July 8, 2008

Eurocinema: TV for People Who Like Subtitles

By Glenn Garvin

MIAMI -- When Sebastian Perioche arrived at Harvard to start work on his MBA 12 years ago, he was shocked. Everybody in Paris had told him Boston was one of America's most cosmopolitan cities, but he could hardly find a theater screening the films of Claude Chabrol, Pedro Almodovar or any of the other European directors he liked so much.

"I used to always say to everybody, 'With all these cable channels, there ought to be one where you could watch foreign film,"' he recalls. "And they would say, 'What a great idea!' "

Such a great idea that Perioche finally tried it himself. And now his video-on-demand brainchild Eurocinema is in 20 million homes and adding half a million more every month -- and doing it by defying practically all conventional wisdom about the tastes and habits of American television viewers.

The channel, headquartered in a Miami high-rise, offers no movies in English, no movies that have won Oscars -- in fact, just about no movies that anybody in the United States has even heard of. In a day when everything in television is built around marketing, this seemingly perverse thirst for obscurity is nonetheless paying off. Eurocinema is now available on Time Warner and Charter cable systems across America as well as DirecTV's satellite service, and will join the Dish Network satellite lineup next month.

"We play some movies that have been in American theaters," says the 35-year-old Perioche. "We have 'Summer of '04,' the German drama that played a little bit here. But we don't run many of those. The idea of Eurocinema is to bring new stuff, stuff that people haven't been able to see.

"We're trying to take advantage of the limited availability of foreign films here. In New York or Los Angeles, it's easy to see foreign films. Denver, or even South Miami, not so much."

So seemingly obvious choices for a foreign film channel -- say, "La Vie en Rose," which won Marion Cotillard an Oscar this year for her portrayal of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, or "The Lives of Others," a best foreign film Oscar winner about the fishbowl life in Stalinist East Germany -- won't make it to Eurocinema. The channel's buyers scour European festivals and back away from any movie in which channels like HBO or Sundance show interest.

"Our objective is to provide service to real foreign-movie fans underserved by television," says Larry Namer, head of the channel's Northeast operations. "If a movie is on HBO, wonderful, but then what's the point of us carrying it?"

The channel does try to feature some familiar faces from time to time, digging up films with stars well-known in America that somehow failed to find distribution deals here. Notable example: "Amantes," a Spanish film featuring Victoria Abril, who built a U.S. following in the movies she made with Almodovar. Or "Ellis in Glamourland," a Dutch take on "My Fair Lady" with Joan Collins in the Professor Henry Higgins role.

But even when the face is familiar, the film almost certainly isn't. "You take 10 movies made in Europe, and maybe three are really good," says Perioche. "Of the three, one will probably be picked up for distribution in the United States. And that leaves two very good films that won't be seen here. Those are the ones we want, even if nobody's ever heard of them."

So a viewer tuning in to Eurocinema will find such fare as "Vinci," a Polish crime-caper film that won awards at several European festivals in 2004; "Kira's Reason," a 2001 Danish drama in which a woman returns from a stay in a mental hospital to find her husband having an affair; or "Corrupted Hands," a 2001 Iranian comedy about wedding planners who rob their clients.

Iranian films are a relatively new addition to Eurocinema, and an example of how the channel's marketing has expanded in unforseen ways.

"We designed this to be a foreign-film fan channel, targeting people with a previous disposition to watching film with subtitles," says Namer, 59. "But one of the things that popped out is that the nature of immigration has changed so dramatically. My parents came to America from Spain via Turkey, but in front of us they would speak only English -- everything was geared to becoming Americans really quickly.

"But immigrants of the past 20 or 30 years are concerned with maintaining their linkage to their home country and passing that linkage on to their children. We found an audience of Iranians who wanted to see films in Farsi, and we're catering to it."

Being a video-on-demand channel allows Eurocinema to provide films to smaller constituencies without boring everybody else -- a customer picks from 20 to 30 movies available on the channel at any given moment (for $3.95 a pop -- "less than a gallon of gas," notes Perioche) and can simply ignore those that don't pique interest.

Perioche, who was making his living in international trade before he finally found the financial backing for Eurocinema, originally envisioned a regular 24-hour television channel. But he changed his mind after joining forces with Namer, a cable-TV veteran (he founded the E! Entertainment network).

"Doing it this way not only costs about a 10th as much, it's the future of television," declares Namer, who believes that conventional -- "linear," as he calls it -- television is in its death throes.

"I worked for a while as a consultant at Microsoft," he says. "And I became a great believer in storing programming on disk drives -- big ones on the transmission end, which is what video-on-demand channels use, or small ones on the receiving end, like TiVo -- where the viewer can watch it whenever he wants.

"Eventually all linear television will disappear. Why should I care about what somebody at NBC thinks about when 'Frasier' should be on? It should be on when I want it."

Meanwhile, Eurocinema will put all that expertise it has acquired in scouting European film festivals in sponsoring one itself -- the Romance in a Can festival scheduled for Valentine's Day week in 2009. It will feature two dozen foreign-made romance flicks.

"They make a lot of romantic films in Europe," Namer observes. "The difference between theirs and ours is that sometimes in theirs, people die."

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