Leo Kirch, 1926–2011

The man who built and lost a media empire

Leo Kirch took out a modest loan from his wife to lay the foundation for Germany’s second-biggest media empire. He used her money in 1956 to drive to Italy, where he met a young director named Federico Fellini and bought the German rights to his debut film, La Strada. When the film became a hit in German cinemas, Kirch easily paid his wife back. But in the 1990s he was unable to pay the hundreds of millions of dollars he owed to creditors. Those debts led, in 2002, to postwar Germany’s biggest bankruptcy and the dissolution of Kirch’s media group.

Born in northern Bavaria as the son of a winemaker, Kirch studied and later taught economics at the University of Munich. But as soon as his Fellini gamble paid off, he quit academia and started snapping up movie rights. By the end of the century, said Bloomberg.com, he owned “the rights to 63,000 movies and television shows.”

Kirch branched out into production, distribution, merchandising, and broadcasting, which allowed him to “wring profit from practically every step of the creation and marketing of a film,” said Der Spiegel. His “cunning and hunger for power” brought him a reputation as a “puppet master who pursued monopolies to the very edge of legality.” The Kirch Group, which he ran like a patriarch, eventually employed 10,000 people, ran three private television channels, and held 40 percent of the Axel Springer publishing house. In assembling his conglomerate, Kirch courted conservative politicians and became a close personal friend of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

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But Kirch also had an archenemy, or at least he thought he did. Deutsche Bank chairman Rolf Breuer said in a 2002 interview that the finance sector wasn’t “prepared to provide further” financing for Kirch, whose $3 billion investment in a bid to launch pay TV in Germany had gone nowhere in the late 1990s. Bankruptcy soon followed, and Kirch spent the rest of his life fighting a series of bitter legal actions against the banker. He was “convinced that Breuer deliberately sought to drive his media group into insolvency,” said the Munich Süddeutsche Zeitung. His heirs could choose to fight on.

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