French pay-TV outlet Canal+ has experienced its share of upheavals. But, where does that leave docs? KIMBERLEY BROWN gets candid with Canal+ documentary director Anna Glogowski, and finds out from the indie sector what it all means to the bottom line
During the Vivendi Universal shareholders’ meeting on Wednesday April 24, 2002, company chairman and chief operating officer Jean-Marie Messier acknowledged that Canal+ requires a few modifications if it is to survive. ‘With the competition it faces and the extremely difficult markets in Europe, we have to change Canal+’s business model and its subscriber relations. More than ever, subscribers are key to Canal+’s strategy,’ he stated. ‘We will need a few months to make a complete diagnosis on how to get Canal+ back on track,’ he continued. ‘The success of Canal+ is very important. Success in creative terms of course, but also in business terms.’
A few days earlier, in a statement to the CSA, France’s regulatory commission for the TV and film industry, Messier revealed some scary numbers. The Canal+ Group has amassed a (euro)700 million deficit (US$643 million) and a total debt of (euro)5 billion ($4.6 billion), ‘A burden that is supported by Vivendi Universal and that the Canal+ Group alone would find difficult to finance,’ he said.
As a publicly traded company, Canal+’s financial problems have never been secret. What the numbers and improved ‘subscriber relations’ mean to the future of documentaries on the channel, however, remains the domain of closed-door meetings – closed to both producers and editorial staff. The year-long parade of executive personnel changes has led to uncertainty about the future direction of the outlet. Since the firing of Canal+ co-founder and chairman Pierre Lescure in mid-April (replaced by Xavier Couture, former director of French TV station TF1), little has been decided, or so it seems. But, shrinking budgets and a lower profile on the international scene does not bode well for factual programming.
Raison D’etre of docs
Anna Glogowski, director of documentaries for Canal+ in Paris, France, admits the editorial direction of the channel has been under review for close to a year. ‘We’re in a bit of a crisis, which is something that has never happened to us,’ she explains. ‘The problem is that today there’s a recounting of the financial situation. In pay-TV the priority is the identity of the channel. For Canal+ that’s mainly cinema and sports, so there’s a priority given to these programs and both are very expensive. All the rest is like the cherry on a cake. That goes for documentary, but also short programs, animation, and even TV movies.’ As a result, funding for docs has continued mainly for wildlife films, which Glogowski says were the last contracts inked before changes were implemented. Other factual production activity has been inconsistent.
Part of the problem is the TV market in France has matured since Canal+ first took to the air in 1984. At that time, only three public stations – TF1 (privatized in 1987), Antenne 2 (now France 2), and FR3 (now France 3) – were broadcasting and docs were scarce on the schedules. ‘When we arrived we popularized the genre,’ says Glogowski, who joined Canal+ on September 1, 1984, two months before the channel’s first transmission. ‘We started showing documentaries in primetime and we proved that wildlife and other styles have a public. After that we started being copied because everybody understood that documentaries could be part of a program schedule. We then had to find a way to be original.’
The arrival of ARTE in 1991 and the influx of digital thematic channels dedicated to the factual form have made this task increasingly difficult. ‘Our aim is to justify why people would pay to see a channel, which means they have to see something they would not see anywhere else,’ explains Glogowski. ‘We realized we had to invest enough in programs to maintain quality and exclusivity of the best programs we could find. There will be documentaries on Canal+ as long as we’re able to maintain this objective of being unique, good and popular.’
To this end, Glogowski has submitted a proposal for the fall season that considers the future direction of the documentary department at Canal+. Taking a cue from HBO, the popular U.S. pay-TV channel, she suggests Canal+ concentrate on point-of-view films. ‘We have to continue doing films that are strongly defended by a filmmaker. In other words, original programming made by people who have something to say about what’s going on,’ she says. ‘I think it’s important there’s space on a channel like Canal+ for documentaries made by someone who allows you to see something you wouldn’t have seen by yourself. Are we going to be able to do that? I don’t know.’
At press time, Glogowski had not yet heard if her proposal was accepted. ‘Normally, we’re supposed to have a new schedule starting in September that reflects suggestions I’ve made,’ says Glogowski. ‘We’re waiting to see if they go through or not. It has to be decided by now, because we have to know where we’re going in order to commission, acquire, coproduce or whatever. Also, there are projects I initiated that are going on and that I don’t want to let go.’
Trickle down effect
Most producers in France agree that the volume of docs supported by Canal+ has never been high enough to significantly impact the health of the country’s independent production sector. Explains Manuel Catteau of Zoo Ethnological Documentaries (ZED), a Paris-based prodco, ‘It is quite prestigious to work with Canal+, because it’s a pay-tv channel and, therefore, it has a lot of money. They really cherry-pick the best films. But, it’s not a crucial outlet for the French documentary community.’
Glogowski concurs, saying the channel has always chosen quality over quantity, and notes that although its average investment for French broadcast rights for an original production has dropped recently, it is still about FF800,000 (US$110,000). Nonetheless, the upheavals at Canal+ have not gone unnoticed in the indie sector. At the end of last year, Daniel Leconte, head of Paris-based prodco Doc en Stock, was in negotiations with Canal+ to coproduce a documentary titled The French Bridget Jones. When Alexandre Dubigny was replaced by Dominique Farrugia as Canal+’s head of programming at the beginning of February, those negotiations were terminated. ‘Anna Glogowski was disappointed, but documentaries are not the priority of the new guard,’ says Leconte. ‘Canal+ has been important to French cinema and now it wants to be more like hbo; it wants to be important to French TV movies. This could be good news for documentary filmmakers, but people are skeptical.’
Even producers in established relationships with Canal+ have lost business, although not revenue, because of the ongoing changes at the channel. Frédéric Fougea, of Boréales in Paris, has counted Canal+ as his main copro partner for the past 15 years. Two years ago, deals started to fall through. One was for five, 60-minute, follow-up episodes to Yeti, an adventure docudrama about a legendary snow man living in the Himalayas. The subsequent episodes were to focus on other legends from around the world. ‘About one-and-a-half years ago, there were suddenly big budget cuts in the documentary unit,’ recalls Fougea. ‘The people in charge didn’t know what to do and they had to hold back on a few projects. I don’t think the situation has cleared up. It’s been two years of tough activity inside the unit and I’m not optimistic about the future. More and more the channel is focusing on football. Docs have always been a side activity and I doubt there will be any more development of docs inside Canal+.’ Fougea is currently working on a number of doc projects with France 3 and France 5.
Stéphane Peyron’s Dans la Nature – a natural history series produced by 95° West in Marseilles, France, that has screened on Canal+ for the past 10 years – is also coming to an end. ‘We wouldn’t be able to maintain the quality of the show given the financial means of the channel for the future,’ says Peyron, who is finalizing a deal for a new nature series with France 2 and France 5.
Additionally, in September 2001, Canal+ consolidated documentary acquisition into a single, Paris-based unit. ‘There’s one small group of people buying for the entire Canal+ group,’ says ZED’s Catteau. ‘This makes things quicker, because you only have one person to talk to, but if your documentary only appeals to one service, they will pass on it. For example, if we have a good film made in Africa, it might be of some interest to Canal+ Horizon, which broadcasts in Africa. Before, you could go to that channel and they would buy it. Now, if it doesn’t have a strong appeal to all the channels, you won’t sell to any of them.’ Lou Murrin, an acquisitions exec with Canal+, confirms that acquisitions are ideally pan-territorial deals. ‘It’s a case by case basis, but pan-territorial deals are our main focus,’ she explains. ‘That’s based on the idea that if it’s a really good program, one country is going to want it as much as another.’
Glogowski insists it’s still too early to tell the future of documentaries at Canal+. ‘Nothing has been decided,’ she says emphatically. ‘If you write anything, you have to write the truth, which is that Canal+ is in a time of reflection. Not that that’s a secret. Everybody understands we’re one small part of a big company. The documentary department is very small regarding the big problem it has, which is money. We have to take care of that first.’
She also notes that the documentary department is still busy. At the end of last year, Canal+ acquired the Academy Award-nominated film Promises by filmmakers Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado. La Deuxième Guerre d’Algerie, a doc produced by Patrice Barrat of Article Z in Paris, is currently in the editing room. The film examines the conflicts that have plagued Algeria since 1988. ‘We’re going to look at Algeria the same way Brian Lapping looked at Yugoslavia,’ says Glogowski. ‘The producer has incredible access to the people and events going on there. That’s something we’ll show after the summer.’
While Glogowski is taking a wait-and-see approach, she also appears to be bracing herself for a possible career change. ‘I’ve been here a long time, because I’ve been able to defend what I believe in,’ she explains. ‘The day that is not possible, then we’ll see. It’s been a fantastic adventure, but sometimes things have to end. That’s life. We’ve been extremely lucky, and now the environment has changed. We should be the first to understand, because we’re documentary people and we’re involved in reality.’