Description: ESPU, a reality-based series of 13 half-hours, follows the South African government’s elite undercover cops as they battle illegal trade in endangered species.
Exec producer: Ellen Windemuth of Off The Fence B.V.
Co-exec producers: Scott Hanock and Rob Miller of Unapix
Producer: Paul Raleigh of Moviworld
Director: Paul Gasek
Distributors: Unapix International (U.S.), Daro Film Distribution (Monaco), Off The Fence B.V. (Amsterdam)
According to Scott Hanock, Unapix managing director, it was the combination of two hot genres – the wildlife series with its majestic aspect and the action-packed Cops-style show – that attracted him to the new series ESPU (Endangered Species Protection Unit).
Executive VP Tim Smith explains, ‘People care about drug busts, but they don’t care about the drugs. With ESPU, they care about the busts and about the rhino that used to be attached to the horn.’
But it took more than just enthusiastic interest in the subject matter to beat out two other competitors for the first distribution deal with executive producer Ellen Windemuth of Off the Fence B.V. The series needed a distributor who would come in as partner to the tune of 30% of the $1.3 million budget.
Unapix ‘stepped up to the plate,’ because this kind of cash-strapped production faces the same plight as non-fiction distributors. ‘The tag line for the series is ‘Extinction is final.’ It’s the same with nonfiction,’ says Hanock. ‘We’ll be out of business if we don’t find, and fight for, unique concepts.’
1995: Windemuth encounters the idea for a series about South Africa’s Endangered Species Protection Unit when she reconnects with Paul Raleigh of South Africa’s Moviworld. ‘Paul’s cameraman had been doing industrials for the ESPU Trust (which oversees the ESPU) and that led us to the series,’ explains Windemuth who had worked with Raleigh when she was head of sales and coproductions at Atlantis’ Amsterdam office.
Late 1995: Negotiations begin with the ESPU Trust which is skittish about the concept of a Cops-like series. ‘They were very, very preoccupied with how they’d be portrayed, how poaching would be portrayed, because the ways to counteract this problem are complex and hotly debated,’ says Windemuth. ‘They had to be convinced we were the right people, that we would create a series that was very entertaining and would attract a high calibre of broadcaster. It took months of talking, on and off. They have a lot of integrity and we didn’t want to rush them.’
June 1996: Windemuth makes a handshake agreement with the ESPU Trust for exclusive access. By July she has signed with Unapix, where she had worked as a distributor and coproducer. ‘We were talking to a number of distribution companies, but we went with Unapix because of their creative support,’ says Windemuth, who declined to name the other contenders.
‘We never wanted to go for exploitation. A lot of distributors saw it that way. Unapix was very supportive of my vision of the show. We didn’t want to take it into U.S. syndication. They brought us a more enlightened audience.’
July 1996: Unapix puts up the money for a seven-minute pilot which is taken to Animal Planet, Discovery Communications’ ‘all animals, all the time’ net in the U.S.
October 1996: At mipcom, Animal Planet commits to ESPU for the U.S., Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Australia. Off the Fence retains distribution rights for Benelux, Scandinavia, Italy, Germany and South Africa.
January 1997: Needing another investor, Off the Fence and Unapix approach Pierre Rochat of Daro Film Distribution at natpe. Daro jumps on board for distribution in France, Spain, Portugal, the U.K. and Africa.
‘We needed a third partner because this was not easy to finance, even though the budget was not huge ($100,000 per episode or $1.3 million),’ says Windemuth. ‘We started shooting almost immediately.’
Director Paul Gasek, a veteran with Discovery and National Geographic experience, is hired. Raleigh puts together a crew consisting mostly of South Africans. ‘We needed a team that knew South AfricaÉthey had to be as comfortable in a city as up to their necks in swamp,’ says Windemuth.
Early 1997: The complexity of filming the series becomes immediately apparent. Certainly the physical grind is considerable – a nerve-wracking hurry-up-and-wait as the crew follows the espu cops from surveillance to stakeout, to raid and arrest.
The sight of endangered species in their natural surroundings is breathtaking, but is nearly eclipsed by scenes of animals butchered for tusks and other parts to be sold around the world. However, the cops’ own stories are among the most elusive.
‘The whole series is a balance – a lot of busts, training sessions, background stories about endangered species, where the parts go, and who is pulling the strings. It’s very much you-are-there and experiencing firsthand what the illegal trade looks like,’ says Windemuth.
‘We did get some character development into each episode, but it took a long time to gain their trust. This work is very hard on the people doing it; we wanted to show what it was like to work in this squad. What makes a black cop expose his own ethnic group? And for both the black and white cops, why do they put up with the beeper, being on call seven days a week? Because of the job, they have a patchy family life at best, so why do they do it?’
The approach provides a unique bridge for the dichotomies of the project. ‘There has been a lot of curiosity about the series,’ says Windemuth. ‘How would we blend rural and urban, South Africa with the international trade, but most specifically, how we would blend a Cops-type show with a wildlife show. Fortunately, these were not like the cops on the series Cops. These are serious guys doing dangerous work and they’re in it for all the right reasons. I think that comes across in the series.’
March 1997: Windemuth sees rough assemblies of an episode, edited in South Africa under the supervision of Moviworld and under Unapix in New York, to be taken to mip. ‘We filmed some pretty tough stuff. When you open a trunk and see 12 to 18 huge animal tusks, and juxtapose that with bulls that are 50 years old, you begin to see.’
However, the biggest frustration is not creative, but philosophical: ‘There definitely are nasty poachers out there, but there are so many others who can’t be called criminals. The average salary in Mozambique is ten dollars a month, and many poach to feed their families. Who are the guys pulling the strings, making the real money? That’s who I’d like to get.’
October 1997: The premiere on Animal Planet in the U.S.
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