Tribute to Catherine Lamour: Woman of Influence

Her reputation precedes her. Canal+ director of documentaries Catherine Lamour has built an eminent and respected home for docs on a French pay-tv channel dominated by sports and movies. With an eye toward securing an enduring supply of cutting-edge, high-quality documentary...
April 1, 1998

Her reputation precedes her. Canal+ director of documentaries Catherine Lamour has built an eminent and respected home for docs on a French pay-tv channel dominated by sports and movies. With an eye toward securing an enduring supply of cutting-edge, high-quality documentary product, she created DocStar, a production fund with over us$25 million to invest before the year 2000. She does the impossible in programming, running four-hour-long social-issue films in their entirety, in the process creating media events and ratings champions out of a genre that has long suffered from the stigma of stuffiness. REALSCREEN talks to one of Europe’s most influential doc decision-makers

It’s hard to imagine another television station in the world, let alone Europe, brave enough to devote an entire evening’s schedule to screening a difficult documentary on a difficult subject. Thanks to Catherine Lamour, that’s exactly what French pay service Canal+ did three years ago when it decided to air The Death Of Yugoslavia, a production from British indie prodco Brian Lapping Associates, in a single four-hour sitting.

How Lamour, Canal+’s veteran director of documentaries, came to invest in and air The Death Of Yugoslavia says a lot about her character as a broadcaster and leader. In agreeing to buy the film, already way over budget, Lamour took on a risk without knowing how her colleagues in the scheduling department would react.

‘I’d never met Catherine before,’ recalls Brian Lapping, ‘but we’d somehow managed to persuade her to take a look at a fine-cut of one of the episodes. I remember arriving at her office early in the morning before she’d got there. She strode in and sat down, and watched the cassette without saying a word. There was no small talk, and I don’t think we were even offered coffee.

‘Her face was totally impassive as she watched the film. When it had finished, she immediately said, ‘Other people have tried to do that, but no one has managed before. We have a terrible problem at Canal+: we’re a sports and feature film channel. There are no regular slots for documentaries, and I don’t know if I can persuade my boss to find a slot for it. But I’ll buy it anyway.’

‘I was knocked sideways.’

It is due to Lamour’s extraordinary personality and devotion to the genre that Canal+ has won a worldwide reputation for supporting quality documentary-making. Lamour, who will be 58 this year, is not a woman who does things by half. Once a slot had been secured for The Death Of Yugoslavia, she went into overdrive, masterminding a publicity campaign that ensured the broadcast would be an event.

For the launch, Lapping and his London-based production team were flown to Paris at Canal+’s expense. ‘We work with the bbc, with Discovery, but nothing like this had ever happened to us before,’ he says. ‘The launch lasted all evening. I remember it was attended by ex-Cabinet ministers and other French political luminaries.

‘I expected everyone to go home once dinner was over, but they all stayed until after midnight and watched the film. The next day there was an all-day press event. This made stars of us all. And it was all down to Catherine; she was completely in charge of the whole thing. Throughout it all she remained calm and in control.’

Lamour’s achievements at Canal+ are all the more extraordinary when you consider that prior to setting up the company’s documentary department in 1983, she had no previous experience as a tv executive. ‘I ended up at Canal+ by accident,’ she recalls. ‘I was invited to write a report about what sort of channel it should be. One thing led to another, and I ended up staying all these years.’

In 1983, the embryonic pay-tv channel consisted of less than a dozen people, including Lamour, working together in a single office. Today Canal+ employs around 2,000 staff. In France, it boasts more than 3.5 million subscribers and the company is ranked number 19 on the stock market.

Prior to joining the company, Lamour, who was born in Nimes in the south of France, worked as an independent producer. She had moved into filmmaking from publishing, having previously worked as an editor in the foreign-affairs department of Le Monde, specializing in Latin American affairs. Lamour is also a published novelist.

‘I came into television as a scriptwriter. I wrote a number of non-fiction books. One of my most successful films, L’heroine du triangle d’or, about drug-trafficking in Burma and Thailand, was based on one of my books.

‘I’d worked for film directors. I was the one providing the ideas and shaping them. I would find it terribly difficult to be closeted into an editing suite for five weeks. That’s not what I am good at. I love writing, especially when something I’ve written creates ripples that last for many months.’

Before her career at Canal+, Lamour had worked with some of the best French documentary-makers, including natural-history filmmaker Frederic Rossif. (‘He’s a genius,’ she enthuses. ‘I’ve tried to be his heir.’) Lamour’s partner is filmmaker Jean Labib; the couple have three children: Louise, Jeanne and Pauline.

While quite obviously a highly successful career woman, Lamour is also someone who makes time for her family. ‘I remember reading a profile of her and being highly impressed by the fact that she was able to combine a thriving career with a proper home-life,’ says a bbc executive who has worked closely with Canal+.

Lamour’s early days at Canal+ involved a good deal of pioneering. In the u.k., documentary programming has always played a key part in the schedules of the main television outlets. In France, however, it was a different story, and Lamour had to do battle against prejudices and preconceptions built up over decades.

‘When we started documentaries, we were in a black hole. Fiction was the star. Documentaries were badly financed and no one took any interest in them,’ she remembers. ‘As far as most programmers were concerned, the documentary was a second-class citizen. The only people doing them at that time were the bbc.’

According to Lamour, the launch of Britain’s Channel 4 in 1982 and renewed interest in documentaries by Australian’s abc and Japan’s nhk, helped change the situation. But perhaps the biggest stimulus to restoring faith in the genre was the arrival of Discovery in 1985.

‘John Hendricks set up Discovery at the same time as I started my department at Canal+,’ Lamour recalls. ‘At the time, his thinking was regarded as being so revolutionary that people thought he was insane.’

With Discovery, and later a&e and productions from National Geographic, finding success in the market, the three big u.s. networks were forced to start showing documentaries in peak slots. Meanwhile, Lamour was helping to bring about a documentary revolution in France.

‘In the early 80s, French people were very narrow-minded about what constituted a documentary,’ she says. ‘Films that didn’t cover social issues were not regarded as worthwhile. Entertaining films, like wildlife documentaries, were considered suitable only for children. When we started screening wildlife films in primetime, it was regarded as, at best, a novelty and, at worst, as stupid. But gradually, attitudes began to change, especially when these films started to win ratings.’

She adds: ‘In France, Canal+ was the channel that brought back the documentary as a genre appreciated by audiences and critics. As a commercial channel, we were under no obligation to do that, but I believed in quality and so did my boss. Our example forced other channels to open up slots for documentaries. Ironically, we have created our own rivals.’

One of Canal+’s early documentary successes was the anthropological film, Baku – People Of the Rain Forest, backed by Channel 4 and directed by Phil Agland, who has since moved on to feature films. ‘That was the first time we achieved a 20% audience share with a documentary,’ says Lamour. ‘This changed the attitude of the channel towards having documentaries in primetime.’

The success of Baku gave Canal+ the confidence to invest in observational films dealing with issues like the plight of the homeless and how people relate to their pets – hardly the kind of fare normally associated with a commercial channel out to establish itself in the marketplace.

More evidence of her determination to back films on challenging subjects was Lamour’s 1987 decision to buy the bbc’s 14 Days In May, a compelling account of a prisoner on death row in America’s deep south, produced and directed by Paul Hamann.

‘That’s when I first noticed that Catherine had a real heart and would fight for her own agenda,’ says Hamann, now head of documentaries at BBC Production. He’s hoping that Lamour will invest in one of the corporation’s new films, Gulag, a three-part series depicting the horrors of the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Another milestone was the success of The Kennedys, Phillip Whitehead’s 1993 series about the American political dynasty. Canal+ aired a specially edited 160-minute version of Whitehead’s film over one Sunday afternoon. Lamour says: ‘Everyone at the channel was amazed at how well we did with The Kennedys. We started out with a 20% audience share, which, amazingly, had dropped by only 1% by the time the program ended.’

Canal+ went one step further with The Death Of Yugoslavia, transmitting it over one evening from 8 p.m. to midnight, back in October, 1995. ‘It was a big risk,’ Lamour admits. ‘We’d never shown a documentary of that length before, but it was a great success. It was a way of giving meaning to a production and not just using it to fill a slot. Brian Lapping told me that no one had the courage to do that kind of event scheduling in England.’

Last year, Canal+ repeated the experiment when it scheduled Yamina Benguigui’s Maghreb immigration film Memoire d’immigres across an entire evening. The film won a 15% share.

‘Catherine likes films that force people to look harder at the things that surround them,’ says Anna Glogowski, Lamour’s deputy these past 14 years. ‘This approach comes from her journalistic background. Catherine is a very passionate woman who is very determined. She’s a very good boss and knows how to animate a team.’

Hamann agrees with this assessment of Lamour – up to a point. ‘I’ve known Catherine for almost 12 years and have a great deal of respect for her,’ he says. ‘She can be very charming when she wants to be, but underneath the beguiling charm is a ruthless professional. Catherine can be very steely. Quite rightly, she is out to get what she wants for herself and her channel.’

Clearly, Lamour, a formidable figure, has to fight her corner. Thanks to her efforts, documentaries are an integral part of the Canal+ mix alongside sports and movies. Documentaries comprise around 5% of the output, but, with competition increasing all the time, there are indications that this may fall in the future. Presently there are around 100 slots per year available for documentaries, four-fifths of which are coproductions or pre-buys.

Details of Lamour’s overall budget are hazy; Lamour insists the amount of money she can spend is ‘flexible.’ She says: ‘We can adjust our budget to how many projects we think are worth investing in.’

What is not open to interpretation, however, is rights. When Lamour invests in a program, she requires exclusive first-run rights on French television. This consists of about six plays plus satellite multiplexing on Canal+’s other channels.

Lamour predicts that, internationally, there will be a shortage of suitable documentary material in two years’ time. One reason she formed DocStar (see p. 58) was to enable Canal+ to become involved in new programming as early as possible.

Another more recent development was the formation in 1995 of London-based Explore International, a 50/50 distribution partnership with National Geographic Television, which put both companies’ documentary catalogues under one roof.

Lamour explains: ‘Canal+ used to be a simple buyer, but now, between us, the two companies are building programming which includes 200 original films a year, through coproduction and presales. More and more, we are looking at programming from the script stage.

‘The idea of Explore is that it will sell documentaries in which Canal+ has some control over the production. We work on the basis of having a number of production companies around us, and from them we acquire not only Canal+ rights, but other French-speaking rights and European rights.’

Lamour’s biggest challenge in the future is to continue to carve out a unique niche for her station’s documentary output. Now that schedulers everywhere have woken up to the appeal of the genre and thematic channels abound, this is easier said than done.

‘It is becoming increasingly difficult to open up slots where you can bring something new, but we have to do it because people are paying for our service. We can’t just do what other channels do. We have to find new ideas all the time.

‘Science is one area that has been neglected a lot by tv stations, or treated as wildlife used to be, i.e. as a magazine with a lot of talking heads. There is a demand for longer pieces on such subjects as the future of technology, space and biology.

‘The main change in the documentary audience over the years is that now people want stories. It doesn’t have to be in the shape of a soap as long as there is a beginning, a middle and an end. But now also, people want meaning. They don’t just want to look, they want to be moved, and they want to be inside the story.

‘Audiences want to have more emotion in the documentary. They want to laugh and to cry.’

Also see:

-And she said, Let there be Docstar…

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.