Ian Greenberg, media executive and co-founder of Astral, dies aged 79


David Friend, The Canadian Press

Published Tuesday, January 11, 2022 17:00 EST


Last updated Tuesday, January 11, 2022 5:00 PM EST

TORONTO – Ian Greenberg, the Montreal media mogul who grew into a radio and television powerhouse with his brothers Astral Media, has died at the age of 79.

Broadcasting giant BCE Inc., where Greenberg was a board member after acquiring his company, said he passed away on Monday. No reason was given.

“Canada has lost a business visionary and media legend, and we at Bell have lost a wise and sympathetic colleague and friend,” BCE President Gordon Nixon said in a statement.

Greenberg was remembered by friends and colleagues as committed to the success of his business and the love of his family, which played an important role in his career. He was eager to mentor those he felt had the skills for success.

“He had such a good heart,” said film industry veteran Paul Bronfman, who worked under Greenberg at Astral, where he affectionately referred to him as “Uncle Ian.”

“He wasn’t the kind of bravado that patted his chest. He let his actions speak for themselves and treated his management team like partners.”

Greenberg was born in Montreal into an Ashkenazi Jewish family of 10, which included his brothers Harold, Harvey and Sidney.

Money was often scarce and when his mother Ann died suddenly in 1961, the brothers had to take care of the family.

Several of the Greenbergs worked as teenagers in a camera shop. That experience inspired them to take a $15,000 loan from a close relative and invest it in a film processing company called Angreen Photo Inc., named after their mother.

“They really became one and took care of each other,” said Phyllis Yaffe, a longtime media associate who served on Astral’s board of directors and was once CEO of Alliance Atlantis Communications.

“They were street smart; they were guys outsmarting others.”

The brothers grew their business over the next decade by opening locations in Miracle Mart department stores. Small acquisitions expanded their investments in film processing while securing the exclusive rights to sell photo products at Expo 67.

The Greenbergs targeted the stars in 1971 when they launched their company Astral Communications Ltd. put on the public market.

Within a few years, they immersed themselves in film and TV production, including the feature film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” starring Richard Dreyfuss in 1974 and “City on Fire,” a Montreal disaster film filmed in 1978.

Those ventures yielded mixed results at best, with their 1982 high school sex comedy “Porky’s” becoming one of the few films to make a profit. It held the title of highest-grossing Canadian film at the North American box office for years, until “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” took its crown in 2002.

The brothers, willing to acknowledge when an investment didn’t work, quickly stopped making films to continue growing the Astral Photo stores and tapping into the burgeoning world of premium cable television.

As the decade progressed, they amassed a wealth of valuable pay-TV resources, including English- and French-language movie channels, First Choice (later renamed The Movie Network), Premiere Choix (eventually called Super Ecran), and the Family Channel.

When his older brother Harold became ill in 1995, Ian took over the helm of the financially troubled company. He brought with him a very different style of leadership: while Harold was known for being hard-hearted and determined, Ian worked demurely behind the scenes.

“It was very easy to fire Ian in the early days with his older brother Harold,” says Bronfman.

“But he really came into his own when he became CEO of Astral.”

Greenberg made rapid changes, shifting the company’s priorities from photography and video production to buying radio stations.

Astral Media continued to grow as the country’s largest private radio broadcaster, further supported by the Slaight family’s acquisition of Standard Broadcasting in 2007.

On television, Greenberg used his bargaining tactics to make deals that others couldn’t get.

One of his big wins was convincing HBO executives to develop their relationship beyond licensing programming and granting Astral the right to launch HBO Canada, a brand others had been looking for for years.

“The way he charmed the HBO guys into letting him use that brand in Canada was genius, it was absolutely genius,” Yaffe said.

“He went to their weddings, they went to his feasts. He really knew how to build relationships.”

When Astral was acquired by BCE for $3.38 billion in 2013, Greenberg had led the company to at least 66 consecutive quarters of profitable growth, an astonishing feat in the volatile media industry.

“Ian ran his business with a very simple approach: we need to sell more this year than last year and we need to spend less,” said Yaffe.

“And so the company grew quarter after quarter.”

As part of the BCE purchase, Greenberg took on a role as director of the company’s board of directors.

He also held a position as chairman of Cineplex Inc., where he recently oversaw talks over the Canadian exhibitor’s failed $2.8 billion takeover by UK-based film chain Cineworld, which fell during the COVID-19 crisis. pandemic broke up.

“He was a real calming influence,” recalls Ellis Jacob, head of Cineplex.

“And in that way he was also a great mentor and supporter of our company and me personally. His steady hand and his focus was something I really appreciated.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 11, 2022.

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