After a hiatus of nearly half a century, Disney heads into the wild again with plans to produce four new blue-chip natural history features within the next three years. Eight feature-length films from, True-Life Adventures, the last 13-part nature series that Disney produced over 50 years ago, captured Academy Awards for best documentary.
Even with Disney’s legacy of quality non-fiction programming, their choice to return to the genre was not easy. ‘Natural history had become the domain of pbs and Turner,’ said Paul Villadolid, vp of specials at Disney Television. Disney had discussed a return to non-fiction annually for at least the past five years, but it wasn’t until nbc brought wildlife into primetime via National Geographic specials did Mouse Co. change its mind. The success of nbc’s experiment proved, to Disney at least, that natural history still had audience enough to support the cost of the programming.
International distribution for the films will be done through Buena Vista Television in Burbank. The projects will carry a budget higher than most blue-chip natural history films, which usually loom at us$500,000. According to Villadolid, Disney’s high standards are the basis for their brand, so it’s important producers have access to whatever resources they need. That means a budget ‘in the range of the highest of the blue-chip natural-history films.’
The first two of the four one-hour docs – one on the sharks of the Baja peninsula and the other on the caribou of Alaska – are already in the works. The specific subject matter of the next two are undetermined, but filming for the third will be done in Africa, and the fourth in either Asia or North America.
‘We want to tell strong stories,’ says Villadolid. ‘We’re working hard on style and presentation.’ The dynamic between the animals on screen will form the basis for the shows, with minimal narration and no encyclopedic list of facts which doesn’t advance the story.
The features will carry the Disney name, but the company will be enlisting experts in adventure filmmaking from all over the world. The executive producer for the series is John Wilcox, winner of 24 Emmy awards for his work in nature docs. Villadolid and Wilcox (along with his company American Adventure Productions) will oversee the projects, ensuring they stay true to Disney’s vision.
The eco-message is also a central theme. ‘With each of these subjects there are important conservational issues at hand. I think it would be irresponsible if we ignored them. What we’re trying to avoid though, is infusing the films with the science and the environmental threats,’ says Villadolid.
Each film will have a host to introduce the project and draw attention to the issue at hand. They’ll also wrap it up, offering viewers outlets they can explore if they want to learn more about the theme of the film. ‘I think it’s important we don’t tell stories in a vacuum. There’s some responsibility that comes with telling them,’ says Villadolid.
Also in Upfront:
-News Briefs for November 1997
-Paramount boosts its reality slate with Wild Things
-Discovery’s Latin American Buy
-New Canadian Cable Apps
-TVNZ’s Natural History Unit goes on the block. And the winner is. . .