Canal Plus calls in the CIA

Paris-based outfit has taken over much of wheeling and dealing

PARIS — International distributors at the Mipcom TV mart, which starts Oct. 8, had better gear themselves up for some tough talking with the CIA — Canal Plus Intl. Acquisitions, that is.

The 36-strong Paris-based outfit, formed in September, has taken over much of the wheeling and dealing that used to be done by an array of buyers from the Canal Plus Group’s different premium channels around Europe.

The centralized acquisitions service is one of the changes that have swept through Canal Plus since it became Vivendi Universal’s TV and film division following the conglom’s creation last year.

The CIA is headed by managing director Evi Fullenbach, whose formidable negotiating skills have been honed through deal-making with the U.S. studios on behalf of Canal Plus’ French premium channel.

Fullenbach recalls the moment when the need to rationalize the group’s acquisitions became clear to her. “I was at NATPE,” she says, “and a distributor I was meeting had the names of eight different Canal Plus buyers on his appointments list, one after the other. It was unbelievable.”

Around 20 acquisitions execs — half the number the group would have sent in previous years — will be at this week’s Mipcom in Cannes to handle deals for 10 European premium channels and a handful of theme channels in which Canal Plus has a stake, representing a combined budget of around 2 billion francs ($280 million) annually.

Fullenbach plays down the extra clout the centralized service will wield.

“The economic advantage won’t be in terms of the deals we will be able to make,” she insists, “because where premium product is concerned, distributors don’t need to make cut-price multiterritory deals. We aren’t talking about peanuts here.

“The advantage for us is that we won’t have a situation where 12 people see a film that they all dislike. The advantage for the distributors is simplicity.”

Fullenbach points out that when Fox had just 12 hours to distribute the recent Hollywood telethon in aid of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., her unit took the logistical pain out of the deal. “In an hour I had reached everyone on the phone,” the exec says.

There are also myriad marketing advantages to be exploited.

But Fullenbach insists that Canal Plus’ channels across Europe retain “editorial and budgetary control” over their own programming.

“Our objective isn’t to impose programs on all the channels. Each one has its own characteristics, both culturally and in terms of local broadcasting requirements. CIA does not buy, it negotiates. The contracts are signed by the channels themselves.”

Each territory will also continue to locally co-produce programming.

Fullenbach reckons a handful of acquisition jobs have gone across the group as a result of the changes, because buyers from some of the group’s smaller channels also performed other functions.

“The aim of CIA was to save money, but our first aim was coordination,” the exec concludes.

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