The sky may be blue, but that’s not stopping Italian doc producers from hoping theirs will soon be paved with gold. The result of a merger between satcasters Tele+ and Stream, Sky Italia launched on July 31, to an estimated 2.2 million subscribers. The News Corp-owned platform hopes to soon reach 10 million customers with a bouquet of 120 channels delivering movies, sports, the country’s first all-news outlet and – wait for it – documentaries. Four Discovery channels and six new Sky channels devoted to film are among the stations offered by Sky Italia. But, the news that has the country’s non-fiction producers guardedly optimistic is the platform’s promise to invest 50 million euro (US$56 million) annually in domestic production.
‘I don’t see any of [News Corp-owner Rupert] Murdoch’s channels wanting to invest in social docs or anything that’s more difficult or high-brow,’ says GA&A’s Gioia Avvantaggiato, CEO of the Rome-based prodco/distrib. ‘But, the status of the market is such that any kind of investment into any genre or subgenre of documentary is more than welcome now.’
Avvantaggiato’s silver-lined, doom-and-gloom outlook is typical of the documentary community in Italy. ‘For 30 years, there has been no systematic investment in documentaries in Italy, neither by the broadcasters nor by the national public institutions,’ contends Stefano Tealdi of Torino, Italy-based prodco Stefilm. ‘We have lost our documentary culture, and there are no signs of change.’
Except, he adds, for the launch of Sky Italia. ‘I can’t say I’m optimistic, though,’ he continues. ‘If I look at what Murdoch did in England…the quality of documentaries on BSkyB is very low. But, the U.K. is a different reality, where there are a lot of good documentaries made by BBC and Channel 4. Maybe they will be obliged to do differently in Italy. We are watching very carefully. Given all the hours of product going on the air, we must find a solution for proposing them things.’ Stefilm produces docs for the international market with minimum budgets of $120,000 per hour, most of which are financed outside of Italy.
The focus on Sky Italia originates with the production community’s frustrations with RAI, the Rome-based national pubcaster comprising three terrestrial channels. RAI airs non-fiction fare, but most are chopped up into short segments for hosted magazine programs, such as Rai Uno’s SuperQuark and Rai Tre’s Geo & Geo. ‘Very seldom do you have an opportunity to see a one-hour film or even a 30-minute film from beginning to end,’ explains Avvantaggiato. ‘Because of this,’ she continues, ‘it’s economically easier to acquire documentaries from around the world rather than produce their own. Today, as a producer, it’s hard to find slots on terrestrial TV to go to when you want to cover your own projects.’ (Commercial broadcaster Mediaset invests in big-budget docs, but very few.)
Avvantaggiato notes that Rai Tre has recently supported more docs. But, the budgets it can finance are in the 25,000 euros to 30,000 euro ($28,000 to $33,000) range for a fully commissioned half-hour. ‘That means you produce a film, but you’re left with nothing,’ she says.
Flavia Scollica, the doc buyer for Rai Tre, confirms that some copros are made, but because of budget restrictions, the channel tends to buy directly from foreign companies. ‘The documentary genre in Italy has never been much appreciated. Or rather, it’s appreciated by the public, but does not receive political aid or funds,’ she says, echoing Tealdi. She notes that she’s currently looking for ’25-minute films cut from 50-minute formats.’
One of the biggest hurdles to carving out a more significant niche for docs at RAI is its lack of a documentary department. ‘RAI is the only public broadcaster in the civilized world that I know of that doesn’t have a place for documentaries to be received, looked at and evaluated for production or coproduction,’ says Avvantaggiato.
No doc department means even the best intentions toward factual fare often fall short of their goals. ‘A lot of documentaries are produced by RAI and never air,’ says Enrica Colusso, a documentary director who splits her time between Rome and London.
In late 2001, Colusso was asked to direct one of four feature-length docs initiated by Rai Due. ‘They decided to do these four documentaries with quite good budgets – about $700,000. In Italy, you usually get $60,000,’ she notes. But, shortly after Colusso delivered her doc No Risk! No Champagne! (about young Ukrainian women chasing a better future in the West) in 2002, there was a change of leadership at the channel. She says that since then, none of the four films has aired. ‘The new administration doesn’t care what the other administration has done,’ explains Colusso, adding, ‘But, a lot of films produced during one administration never air, so it’s not the only reason.’
The implications of the documentary-as-second-class-citizen in Italy is perhaps most strongly felt in the international arena. Paneikon is a Rome-based prodco specializing in natural history docs. It counts Rai Tre as its main Italian copro partner. They’re currently collaborating on Oxus, a one-hour that captures the climb by several European mountaineers of Afghanistan’s Mount Noshaq, inaugurating the return of peaceful activities to the Hindu Kush range. The budget is around 170,000 euro ($190,000); about 50,000 euro ($56,000) came from RAI for the Italian rights. Says Ilaria Sbarigia, Paneikon’s sales manger, ‘They gave us quite a bit of money.’
Even with a domestic broadcaster on board – a luxury rarely enjoyed by Italy’s indies – finding international funding is a challenge. ‘What Italian producers miss is RAI’s support,’ explains Sbarigia. ‘Other international broadcasters help their producers by talking to other broadcasters. If you need a lot of money to do good quality docs, you should have a broadcaster behind you. We don’t, so it’s hard to get broadcasters to listen.’
DOC/IT, the association for Italian doc-makers, is currently lobbying to change the place of docs in Italy’s cinema landscape. DOC/IT president Alessandro Signetto says: ‘There is a crisis of the TV model in Italy. We don’t have the pretension to consider ourselves programmers, but instead put forward the question of a market for documentary. Why can it be a business all over the world, but not in Italy?’
Signetto looks to the success of French doc Etre et avoir in Italy as hope that theatrical docs will also be considered. And, in the interest of preserving Italy’s doc heritage, DOC/IT is establishing a video library in its hometown of Bologna for every factual film produced in Italy over the past three years. ‘If we raise the money, we will go farther back,’ he says, noting that the library is a private initiative.
In the meantime, Italy’s non-fiction community looks skeptically at Sky. As second-market broadcasters, however, the Sky channels are expected to offer only minimal financial support. Indeed, Luca Macciocca, head of acquisitions and coproduction for RaiSat (owned mostly by RAI, but financed and distributed by Sky Italia, RaiSat is not a pubcaster) says each of his five thematic channels (Ragazzi for kids, Gambero Rosso for food shows, Extra for variety shows, Premium for mostly fiction films, and Cinema World for international features) average 2,000 euro ($2,200) per hour for a pre-buy or acquisition.
Despite a lack of dollars, Macciocca says the satellite channels are important to the future of Italian docs. ‘Hopefully documentaries will prove successful in pay-TV and that will be translated later on in the terrestrial arena. We should work as a TV workshop to make different genres that aren’t successful at the moment, successful ones’ – a role normally expected of pubcasters.
‘Yes,’ says Macciocca, ‘but that’s not the way it is. You have to face reality and be optimistic with what you have. This should be in the public service mission, but if that’s not how it goes, you should start from somewhere.’