Clad in his familiar accessories of dark suspenders and tortoise-shell glasses, Canal+ Group Chairman & CEO Maxime Saada cuts a decorous and professorial figure, though the two framed posters of “Scarface” and “The Godfather” that decorate his office walls offer a slightly better insight into the chairman’s inner passions.
“[I follow] a logic of intensity,” Saada tells Variety. “As a payTV player, our main objective is not to broadcast content to the widest possible audience in order to lure to advertizers, nor to aim for consensus. We want to inspire passion and fervor, because reactions of ‘not bad’ do not encourage subscriptions.”
Saada is being honored at Mipcom with the Variety Vanguard Award.
Since taking the reins eight years ago, Saada has looked for new subscribers all across the globe, transforming the emblematic French brand into a significant international player that has grown from 11 million (almost entirely European) clients in 2015 to last year’s tally of 25.5 million, spread across more than 50 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia.
Fueling this expansion has been a recent slate of acquisitions, as Canal+ has claimed a 12% stake in the Scandinavian streaming platform Viaplay and a 26.1% stake in Hong Kong-based OTT service Viu, while angling for a controlling interest in the latter service within the next few years. Under Saada’s watch, the pay-TV giant has already become lead shareholder of South Africa’s MultiChoice and in 2019, absorbed the Luxembourg-based, Central and Eastern Europe-targeting M7 Group.
As the CEO sees it, all of these initiatives were born of the same overarching strategy. “I don’t want to be dependent on a single market,” Saada explains. “My number one concern is how to help Canal survive the coming decades. That means reducing dependencies on any specific content, on any specific geography and on specific audiences. And every time you bring in a new platform, you’re less reliant on the previous ones.”
In France, Saada has sought a generational makeover, luring back a once-faltering younger audience with targeted programming and investments in a fresh generation of comedic talent equally adept at stand-up, sketch comedy and scripted fare. The service also introduced a new subscription tier, offering the under-26 crowd a no-commitment, reduced rate that has led to nearly 400,000 youth sign-ups.
“You’re betting on the fact that those subscribers will stay, and the longer they stay, the more profitable they’ll be,” adds Saada.
Further afield, Canal+ has seen youth numbers swell, boasting 8 million African subscribers with a median age of 25. Earlier this year, Canal+ upped its ante in the Johannesburg-headquartered MultiChoice to 31.7%, raising questions of a possible takeover should the broadcaster reach the 35% threshold. Whatever may come, Saada still factors in MultiChoice’s 22 million users as part of the Canal+ Group’s medium-term ambitions to a notch above 50 million global customers.
Pursuant to that global strategy, Canal+ has diversified its sports offerings, complementing the traditional pillar of soccer with a bulked up focus on motorsports. It signed a long-term accord with Formula 1 and holds exclusive broadcast rights to the MotoGP World Championship, with both deals extending to 2029. The motorcycle league has proven a particular success, with each race now drawing in north of one million viewers, while Canal+ also holds broadcast rights to Champions League soccer for the next three seasons, and for Top 14 Rugby until 2027.
Still, when it comes to the brand’s core identity, athletics takes a back seat to a more immediate association.
“Cinema drives subscriptions,” Saada explains. “Because everyone who loves sports also loves movies, whereas the reverse is not always the case.”
On the silver screen, Canal+ Group remains a foundation of the local industry, pledging an investment of €600 million ($640 million) in French and European films between 2022 and 2024. In recent years, the group has increased its support of female directors, with Canal+ currently earmarking 25% of all pre-buys for female-fronted projects. The chairman is quick to point out that his group played an early role nourishing the careers of Palme d’Or winners Julia Ducournau and Justine Triet, while the group’s distribution arm Studiocanal recently hit a box office milestone, banking more than 1 million admissions for Jeanne Herry’s “All Your Faces.”
By way of Hollywood, the broadcast group made sure to re-up long-term output deals with all the major studios, recently claiming freshly inked contracts with Universal, Sony and Paramount, among others.
“Nobody’s going to subscribe to Canal [just to catch the latest blockbuster,]” says Saada. “But on the other hand, people might very well unsubscribe if [we don’t have those movies on our service.]”
Looking forward, Saada sees his group’s production/distribution subsidiary Studiocanal as a key tool for expansion and diversification. As the studio readies highly anticipated 2024 titles like the family threequel “Paddington in Peru,” the Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black” and the Florence Pugh-Andrew Garfield led romance “We Live in Time,” Saada has also made the global market a key consideration for the studio’s French-language fare.
“We aim for international sales to represent 50% of a given film’s budget,” Saada explains. “Projects with a proposed budget of €10 million must be able to clear €5 million in sales. And if the international teams only anticipate €3 million, we’ll adjust the budget accordingly. Once again, we don’t want to be dependent on any one market.”
Next year will also see the launch of “Paris Has Fallen,” an action series adapted from the Gerard Butler-led “Fallen” film franchise, that will place “The Bureau” star Mathieu Kassovitz in the catbird seat. Building on cinematic, commercial IP, the English-language thriller will be the first Studiocanal series made available to all Canal+ subscribers across all global territories, heralding a wider change in Studiocanal’s television remit.
“We plan to develop more and more series like this,” says Saada. “In addition to everything else Studiocanal is doing, we aim to make big, English-speaking franchises that can be exported all over the world.”
Those looking to trace Studiocanal’s growing, global ambitions need to look no further than this year’s Mipcom slate, which showcases 10 series, performed in five languages, that encompass eight genres.
After premiering at the Venice Film Festival earlier this fall, the Canal+ original “Of Money and Blood” marks “Lost Illusions” director Xavier Giannoli’s first scripted drama, bringing together a powerhouse cast that includes Vincent Lindon (“Titane”), Niels Schneider (“Coup de Chance”) and Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace”). The 12-part docudrama tells the true story of one of the biggest financial swindles of the 21st century.
Led by “Petite Maman” star Nina Meurisse, “La Fièvre” (“The Fever”) spins off the acclaimed Canal+ original “Baron Noir,” exploring the political and racial tensions of contemporary France through the lens of a crisis management firm tasked with a uniquely volatile case.
Rounding out Studiocanal’s scripted slate are comedies like the Dutch-language “Costa!! The Series,” and the French procedural sendup “Bullit and Riper,” alongside the Polish genre-buster “Black Daisies,” which mixes elements of crime thrillers and the supernatural, and a new season of Spanish romance “The Vow.”
This year’s Mipcom lineup also boasts a beefed-up slate of documentaries. Projects include the fashion exposé “Lagerfeld: Ambitions,” the basketball doc “Victor Wembanyama: Un1que,” and the high-octane racing title “Jean Todt: A Life Full of Speed.”
Finally, Studiocanal will roll out season three of “The Adventures of Paddington,” a CG-animated, preschool-targeting extension of the “Paddington” franchise.
Coming further down the pike, Canal+ has co-produced and claimed French rights to the Clive Owen-led “Monsieur Spade,” which catches up to Dashiell Hammett’s iconic private eye Sam Spade as a gentleman of leisure whose French retirement is rudely interrupted by a new case. Here, too, is another emblematic project mixing French locales with wide international accessibility. Created by Scott Frank and Tom Fontana, the limited series is set for broadcast next year.
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