Shooting a documentary about the Great Lakes seaway system in the early 1980s, filmmaker Rudy Buttignol decided to gamble on something new.
He rented a state-of-the-art Wescam aerial camera developed for the Olympic Games for $10,000 a day and planned a helicopter shoot in Quebec’s Gaspé region of an icebreaker cutting into a clean sheet of ice.
Buttignol, now president and CEO of Knowledge Network Corp., still remembers how the plan went sideways: the icebreaker’s helicopter, which had been earmarked for the shoot, got stuck for three days rescuing ships – on Buttignol’s dime.
With his production manager itching to cut losses and go home with some basic footage, Buttignol decided the Wescam shoot was too important to miss.
“[I realized] that because it’s the opening of the movie, if I didn’t sell it from the opening shot, everything behind it from a year’s shooting wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.
Buttignol’s team was able to track down the helicopter company that serviced Hydro-Québec, rent another helicopter and pull off the sweeping, pivoting Westcam shots Buttignol had envisioned.
The gamble paid off: Inward Passage ran through 1983 and 1984. Thanks to its high visibility, it landed Buttignol a lot of subsequent film work.
Looking back on the incident, Buttignol said balancing business risks with creative imperatives has been a key theme in his career.
“There are a lot of those opportunities to risk,” he said. “But you’ve got to have more wins than losses.”
Buttignol’s career is a study in well-calculated risks.
After completing a film degree at York University, Buttignol graduated into a recession in the mid-’70s – and decided to create his own job.
“Instead of paying back my student loans, I borrowed some more money from my sisters-in-law and bought state-of-the-art editing machines and rented some cheap space and rented it out to other filmmakers,” he said of his first business, Cinema Productions.
While Buttignol didn’t make a lot of money with the company, he was able to pay off his loans and equipment. He also learned a lot and made the key connections that would allow him to stop working as a filmmaker-for-hire on corporate films and start making his own films.
Making films through his second company, Rudy Inc., Buttignol again faced recession – this time in the early 1980s – and with an entire industry fighting for the limited financing available from the CBC and the National Film Board of Canada.
“I remember thinking: I’m just going to be another person in the lineup. This doesn’t make sense,” he said.
So Buttignol took a chance on pitching to new U.S. cable channels.
“[Filmmakers were saying] this Discovery Channel is going to lose its shirt and this A&E – never going to happen,” he recalled.
But Buttignol was convinced that documentaries had a future. So he headed south. There, he produced documentaries for PBS, Discovery Channel and A&E. In the process he developed an expertise in films about the American space programs.
In 1991, amidst the then-Soviet Union’s scramble for foreign currency, Buttignol made a play for – and secured – the exclusive North American licence for Soviet space archives footage.
The material included previously unseen explosions and disasters, along with politically withheld tape, such as film of former Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev walking in victory parades with Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut in space.
Buttignol used the footage to advance his filmmaking career. But after a dozen years of making documentaries, he was looking for a new challenge. “And that, of course, is when the channels start to offer you multi-picture deals: ‘Can you deliver these six shows for A&E?’ he remembered. “It was like, ‘Yeah, I could, but I’ve sort of done it.’”
So Buttignol found something new: beating out approximately 100 competitors, he landed what might have been Canada’s first commissioning editor role. Working for TV Ontario (TVO), he led the publicly funded television network’s transition from in-house documentary production to sourcing shows from independent producers.
Buttignol would stay with TVO for 13 years, rising to head of network programming and nearly doubling the broadcaster’s weekly viewership.
In his time at TVO, Buttignol continued to take his characteristic risks. For example, he lobbied for – and secured – Canada’s first prime-time spot for documentaries.
Buttignol’s theory was that documentary audiences needed a reliable programming slot to rally around.
The gamble paid off: the show, The View From Here, was a success.
Taking on the top leadership position at Knowledge Network in 2007, Buttignol applied a similar if-you-build-it-they-will-come strategy in one of his first big moves at the network: leveraging under-used content, he added seven hours of nighttime programming to create a round-the-clock channel.
“Not everybody’s asleep at 2 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “And besides sex phone lines and exercise machines and food slicers and dicers, there should be some interesting alternative.”
Buttignol’s overhaul of Knowledge didn’t stop there. As he did at TVO, Buttignol helped the network wind down its use of in-house production in favour of sourcing programming from independent producers.
He has also led the network’s digital transformation, expanding Knowledge from a single television channel into a multi-platform operation that shows streaming video content through two websites. Buttignol further diversified the network’s channels by co-launching national subscription channel BBC Kids with BBC Worldwide Canada.
He pointed out that BBC Kids has created Knowledge’s first entrepreneurial revenue stream, which bolsters the funding it gets from government grants and donors.
Mitch Taylor, vice-chairman of Knowledge’s board, said Buttignol has brought vision and business sense to the network. “He’s got an entrepreneurial bent that’s very attractive to an organization that generally doesn’t have entrepreneurs in it,” he said.
Taylor credited Buttignol for securing the BBC Kids acquisition, increasing the network’s viewership and helping it to expand its brand.
Nor is Buttignol through with his plans for Knowledge. He said he’s planning to diversify the network’s platforms further and plans to roll out an HD channel by the end of 2013. He added that he’s also looking for more entrepreneurial opportunities, in the vein of the BBC Kids acquisition, that can help Knowledge become more self-sustaining.
As always, he said, he’ll be assessing where the right risks lie.
‘They’re scary,” he said. “But you think, ‘OK, I think I’ve got the stomach for this one; let’s go for it.’” •