It was August 2003 and Haim Saban was awaiting word on a deal to acquire a controlling stake in ProSiebenSat.1 Media, Germany’s largest broadcasting group, that country’s approximate equivalent of owning ABC, CBS, and CNN.
“The German group belonged to a holding company that had gone bankrupt, but the group itself was not,” says Saban, who is receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 22. He recalls the experience of the impending sale while sitting in the West Los Angeles offices of Saban Capital Group, which he founded in 2010. Photographs of Hillary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel at a commemorative event at Auschwitz, hang on the wall, tokens of long-held friendships and significant meetings with leading figures from around the globe.
CREDIT: MICHAEL LEWIS FOR VARIETY
“The bankers had to decide whether they would continue holding it themselves or whether they were going to sell it,” he adds. “I was in Paris with my family and we were waiting for the bankers to make their decision, and I said to my family, ‘Let’s go to Munich [while] we’re waiting for the call. We’ve never been there together.’”
Saban continues: “And what do you do in Munich? I take them to Dachau. I always, always have the Holocaust on my mind.”
Saban’s cell phone vibrated in his pocket as he was standing in the death camp with his son, Ness. Shaking, he exited the crematorium and took the call. It was Adam Chesnoff, president and CEO of Saban Capital, who’d been negotiating all day with the bankers.
“I pick up the phone, and Adam says, ‘So, do you want to own the largest group of Television networks in Germany?’” Saban recalls. “I say, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘Well, we got it. The bankers decided to sell it to us.’ I’m standing there, and my whole body is covered with shivers. My son goes, ‘Abba, Abba, what did they say?’ And I told him. And he lifted his eyes upward and said, ‘There’s a God in the sky.’ It was a very emotional moment.”
Minutes later, Germany’s then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called to congratulate Saban.
“All of a sudden I’m someone people wanted to talk to in Germany,” says Saban, on whom the irony of being a Jew and owning the largest group of German TV networks has never once been lost, even as he tells the story 14 years later. “I never felt threatened, not even close. In fact, it was the opposite. The German politicians, the German employees, and the people, they were all absolutely fantastic. And it wound up being a very good venture for us. We bought the network at €7 a share, and sold it at €28 a share. It was wild.”
It was a long way from where Saban began life, in Alexandria, Egypt, one of two children born to a salesman father and homemaker mother. Sephardic Jews, they were poor, but extremely close-knit. Per Saban, “My parents instilled in me [the concept] that family is above all: Love, support, and, no matter what, loyalty.
“My father worked in a toy store,” he says. “He used to give toys to the head of police when he would shop for his kids. One day the police head came in and told my father, ‘You’re on the list. Within two weeks, we’re going to come and arrest you.’ So within two weeks we got the heck out of there. We were given an opportunity by our relatives in France to go to France but my father was a big Zionist, so that it was not in the cards.”
In 1957, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and $200 among them, Saban, his brother, parents, and their blind grandmother sailed to Greece, where they were received by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Two weeks later, they sailed to the Promised Land, settling in Tel Aviv. All five lived in a cramped one-room apartment, with an icebox and a communal bathroom shared with two other couples. There were no separate bedrooms. Saban shared a bed with his brother, and when it rained, the ceiling leaked.
“My father sold pencils door to door, but on a good day, he also sold erasers,” quips Saban of their circumstances.
Never an exemplary student, Saban was kicked out of school for misbehavior, and later served in the Israel Defense Forces. But he was resourceful and street smart and determined to carve out a more financially stable life than the one in which his family was mired. Without playing even a lick of the guitar, Saban finagled his way into a local Tel Aviv band as its bass guitarist-cum-manager.
“I don’t know how to read music,” admits Saban. “You pick your guitar, you start playing chords and make up a melody that comes out of your head. As for how it works, I have a talk with God and I’ll get back with you. I have no freaking’ idea. It just comes.”
The band, Lions of Judah, became a hit act and Saban traded in his guitar pick for a career as a music tour promoter when the band got a trained guitarist.
“One of the happiest days of my life is the day I put down my bass guitar following my last gig and became a band manager,” he says.
In 1975, Saban moved to France. “I felt that Israel was too small for me in terms of business in those days,” says Saban. “In this day and age, you have the start-up nation concept, but Israel wasn’t like that then. In France I became something that I’d never been before: a record producer.”
The first song Saban produced, a French pop track, went platinum. Shortly thereafter, he established his own label, Saban Records. Professionally, Saban was thriving. Spiritually and emotionally, something was missing. “I can’t explain it, but it just didn’t happen,” he says. “France just didn’t work out for me.”
Saban next moved to Los Angeles, where he had a close friend, the movie producer and music composer Shuki Levy, and attempted to try his luck in Hollywood.
“I bought a house [in L.A.], and I know I’m going to be tacky for a minute, but I bought a convertible Rolls Royce — with a license plate that read 1RSKTKR — and I would drive up and down Sunset and smile. And guess what? The people smiled back.”
Saban Entertainment was founded in 1980, and Saban and Levy embarked on a lucrative partnership creating music for cartoons, composing scores for such series as “Inspector Gadget,” “The Mysterious Cities of Gold,” “Dinosaucers,” “Dragon Quest,” “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” and “Princess of Power.”
Over time, Saban and Levy went from creating music to producing such shows as “Kid Video,” a combination of live action and music videos, an animated version of “X-Men,” and, finally, the holy grail of campy, low-budget youth-targeted superhero fare, the Japanese series “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”
“I saw ‘Power Rangers’ on TV back in 1984,” says Saban. “I tried to sell it for eight years, but nobody wanted to buy it. In 1992, I took it to Margaret Loesch, president of Fox Children’s Network, and she thought, ‘huh, that could be interesting.’ She committed to putting it on air. But her bosses, all the way up to Rupert Murdoch, told her that she was playing with her career and that she should just nix it.”
Saban subsequently pleaded with Loesch. He had “Power Rangers” merchandise on the shelf and if the show didn’t air, he’d be sued left and right. It would be a disaster, he told her.
Loesch relented, and during summer 1993, “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” premiered on Fox, slated for an eight-week run. Schools were out, kids were at the beach and on vacation with their parents, and expectations were low. “Everybody figured that nobody would notice it,” says Saban.
Instead, “Rangers” became a runaway hit from day one. The series would eventually go on to run for more than 20 seasons and become a small-screen staple of tweens and tykes across the nation.
“[Margaret] went from being somebody on the verge of losing her job to somebody people thinks walks on water,” says Saban. The series became such a giant success that Murdoch extended an offer to partner with Saban in a joint venture with News Corp.
“I was very firm,” Saban recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t need your money.’ I was making a decent living then, selling tens of millions of cassettes, toys, I don’t know what. And I said the only partnership I would make is if we created a joint venture and Murdoch put all of my content on it — by then we had built a huge library of many animated series — on Fox Kids network, which was the No. 1 network for kids at the time. I told him that we’ll be partners 50/50. I’ll be a non-fireable chairman, and I’ll run it.”
In the midst of negotiations, Murdoch pulled in News Corp.’s Chase Carey to help finalize the numbers. There were disagreements, to be sure, but Saban says he was committed to being fair as well as realizing the full potential of his own equity.
“We had our meeting and I said, ‘Well, how much do you think my share is worth?’ They said a half billion [dollars]. I said, ‘Well, I think it’s worth $2 billion, so we’re close. Let’s start talking.’ That’s exactly the conversation. What am I going to do — slam the door on them? I’m not going to go to war with a partner. I’m not going to go to war. I’ll try to find a solution.”
In 1995, Fox Kids and Saban Entertainment merged to form Fox Kids Worldwide. In 2001, Disney bought the Fox Family Channel for $5.2 billion. The network, now known as Freeform, was initially renamed ABC Family.
“It was the biggest deal for an independent [company],” says Saban. “It was quite an achievement, but it was still too small to be big, too big to be small. We were competing with companies worth $50 billion, $70 billion. We didn’t have the scale. Everybody thought [Disney] overpaid. I don’t think so, and I think that, after a few years, Disney also doesn’t think so. I think it worked out well for everybody.”
Since founding Saban Capital, Saban has continued to make investments in real estate, venture capital, and public markets around the world, including Indonesia, Israel, and the U.S. In 2007, Saban Capital led a group of four other investors — Texas Pacific Group, Thomas Lee Partners, Madison Dearborn Partners, and Providence Equity Partners — and purchased Univision Communications, the largest Spanish-language media company in the United States for $13.7 billion. Saban is chairman of the company. (Incidentally, he says, his original Ladino – a Spanish-derived language spoked by Sephardic Jews – “has converted more into Mexican Spanish.”)
“I’ve been busting my butt on Univision for 10 years,” says Saban. “And I love the company, I love the management. I believe in this company, I believe it is a gem from A to Z. It caters to the fastest-growing demographic in America: Hispanics. And I think that at the end of the day it’s going to be a very successful venture. Has it been financially rewarding at the speed that I would like? No. But will it be financially rewarding? Absolutely yes with a capital ‘Y.’ I hope to make a lot of money so I can give most of it back to society.”
Married (wife Cheryl Saban is a philanthropic powerhouse), with four children and five grandchildren, Saban maintains a humble and pragmatic outlook on his astronomical professional success.
“The definition of luck is having the skill to grab the luck when it is presented. And I’m a lucky guy, at multiple levels.”
As for “Power Rangers,” the quirky children’s series that catapulted Saban to fame and fortune, the live-action big-screen version, directed by Dean Israelite and starring Elizabeth Banks and Bryan Cranston, bows March 23 in Israel and March 24 Stateside.
“It’s got a $120 million budget and north of $50 million in marketing behind it, and I think it’s going to be huge,” says Saban. “I base this on two things: one, the most important thing, is my kishke (Yiddish for guts). The second reason is that the trailers we have shown have generated hundreds of millions of views and reactions from fans. I’ve seen the film, it’s 95% finished. On a scale of one to five, cautiously, I give it a 4.5. Not cautiously, I give it a five. I think it’s going to be a monster.”