François Macerola: Cirque du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil is not your usual circus. There are no animals and, a lot of the time, no big tops. Instead, the company’s 600 artists tour the globe performing breathtaking acrobatic feats as part of colourful and surreal shows.

Hot on their heels is a legal department that is not quite your usual legal department. At its head is Cirque du Soleil’s vice-president of legal and commercial affairs François Macerola. Macerola is based in Montréal at Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters, but spends much of his time travelling the world in the wake of the company’s shows.

Macerola has been with Cirque du Soleil for nearly three years, joining from a role as lawyer for the Canadian Home Office. “I got a call from Cirque du Soleil saying they were looking for somebody,” he says, explaining that his brief on joining was to modernise and develop the legal team.

There are 13 lawyers in the worldwide Cirque du Soleil legal department: 12 in Montréal, including Macerola, and one in Singapore. The team’s gender split is one most law firms would be proud of, with nine women and three men in Canada. “They were the most competent,” Macerola says simply, praising his team.

Cirque du Soleil’s main legal issues are connected with IP, something Macerola knows a lot about. He has always worked in the entertainment industry, particularly film and television, with high-profile roles for organisations such as investment body Téléfilm Canada. At Cirque du Soleil he oversees around 2,000 files a year comprising contracts, negotiations and cases concerning the circus’s productions, employees and artists.

“We’re mainly involved with the negotiations of contracts related to the production and the distribution of our shows,” says Macerola.

Occasionally corporate or employment issues will arise. In 2003 the company was involved in a dispute with an acrobat in Las Vegas. HIV-positive Mark Cusick was sacked for “safety reasons”, the circus said at the time. Cusick promptly sued for discrimination and Macerola led successful settlement negotiations.

“We know very well that the creative people are at the heart of Cirque du Soleil and we have a very good professional relationship with these people,” says Macerola, explaining that cases such as Cusick’s are rare.

But most of the team’s work is concerned with IP matters and the law firms Macerola instructs are primarily IP specialists.

“We’ve established a kind of informal network,” he says. “We have to establish a good working relationship with our correspondents, with competent people on whom I can rely.”

Due to the informal nature of the relationships, Macerola has instructed many firms in each jurisdiction over the years. The most common are Kramer Zucker & Abbot, Mullerat and Ogilvy Renault.

Legal spend is consequently sizeable. Macerola declines to give an exact figure, but says: “We do spend some good money – millions of dollars.”

The legal team is brought in at the start of any of the circus’s shows. Currently there are 12 worldwide – six touring the globe, five resident in locations such as the Bellagio in Las Vegas and Walt Disney World, and one live music show, which is also touring. As the show’s development progresses, Macerola’s team follows to make sure that the IP is protected and the artists are properly contracted.

While the department’s function has not changed much since Macerola’s arrival, the manner in which it runs has. Macerola says that, when he arrived at Cirque du Soleil, each member of the team was very specialised.

“I’ve changed that mentality,” he states. “Now they’re working in synergy – that’s very important for me.”

He has also placed more emphasis on delivering a service by a particular date once a file has been opened, and he requires external lawyers to commit to deadlines. Macerola says his aim is not to transform Cirque du Soleil into a bureaucracy, but to make it more efficient.

Macerola’s career has followed a period of change in the Canadian IP market.

“I remember when I first started practising law and I referred to IP; nobody really understood what I was saying,” he recalls. “People were using words such as ‘copyright’ and ‘IP’, but nobody was looking after these cases.”

Over the years, however, the market changed. More lawyers began practising IP and it was soon recognised as being a legitimate area of law.

“For me it’s music to my ears, because finally IP and entertainment law is considered as being a major area of activity,” Macerola says. “Now everyone understands that there’s a value to a music right and a production right as much as a car or a house.”

Canadian legislation is in the process of change. Last June, the Canadian government introduced a bill to amend the Copyright Act, with proposals designed to update and modernise the law for the 21st century. It is an issue that Macerola will be following closely from the midst of the creative milieu in which he is most at home.

Organisation: Cirque du Soleil
Sector: Entertainment
Turnover: $550m (£316.3m)
Employees: 3,000
Legal capability: 13
Vice-president of legal and commercial affairs: François Macerola
Reporting to: Chief financial officer Robert Blaim, president Daniel Lamarre
Main law firms: Mullerat, Kramer Zucker & Abbott, Ogilvy Renault

François Macerola
Vice-president of legal and commercial affairs
Cirque du Soleil

Organisation Cirque du Soleil
Sector Entertainment
Turnover $550m (£316.3m)
Employees 3,000
Legal capacity 13
Vice-president of legal and commercial affairs François Macerola
Reporting to Chief financial officer Robert Blaim, president Daniel Lamarre
Main law firms Mullerat, Kramer Zucker & Abbott, Ogilvy Renault