Q&A: Rodolphe Belmer

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The economy is in shambles across the globe, France's main terrestrial networks are suffering as advertising revenue continues to plummet and a recent ad ban on public TV group France Televisions has sent shockwaves through the nation's TV sector. Yet Canal Plus CEO Rodolphe Belmer is smiling. And why not? The pay TV service has emerged relatively unscathed from the global economic crisis, with audience shares on the rise, a 4.4% jump in annual revenue in 2008 and the group's 10.6 million subscribers remaining loyal despite the unstable climate. Since Belmer came on board in 2001 -- initially as director of strategy and development -- the network has become a pay TV powerhouse in Gaul and now is turning its sights overseas. The Hollywood Reporter's France correspondent Rebecca Leffler sat down with Belmer recently to talk about the threat of the economic crisis, the group's plans for the future and why even French President Nicolas Sarkozy is a subscriber.

The Hollywood Reporter: Despite the financial climate that has seen your competitors suffer, Canal Plus' audience share and income continue to rise. Are you immune to the effects of the financial crisis?

Rodolphe Belmer: Business is very good at the moment at Canal Plus, but I can't exactly say that we're totally immune to what's happening in the rest of the world. We are slightly, but still impacted by the economic crisis, even if the magnitude of the impact is far less than on other media businesses. It's been more difficult for us to recruit new subscribers this year. It's hard to convince people to commit to a one-year subscription for an entertainment product at a time when they don't really know what the future will bring. However, we are very happy with the strong loyalty of our subscriber base.

THR: What are you doing to keep these subscribers happy?

Belmer: We try to offer them quality programming, like we always have. Our strategy during this crisis has not changed. We have what we call a diversified editorial line. Our economic situation is stable, allowing us to invest in cinema, in sports and now more and more in original programming. This drives subscriber satisfaction, which drives loyalty in the end. Meanwhile, the immediate impact of the economic crisis on our competitors is that they're now obliged to invest in cost-reduced programs. The difference in the investment in programming between Canal Plus and the free TV networks is increasingly more and more important for us.

THR: How much are you investing in programming?
Belmer: We'll invest €1.2 billion this year, about the same as last year.

What kind of shows work best on Canal Plus in general?

Belmer: The strongest program is soccer, with more than a 25% market share in primetime on average, but we don't evaluate the strength of our programs on ratings alone. What we want is for each target group to spend at least one night with us every week -- that's the objective. It's about diversity of programming to appeal to a diversity of targets -- which is very specific to Canal Plus. We target sports fans and viewers seeking simpler programs, but also a more sophisticated, educated group representing 15% of the French population who we call the "CSP+."

THR: If you had to describe Canal Plus in one phrase, how would you describe it?

Belmer: I'd say that it's a premium channel with values. We consolidate the different programs and target groups into one channel that appeals to everybody because of our strong image. Canal Plus is attractive to people with lower revenue or a lower education level, but it also appeals sophisticated Parisian women.

THR: Now that you've conquered these target groups in France, are you looking to expand this image abroad?

Belmer: Absolutely. We think that we have the talent and the directors in France to be able to produce very, very good programming. We have the money, and now we have successful ratings, so we're starting to be considered as a credible partner by some American channels.

THR: Canal Plus co-produced a major, English-language series, "XIII," which aired on NBC. Will we be seeing more Canal Plus-NBC English-language co-productions in the future?

Belmer: I don't know if NBC was happy or not, but for us "XIII" worked very, very well. The ratings were huge. We recorded an 18% market share, which is big for us since our average primetime share is 11%. Our strategy is to develop one major series of international quality every year. I hope in the future we can produce this kind of program -- what we call "prestige series" -- in French, but for now they'll be in English.

THR: What are some of these prestige series?

Belmer: We're working on a new program called "The Borgias," about the famous Italian family. We want this to be a top-quality series that will also interest channels outside of France. The show will be re-written by Tom Fontana and produced by Chris Albrecht, who will both come to France to work with our producers and filmmakers here. "The Borgias" isn't signed for the moment, but we've already had some interest from U.S. channels. The budget will be upward of $30 million, but hasn't been finalized. We'll make 13, 52-minute episodes.

THR: U.S. series have dominated Gallic ratings for years. Do you think French fiction both at Canal Plus and all over France can compete with U.S. fare?

Belmer: The answer isn't a simple yes or no. I think that if we don't change the production model of French fiction, the answer is no. It's not a matter of talent -- the main reason our fiction is less exciting than U.S. shows is because of money. We spend €900,000 ($1.16 million) per hour on average in France on our programming. In the U.S., the average budget per hour is $3 million. And this difference is visible on the screen. If we can't develop our production facilities in France so that they're attractive to investors in other countries, we won't be able to elevate the level of French fiction. And our objective is clearly to head in that direction.

THR: What are some of your other series in development ?

Belmer: We have a lot of French series coming. We're shooting a six-hour miniseries with Olivier Assayas called "Le Prix du Chacal," about the famous terrorist Carlos. We're also developing "Braquo," directed by Olivier Marchal. It's great because we're starting to really attract high-end talents to Canal Plus -- actors, directors and producers. The young generation of filmmakers like television and don't think of TV as a minor medium as they've done in the past. Today, we have a new crop of filmmakers who have been educated by TV series. They're frustrated by the 90-minute limit on films and really like the idea of telling stories over six, eight or 10 hours. Famous directors like Olivier Assayas or Olivier Marchal are in high demand by the film industry, but they want to work with us.

THR: You came to Canal Plus in 2001. How has the network changed since then?

Belmer: The main change has been that the image of Canal Plus has been restored. Today, the channel has recovered its attractiveness and its modernity. It's more appealing to young people -- more fashionable. Canal Plus is a channel, but we also like to believe that we're also a cultural project, which for French people is very important. Canal Plus finances and develops the cultural industry in this country -- both TV and film.

THR: What is your strategy in terms of the types of films you invest in?

Belmer: We don't really have a specific strategy. Canal Plus is extremely important to the French film industry because we finance what we call "films of significance" -- 90% of movies that will sell more than 100,000 tickets in France are financed by Canal Plus. This statistic has been true for decades. We finance the diversity of the French cinema industry. We don't concentrate on a specific type of film because it would mean concentrating the French film industry on a specific genre, which wouldn't be good for the industry at large.

THR: How do you see Canal Plus in 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?

Belmer: In one year, we won't have changed very much. In five years, I hope Canal Plus will have grown a lot in terms of both TV broadcast and film production, and by acquiring companies both in France and abroad. In 10 years, I hope we will have developed a way to feed this network of channels that we will have in France and in other countries. I hope we will have built a production system of international class.

THR: You recently launched the Canal+ Family channel. Do you have plans to continue to launch new channels in the Canal Plus package?

Belmer: We have nothing to announce for the moment, but we're definitely thinking about it. In the past, Canal Plus was a channel for men -- sports, adult programming and action movies. A few years ago, we modified this positioning with a new editorial line to also appeal to women by programming American series and developing original programming. It became a channel for adults of both sexes. Then, we discovered that subscriptions were low among families with kids. We developed Canal Plus Family to establish a relationship with families with children and it's worked very well so far.

THR: You've managed to appeal to men, women and children, and even the President of France. Nicolas Sarkozy's bank account was pirated recently, allegedly because the hacker had access to his Canal Plus subscription. Are you proud to say that even the president is a subscriber?

Belmer: That's a good way to look at it, but the other way to look at it is that our subscribers might believe that their bank details can be robbed by anybody so that's not really good advertising for us. But it's not true!

THR: The French press has been declaring "war" between Canal Plus and Orange. Is it really war between you and the France Telecom subsidiary?

Belmer: Orange is definitely a competitor. Their intention is to compete against Canal and to build a premium offering to attract subscribers. What is reassuring for us is that, first of all, their results aren't outstanding. Second, the commercial and antitrust authorities tend to think, as we think, that their way of operating is not acceptable in the long run, meaning that they invest in programs only to convince people to subscribe to their telephone service.

THR: Canal Plus, TF1 and M6 wrote a letter to French Prime Minister Francois Fillon last week to protest a new tax on the private networks to fund the gap in ad revenue on the public channels. Why protest this if your revenue is only 7% ad-based?

Belmer: It's because we're making money and tax is proportional to the money we make. We have always said that we think it's unfair to force companies who compete against the public service to finance the public service. The tax is unfair because the public service channels operate on the sports markets and on the cinema markets, meaning that they can compete with us for rights, so it's not fair for us to finance them.

THR: How has this recent ad ban on the public networks affected Canal Plus?

Belmer: It has not affected us at all.

THR: And it won't?

Belmer: For the moment, the advertising industry is very depressed in France. Our competitors have recorded very poor results for the first three months of the year -- from Jan. 5 through March. We are the only one to be doing very well this year. But it's primarily due to the fact that our ratings are doing very well, which is attractive to advertisers. We are very strong specifically in the CSP+ (upper socio-professional class) target group, which sustains the growth of our advertising revenue.

THR: Piracy has become a major issue for media groups around the world. What is Canal Plus doing to combat piracy?

Belmer: We do a lot. First, we support the Creation and Internet Law, a government initiative that will help to fight against piracy by creating a retaliation system. Second, we are developing what we call a legal offering of VOD programs via CanalPlay, which proposes more than 1,200 VOD titles. Lastly, we are very strict in our relationship with Internet companies such as YouTube or Dailymotion. We're very motivated because piracy is a real threat to our business.

THR: What is your strategy at MIPTV?

Belmer: To be perfectly honest, we're not going to MIP to find new series. Thankfully, we have other ways to discover new programs through our strong relationships with all of the production companies in the U.S. and in Europe. We go to MIPTV to have meetings with our American counterparts, to nourish the relationship with them and to sort out some business issues. We also go there looking for factual programming or kids programming because these markets are very useful for that. Plus, it's cheaper than flying to LA!

THR: Do you watch every Canal Plus show on the air regularly?

Belmer: Yes. Not every day. We have more than 30 channels, so it makes it difficult to watch everything, but I watch our morning show "La Matinale," "Les Guignols" (the satirical puppet show that gives Canal Plus' its highest average ratings) and "Le Grand Journal" (a daily talk show airing from 7-9 p.m. every night that gives Canal Plus its second-highest ratings) every day.

THR: What do you do before you leave at the end of the day?

Belmer: I switch off the television.
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