In the early 1960s, when Massimiliano (Max) Gusberti was hired by Italy’s state broadcaster, RAI, to run its nascent international program sales division, then called SACIS (which became RaiTrade and now Rai Com), he faced several unprecedented issues.
Before his mandate, programs were mostly exchanged among European state broadcasters, not sold. In addition, there wasn’t a sales price structure to use as a base, the residual arrangements with talent weren’t yet set up and trade union agreements did not contemplate program sales.
Plus, Gusberti recalled, “I watched little television and I did not have any work experience.”
Gusberti was hired by RAI in 1964 at the age of 23, 10 years after the broadcaster started regular TV transmissions. The way he described it was “because I had a law degree and I was a Fulbright Scholar at Brandeis University in the U.S. My knowledge of English and French also helped.”
At the time, SACIS was first set up to make sure that the content of the ads to be broadcast (sold by another RAI division called SIPRA) were “ethical,” — basically SACIS was a censor. Later SACIS was also assigned to program sales under Gusberti, who was to model it after the one developed by BBC Enterprises. But before he could start licensing RAI’s TV productions, SACIS had to first change RAI’s contracts with the talent and creative community and develop the “fair compensation (residuals) with which to base license fees, and finally create a sales structure.”
For the easy part, Gusberti hired two junior sales executives: Leonardo Breccia (who later became SACIS’s managing director) and Giuseppe Proietti (who subsequently ran Mediaset’s program sales division and then the Italian office of Germany’s Bavaria Studio). To tackle the more difficult aspects, Gusberti and a RAI lawyer went first to the BBC in London and later to Paris, to what was then called ORTF, to study how they “cleared their programs for international sales.”
Once back in Rome, what he had learned was quickly rejected by the RAI TV director because it would have added extra costs to the productions. In order to overcome this hurdle, Gusberti negotiated successfully with the unions for just a percentage of the sales going to the performers and the creative talents, thus freeing RAI channel from any additional costs and/or liability.
The first test case came in 1965 when two executives from Holland’s KRO-TV, Jan Delfgaauw and Jos van der Valk, went to Rome to buy eight episodes of RAI’s variety show, Studio One. Before giving them a price, Gusberti had to figure out how much the residuals would amount to for the show’s top stars, the German dancers known as the Kessler Sisters.
After consulting with the RAI TV channel director, it was determined that at most, the total residuals would cost U.S.$3,000, therefore the license fee was set at that amount per episode. Although the KRO buyers complained that they did not pay that much even for top American shows, ultimately they acquired the eight episodes for $24,000 and broadcasted them with subtitles.
The episodes were SACIS’s first sale ever. The show was such a success in the Netherlands that they were rebroadcast the following year with KRO paying an additional 50 percent of the original price.
Subsequently, at the SACIS offices arrived Leon Darcyl, a cigar-smoking Argentinean who bought most of RAI’s variety shows, which he successfully distributed throughout Latin America (Darcyl’s company, Telefilms, is now run by his son, Tomás).
The third and fourth SACIS sales were made to Swedish and German TV networks that acquired segments of RAI’s Candid Camera programs in order to compare the reaction to the pranks in Italy with those segments produced in Stockholm and Munich.
“We were now ready to enter the international market,” recalled Gusberti. “My first MIP-TV was in 1966 in the old Palais in Cannes and I still remember the shock when confronted with the U.S. productions and their marketing abilities. Assisted by Giuseppe Proietti, we started to read the trades, but we understood very little of the specialized language, the rules of the distribution business and their pricing system. Plus, he continued, “we were penalized because our programs were not in English, we did not have in our catalog drama series with international sound tracks and our shows were in black and white recorded on two-inch Ampex.”
Recalled Proietti: “In order to find buyers, we first studied their photos in the guide and, later, we tried matching the photo on their badges, by going up and down the stairs of the old Palais, carrying a stack of brochures. At times it was more economical to invite buyers to Rome for the screenings than to ship material. All the buyers were from state-owned organizations and most TV networks were in black and white.”
In 1969 SACIS was restructured under Ernst Braun, who returned to Rome from Mainz, where he was director of ZDF’s Foreign Relations. Braun spearheaded the establishment of RAI’s offices in New York City (under Renato Pachetti) covering Canada and the U.S., and in Montevideo, Uruguay, for Latin America (offices that were closed in recent years), while for the Middle East and the Far East a network of sales agents was developed.
Even before color TV arrived in Italy in 1977, RAI began engaging renowned Italian film directors to make TV series and documentaries that were sold and pre-sold around the world, from the U.S. (CBS) to Japan (NHK). Indeed, in 1976, Sandokan alone was sold internationally for $1.5 million. Then came RAI TV series co-produced with Lord Lew Grade, such as Moses, Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (which was purchased in perpetuity by CBS), and Marco Polo, shot in China.
Gusberti explained, “Sandokan was the last of my achievements as head of Sales at SACIS. Afterwards, I was appointed head of RAI Acquisitions and Co-productions and later moved to Production and Co-productions, ending my career at RAI as assistant general manager of Drama Production in September 2009.”
Among the 230 programs Gusberti was responsible for are the miniseries Christopher Columbus with Gabriel Byrne and Faye Dunaway, which RAI co-produced with Lorimar for CBS; the film Julia and Julia with Cathleen Turner and Sting; Best Intentions, written by Ingmar Bergman; the miniseries Napoleon with Gerard Depardieu, and a co-production with Ellipse and Canal Plus for the animated series Corto Maltese, from the stories and drawings by Hugo Pratt.
Currently, the RAI retiree is working on two TV movies for Sky Italia, the satellite TV service that is part of Sky Europe, a series for Rai One, a theatrical animated film, two new episodes of Montalbano and a third installment of Red Bracelets.