This article was originally published in 2007
Harold Greenberg, the legendary former head of Astral Media, embodied qualities that are exceptionally rare in a chief executive officer of a media empire. Greenberg was a charming yet resolute force who fought relentlessly to create a film and television industry in Canada, leading the way by executive producing the country’s first international box-office sensation, Porky’s.
An officer of the Order of Canada and a Knight of the National Order of Quebec, Greenberg refused to accept Hollywood’s uncontested colonization of Canada. He used his financial acumen, native good sense and innate political and social skills to help initiate Canada’s feature film business in the 1970s and then spearhead the move to pay-TV and specialty channels in the ’80s with First Choice, now called The Movie Network.
Born in Montreal, Harold and his seven siblings resolved to create a family business when their parents died young in the early ’60s. So the four brothers – led by Harold – established a retail photographic business in 1961. Within a decade, they parlayed that photofinishing shop into the ownership of camera stores, film labs and the acquisition of Astral Communications in 1972. When Harold died in 1996, cofounding brother Ian (a graduate of Harvard Business School) took over as Astral Media president and CEO. (Editor’s note: Astral was acquired by Bell Media in 2012 for $3.38 billion.)
‘Harold was the guiding light of the company,’ remembers Ian, Harold’s youngest brother. ‘He taught me the value of relationships, whether they be with customers, suppliers or partners. That is part of the DNA of Astral today.’
Harold taught Ian well. Astral Media has consistently grown in size and profitability for the last 40 fiscal quarters. In fiscal 2006, Astral reported record revenues of $593.7 million, with a debt-free balance sheet and cash reserves of $113.7 million at year end.
Harold Greenberg’s story somewhat resembles The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the Mordecai Richler-scripted and Ted Kotcheff-directed classic, which his then-company, Astral Bellevue Pathe, produced to worldwide acclaim in 1974. It’s set on Montreal’s famous “main” street of Boulevard St. Laurent, where French, English, Jewish and other immigrant cultures work and live in harmony, a block away from where Greenberg was raised.
One industry leader who benefited from Greenberg’s largesse is Robert Lantos, who started his film career in Montreal and now heads his own prodco in Toronto, Serendipity Point Films. Lantos says it was Greenberg who put the missing financial pieces in the ‘the jigsaw puzzle’ that backed In Praise of Older Women, his first producing success in 1978.
‘Harold was a man with an important network of international connections, and a Canadian who was willing to stay here. I share that philosophy,’ says Lantos, whose latest features are David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces, the opener for the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
‘Harold was a real dynamo,’ comments movie mogul Don Carmody (coproducer of Oscar-winner Chicago), whose first short was supported by Greenberg. ‘I bought him a bottle of cognac as a thank you. Years later – when he hired me as head of production of Astral – Harold would bring that up to colleagues, over and over again.’ Carmody produced Porky’s for Greenberg before moving on to start his own company.
David Novek, a longtime friend and former VP of Communications at Astral Media, sums up what many remember: ‘Harold was the industry for so many years. Harold was a mensch who spent valuable time preaching that we could do it – make films in Canada. He backed up what he said with his lab, which helped many producers with their films.’
Greenberg’s legacy of helping producers get Canadian pictures made is alive and well in Astral’s Harold Greenberg Fund. Not surprisingly, Harold launched the first national nonprofit fund of its kind in 1986. In ’96, it was renamed after Harold and is Canada’s largest private funding agency for English- and French-language film and TV projects, having invested $50.7 million to date. (Editor’s note: as of June 2016, that figure climbed to $84 million over almost 4,000 projects.)