway Tree,” one in a series of books by beloved British children’s author Enid Blyton.

Canal Plus also plans to launch an autonomous drama production division that will be able to create content for Canal Plus as well as third-party buyers and other channels in France and abroad. Canal Plus’ TV drama slate includes French-language series “Nox,” “Paris etc.” and “Vernon Subutex.”

“The sky is starting to clear up for Vivendi, but in order for Canal Plus Group to thrive, it’ll have to follow Sky’s model and cut its churn rate to 10% [from 17%] within the next two years and start investing more in premium content,” says François Godard at Enders Analysis.

Canal Plus might be able to land some important sports rights, which would help attract subscribers. Altice, Vivendi’s main challenger in France, delivered a major blow to Canal Plus in May by scooping rights to Champions League soccer matches. But Altice, which paid more than $400 million for the rights, has seen its stock drop by more than 40% within the past month and may not be in a position to bid for Premier League rights, which could give Canal Plus an opportunity to grab them, Godard says.

As for Universal Music Group, it “remains the jewel of Vivendi … driven by streaming growth and a strong release schedule toplined by Taylor Swift, U2 and Sam Smith,” says Jean-Baptiste Sergeant, an analyst at MainFirst. An IPO for the music group may be in the cards.

Outside France, Vivendi now owns nearly 30% of Italy’s Mediaset and a controlling 24% stake in Telecom Italia. With the latter property, it is launching a joint venture to produce premium TV series and movies in Italy.

“Last year, we invested [more than $2.3 billion] in content, and next year, we’ll go up from there,” Saada says. “More than ever, our mantra is to make more, own more and buy less.”

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