Somewhere among the slabs of back bacon, toques and medal-less hockey teams which define Canadian culture, lurks a desire to do things differently from the rest of the world. Discovery Canada is an anomaly in the dci family: Bethesda-based dci only owns 20% of the Canadian service, with the rest claimed by Toronto-based NetStar Communications, owner of sports channel tsn. For a proportionate share of profits and a guaranteed program-supply agreement of cdn$2 million per year, the Canadian service has a seat on the dci board, access to its program offerings and use of the brand name for its broadcasting service.
Discovery Canada is also an active production entity, with a daily science show called @discovery.ca. Having facilities and staff on-site allowed it to launch Exploration Productions Incorporated for long-term projects. The specialty channel and prodco pool resources, but are separate companies. dci is given the right of first refusal for programming, after which epi has the freedom to sell to any buyer. epi and dci have done one coproduction, a 50 x 1 hour adventure series called Go For It, which aired in 1996. dci was impressed with the Canadian in-house facilities. The Canadians enjoyed the cheques.
Thanks to @discovery, epi has a wealth of contacts, which paid off last year when it was the only crew allowed into China to cover a dinosaur fossil which showed evidence of feathers. The combination of the Discovery name (dci, however, was refused entrance) and Albertan paleontologist Philip Currie, who is well known to the Chinese, gained epi access, resulting in the hour-long If Dinosaurs Could Fly.
A smaller than average budget (us$100,000-$150,000 per hour as opposed to us$200,000-$500,000 for its u.s. counterpart) and staff means epi turns to the independent production community more frequently. ‘Our philosophy in bringing teams together,’ explains executive producer Paul Lewis, ‘is to try wherever possible to get talented newcomers, some of which are new to the one-hour-documentary format. We’re committed to involving independent producers.’
There are other benefits to working for a prodco with Discovery’s backing: ‘The obvious upside for producers is that they don’t have to spend a lot of time raising money. We fully fund these projects, and I know a lot of producers complain that they spend more time raising money than actually filmmaking.’
Notable EPI projects in production
An examination of the problem in Cambodia and Laos, where landmines are so numerous that casings are used as fencing around schools, Landmines (working title) follows United Nations forces, focusing on victims, mine technology and removal techniques. Produced with Morgan Elliott, the one-hour will be ready next fall.
Eco-Challenge is a ten-day race through the Australian outback where teams portage, kayak, ride, climb and run through the bush. It’s not about strength or endurance, but co-operation. Even the Navy Seals didn’t do well. Following the event, one-hour Hell in Paradise, also produced by Elliott, will be completed by the spring.
The Philippines has more species of birds than anywhere else in the world, and many are facing extinction. Tom Hince (the Wayne Gretzky of birders) leads a one-hour exploration into why. Endangered Birds (working title) should be wrapped by fall.
epi also launched exn.net in 1996. The us$5 million website ties into programming, going behind the scenes and offering more content than was possible in the broadcast hour. Successful in its own right, the website has a series called exn tv. Thirteen half-hour episodes aired on Discovery last season, with 13 more in production for next.
epi is looking to become more involved internationally, hoping to take advantage of its lower budget, fast-turn-around approach to beat other science production companies to the punch.
-Non-fiction to go: Production News