Exec’s eclectic mix puts the plus in Canal Plus

Featured Player: Evi Fullenbach

PARIS — Amid the many new faces running Gallic paybox Canal Plus these days, one is familiar to Hollywood — Evi Fullenbach.

Fullenbach had worked at Canal Plus for nearly two decades, rising to head of acquisitions, when she ankled in 2003.

After a stint working as cinema consultant to Tarak Ben Ammar and commercial broadcaster TF1, her career took an unusual turn when she was wooed back to the paybox.

Today Fullenbach heads Canal Plus’ new cinema department, overseeing feature acquisitions — annual spend E400 million ($481 million) — and movie editorial policy across the group’s flagship French channel, Canal Plus Cinema, part of its multi-channel digital service, and six cinema niche channels.

Dressed with understated elegance in navy blazer and jeans, Fullenbach lights a cigarette and reflects on the transformations the paybox has undergone, shedding jobs and a deeply ingrained corporate culture (criticized for extravagance) as it emerged from a $6 billion debt pile.

“Our methods have changed, that’s obvious, but you have to remember that when Canal Plus began in 1984 it was a small start-up company that had enormous liberty,” the exec recalls. “TV was very controlled in France and so there was a gigantic stock of films that had never been seen. In the 1980s James Bond had never been shown on French television.

“Today, management is tougher but that’s normal. We have 4.5 million subscribers, 5 million soon, things have to evolve.”

Fullenbach is philosophical about Canal Plus’ reduced scope today, following the company’s heady international expansion in the 1990s which culminated in the 2000 merger with Universal and parent company Vivendi.  

 “Our international period was a bit Napoleonic,” she says, “But what happened happened. Buying a studio is in itself a good idea. Look at Rupert Murdoch with Fox. But the merger with Universal only lasted two years. There wasn’t time for us to put it into practice.”

All of that is behind the company now, she says, and relationships between the paybox and Hollywood are on a different footing today. “I believe that we are still perceived in Hollywood as pay TV professionals.”

Recent moves include the renewal of a multi-year deal with Sony. The next round of negotiating with the majors will not heat up until 2007, when Warner, nabbed in 2003 by rival pay TV operator TPS, will be among those back on the market.

“What happened with Warner taught us that you don’t have to have every single one of the studios,” Fullenbach asserts. “Contrary to our imaginings and frustration, the Warner deal didn’t change the face of the earth.”

Some 75% of this year’s Gallic box office top 30 so far will air on Canal Plus, she points out.

Meanwhile net subs across the group grew by 300,000 last year, numbers it is hoping to better this year.

However, recruiting is becoming tougher and more expensive as options for consumers grow.

“Today the environment is much richer and it is harder to stay out in front,” says Fullenbach.

“We have to show that we have a savoir faire, it’s not just a question of volume, that we know how to select and program the films we have.”

Diversity has also become a company catchword.

“Canal Plus has to stand out as a channel that’s different from the rest. That’s what people subscribe for. And to achieve that we can’t just program Hollywood blockbusters and big-budget French films, we also have to show less accessible films and foreign films. The subscriber has to feel he is getting the best of everything that is out there,” says Fullenbach.

That also includes series. “Desperate Housewives” is notching up audiences comparable with the best movies on Canal Plus.

“It is incredibly successful,” says Fullenbach, “but series will never be the basis of our programming. People subscribe to Canal Plus for films, not TV series.”

Under the influence of toppers Bertrand Meheut, CEO of Canal Plus Group, and exec VP and channel topper Rodolphe Belmer, marketing plays a much more central role at the paybox.

“There is a real reflection about what the subscriber watches and doesn’t watch, what he wants. We are more scientific about it. We did this kind of research before but it was handled in a more piecemeal way, we didn’t examine it globally,” says Fullenbach.

Like any client of the Hollywood majors, Canal Plus is keeping a close eye on the box office dip this year.

“The U.S. film industry isn’t on form and of course that worries us. When the film industry is doing well, so are we. When it’s not doing so well, nor are we,” she opines.

“I don’t know why American films are not performing so well. Perhaps it is because of the inflation in budgets and the proliferation of teen-oriented films. But it’s a cyclical business. I think the situation will rectify itself as it always has done.”

In the meantime, the paybox is pressing ahead with its own activities, which include the recent launch of its new VOD service. Films from the catalogs of Pathe, EuropaCorp and Studio Canal will be among those offered.

“We try to have VOD rights and have got them from Sony. For now, the studios want to keep a maximum amount of liberty in how they sell their films. They are thinking it through to see how they can create a new market without destroying existing ones. They are managing their rights and they are listening to our concerns.”

She hopes that Canal Plus’ pay TV expertise will inspire confidence in the company’s ability to make VOD work.

“It’s child’s play to destroy a market by placing it in the hands of five guys who don’t know how to manage it,” Fullenbach opines. “It’s not because you have a product that you know how to sell it. If consumers aren’t satisfied, they won’t use it.”

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