Belgium, with a population of only 10 million, lives in the shadow of bigger, richer neighbors. But, small countries can be creative with their coffers and often possess influence that belies their size. This generalization extends to the broadcast world, where Philippe van Meerbeeck, commissioning editor for news and culture channel Canvas – the second arm of Belgium’s Flemish-language pubcaster VRT – oversees a relatively tiny budget of 4,545,000 euros (US$5,287,000), devoted exclusively to docs.
The big guys might have more money, says van Meerbeeck, but the little guys often get the ball rolling – and he is one of those little guys. Says Rudy Buttignol, creative head of docs for Canadian pubcaster TVOntario, ‘He’s a small broadcaster that gets involved strategically with the more difficult or interesting projects that have trouble finding a home on larger networks. As a result, every once in a while, he finds the gem everyone else overlooks.’
As part of a long-term plan to expand the channel’s scope beyond local programming, van Meerbeeck has been actively pursuing international ventures for Canvas since he began his job in 2001. Channel manager Johan Op de Beeck, who joined vrt in April, is a long-time indie producer and former journalist, and supports the expansion plan. ‘Happily, my boss is a documentary maker who believes in documentary,’ van Meerbeeck says.
In the past few years, VRT has been involved in several international coproductions. (VRT funding was crucial in the making of Tintin et Moi and Slaves of the Sword. See RealScreen October 2002 and October 2003, respectively.) At present, the channel supports perhaps 10 copros per year.
One project van Meerbeeck is currently backing is Arna’s Children, which he saw pitched at the Israel Forum for International Documentary Co-productions in Tel Aviv last April and brought to the attention of Dutch prodcos ikon and Pieter van Huystee Film & TV. The story is about a group of Palestinian children whom the doc-maker’s mother, an Israeli, taught in a camp more than 10 years ago. After her death, the filmmaker returns to find out what has become of them. ‘It’s the strongest [footage] I’ve seen about life in Palestine camps,’ comments van Meerbeeck.
Like other small broadcasters, VRT can be the catalyst for more funding by making a project eligible for support from such sources as the EU’s Media Plus (for more on Media, see pg. 26). Canvas’s budget of 5,000 euros ($5,800) per broadcast-hour for acquisitions/pre-sales may be miniscule, but, depending on factors such as the project’s overall budget and how many other broadcasters are on board, it can be enough to keep a project alive. The total acquisition budget is 1,035,000 euros ($1,221,000) for all strands.
Canvas has a respectable number of doc slots – five in primetime, four late-night – comprising more than 195 new program hours per year. Three of the primetime slots – ‘Kwesties’ (social issues and human interest), ‘Histories’ and ‘Overleven’ (science) – run 20 in-house productions and 19 acquisitions or copros per year; ‘Rare Streken’ (nature) and ‘Panorama’ (current affairs) are purely acquisitions. In-house production (3,560,000 euros /$4,152,500) accounts for nearly 80% of the overall budget, with science programs receiving the most money (75,000 euros /$87,500 per slot).
Copro financing comes out of the budget for both in-house productions and acquisitions, and most international copros are programmed in late-night strands, which house full-length docs. So strong is the form at Canvas that ‘Doc Story’ was created a year ago to accommodate films with strong narratives, such as Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney, that do not fit into the strand ‘Bewogen Leven’ (Moving Life, where auteur docs are shown). The remaining late-night slots are ‘Derde Oog’ (Third Eye, which runs series on ancient civilizations) and ‘Zwerfroute’ (travel).
One unique feature sets ‘Bewogen Leven’ apart from the rest: the opening minute is devoted to viewers who have seen the doc and talk about why they enjoyed it. The commentary is intercut with scenes from the doc itself.
Van Meerbeeck says this approach has proved popular with the audience – so much so that there are plans to incorporate it into ‘Doc Story’ to help improve ratings.