‘Carlos’ gives French TV momentum

Cannes reception for Canal Plus miniseries makes TV work sexy

An irony at the recent Cannes Film Festival was that one of its most-liked movies won’t be seen by most audiences theatrically — but rather as a TV miniseries.

Lasting five hours and 33 minutes, “Carlos,” says director Olivier Assayas, is a three-part film.

Gallic paybox Canal Plus, which put up 40% of the financing, began airing it as a mini May 19, the same day it world-preemed in Cannes.

Film or mini, “Carlos” takes Canal Plus’ commitment to fiction to new levels.

“Carlos” charts the rise and fall of Venezuelan late-Cold War terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos the Jackal.

Produced by France’s Film En Stock and Germany’s Egoli Tossell, it cost $6 million per episode, very high-end by European TV standards.

It has an international cast led by Edgar Ramirez (“Che”), features 120 characters, global locations, is shot in eight languages and plumbs “the complexity of Carlos and geopolitics,” Assayas said at Cannes.

Hugely ambitious, “Carlos” impressed French cinema’s inner sanctum and critics of all stripes.

“Explosive in every way,” trumpeted Le Monde; “Extraordinary,” echoed Spain’s El Pais; Variety called it “a spectacular achievement.”

Cannes critical rapture is “crucial,” says Rodolphe Belmer, Canal Plus chief operating officer. “It demonstrates we can deliver well-financed, ambitious, intellectually challenging series made by auteurs for international audiences.”

Aurelien Ferenczi at culture magazine Telerama also sees “Carlos” as a way forward.

“Pay TV targets a more demanding public, allowing for the production of less formatted content, which has difficulty finding theatrical distribution,” he says.

Commercially, “Carlos” has hit paydirt. Canal Plus production-distrib arm StudioCanal has licensed it to 17 territories as a feature film and TV series, including an IFC-Sundance Channel pickup Stateside. The world will be sold out over the summer, says Harold Van Lier, StudioCanal exec VP of international sales.

The first two segs of “Carlos” attracted 30% more subscribers than any other previous Canal Plus political drama, Belmer says.

In 2009, Canal Plus Group posted operating profits of $801 million off revenues of $5.6 billion. Most of that came from within France.

For Belmer, “Clearly, the rise in our original fiction dramas’ popularity is driving our good economic health.”

And “Carlos” looks set to further blur the disappearing boundaries between film and TV production.

According to Belmer, “Carlos” and other high-end dramas have attracted new-generation filmmakers aspiring to work on TV series.

Its critical and commercial success opens the door wider to upscale international series.

For example, Canal Plus, Gaul’s Lagardere and Germany’s Beta are in talks with a high-profile European filmmaker to helm “The Borgias,” a 12-parter that will have Tom Fontana (“Oz”) as showrunner, Belmer says.

Canal Plus’ TV fiction push is also a hedge against changing viewing habits that make its staple of films less attractive to auds. For instance, Apple launched its iTunes Store in France on April 30; more movies will be watched on VOD before their Canal Plus window.

“We’ve noticed a declining interest in mainstream films,” Belmer says. “Our priority is to strengthen our offer of exclusive series that subscribers can see only on Canal Plus.”

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