RealScreen asked Associated Producers how life changes when an Emmy falls into your lap two years in a row. Well, maybe not fall; to earn them, Elliot Halpern and Simcha Jacobovici hit India’s mean streets, focusing their cameras on child prostitution, and before that, trekked to Africa to the Ebola zone. They probably worked harder than most double-Emmy winners.
The ten-year-old Toronto-based indie prodco broke the Emmy record book last year with its win for The Plague Monkeys. Written and directed by Halpern, the Ebola virus doc (aired on a&e’s Investigative Reports) nabbed the first Best Achievement in Investigative Journalism award to go to a cable broadcast rather than an alphanet.
Now they’ve done it again with The Selling of Innocents. Produced with Ruchira Gupta and director William Cobban, the project aired in the u.s. on hbo’s Cinemax, and won a Silver Nymph in Monte Carlo and a Gold Apple in New York. The Selling of Innocents, which tracks the sex trade from Kathmandu to Bombay’s sex factories, had its world premiere at the first World Congress Against Commercial Exploitation of Children in Stockholm last fall. Both docs premiered on cbc’s Witness in Canada.
As for the impact of the double-Emmy, Halpern says it makes preselling easier, particularly with American broadcasters, and it’s doubly useful that the recognition is for investigative journalism, an area where network comfort-level augmentation is particularly desireable. ‘It also ensures that buyers look at the film, and in some cases it makes them prepared to pay more,’ says Halpern.
Alongside shelves of awards for investigative forays, come certain risks, as the films tread dangerous territory. And due to the international nature of the stories, sometimes they’re a hard sell to broadcasters wanting a local angle. ‘Unless they’re huge international stories, broadcasters are more interested in their own domestic stories.’
The marked disinterest was evident in broadcasters’ queries as to whether The Selling of Innocents was a sex-tourism story, and their reaction upon learning there were no local bad guys to hang a hat on. ‘I don’t know what would have happened to the international appetite for this story if it had come out before the international spotlight [post the Stockholm conference] was thrown on the very problem the film deals with.’
‘I believe audiences are more interested in those stories than broadcasters give them credit for,’ says Halpern. ‘We’ve demonstrated that if you tell a good story about a serious issue, people do want to understand it, and do feel a sense of responsibilty for what happens elsewhere in the world.’
The fact that David has beaten Goliath two years running indicates to Halpern that the likes of cbs, abc and nbc, despite their vast news resources, are putting less effort into genuinely investigative pieces, ones ‘where they actually have to commit a substantial amount of resources to a single story.’ Halpern sees the nets moving more to newsmagazines as they step away from the research-intensive pieces which don’t always pan out.
Commitment, however, has paid off for ap. The intrepid pursuit of the players at the centre of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in Deadly Currents (coproduced by Halpern and Ric Esther Bienstock, and directed by Jacobovici) was the International Documentary Festival of Nyon Gold Medal winner in 1991.
Then there are the even more rewarding human benefits; in 1981, Jacobovici’s first film, the award-winning Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews, prompted an international outcry which culminated in an airlift of Ethiopia’s Jews.
Currently, Jacobovici is directing Hollywoodism, a feature based on Neal Gabler’s book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, for cbc, Channel 4, a&e and zdf, slotted to air in the spring. Currently in post, it’s reaping strong u.s. theatrical interest given its obvious cinematic qualities and the issues it addresses. ‘It has tremendous potential for a theatrical release,’ says Halpern, ‘because it’s dealing with the history of cinema itself in a radical way.’
Quest for The Lost Tribe, based on the biblical legend of the lost tribes of Israel, is another feature-length doc Jacobovici is directing for cbc and a&e. There were originally 12 tribes, but now all Jews claim descendence from two tribes. The others disappeared and are assumed to have been assimilated into the Assyrian empire. Associated Producers go back and look at historical and archeological evidence, journeying from India through the Middle East, to find the ten lost tribes. Halpern describes the epic as a ‘spiritual Indiana Jones adventure.’ It’s also posting and set to air in the spring.
In prepro is Scandals: Now & Then, a six-part series for The History Channel, exploring how society’s mores have changed. Set for production in April, no director is attached yet. As to writers on the projects, Halpern explains, ‘We do a treatment, but we’re of the school that if you pre-script you lose opportunities. We don’t actually do any writing until we have a rough cut.’
Malofilm is the distrib on Hollywoodism and Scandals, and Alliance for Quest.
The company is producing six to ten hours a year, and Halpern says next year they could be doubling that volume with the move into non-fiction series production.