Production News: Non-fiction to go

June 1, 1998


New York Burns!

Acclaimed filmmakers Ric Burns and Lisa Ades of New York’s Steeplechase Films are working on a series about the city that has become the Mecca for the odd and unruly of the world. New York is destined for PBS’ American Experience, and is being produced by WGBH in Boston and WNET in New York, in association with the New York Historical Society. Distribution outside the U.S. will be handled by the recently inaugurated WGBH International.

The series will follow the evolution of New York City from a Dutch trading post in the early 1600s to the sprawling metropolis it is today. Perhaps more importantly, it focuses on the city as a reflection of the two founding principles of American culture – democracy and commerce.

While the series will run to 10 x 1 hours in the U.S., non-U.S. viewers will see a five-parter (exact content to be decided). International partners are the U.K.’s Channel 4, and Munich-based distributors Telepool and Bayerischer Rundfunk.

Ready for international release in spring of 2000, the series carries an estimated US$7.5 million budget. Besides the broadcasters, additional sources of major funding are the Chase Manhattan Bank, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

DDE has ancient Greeks and middle-aged Russians

Less than two years after becoming involved with the Krasnagorsk archive restoration in Moscow, Abamedia’s investment is paying off in programming. The Fort Worth, Texas-based company is working on Secrets from the Russian Archives, 4 x 1 hours telling the tale of the Cold War from the Soviet perspective. Topics covered in the four episodes are espionage, the space race, propaganda and Soviet sports policies.

Abamedia has partnered with Washington distributor Devillier Donegan for the project, with PBS as the ultimate destination.The series will be delivered some time in May 1999 at a budget of approximately US$500,000 per hour.

dde has also paired with London’s Atlantic Productions for The Greeks, a short, high-budget series which gives viewers a glimpse into life in classical times. Ready for May of 1999 and destined for PBS, the series has a price-tag rumored to be about US$650,000 per hour. Don’t expect any languid pans across display cases of Greek vases; this series is being built around what is described as `tasteful’ historical recreations.


Little stories

Produced by unicef and Canada’s TVO/TFO, To Tell A Story tackles hard-hitting children’s issues, including homelessness, violence, sexual exploitation and health. Specifics for the 13 x 30-minute series are still being hammered out, including the source for footage. The budget will be about US$120,000 per half-hour if original footage is used, but will drop to approximately US$30,000 if stock is used instead.

Canal Vie in Canada, Swedish Educational Television and Argentina’s Programas Santa Clara are also involved. The English and French versions of the series will be available mid-summer, with a Spanish version by fall.


The lucky ones

Sometimes just having the good sense not to die is the key to fame and fortune. Partners in Motion of Regina, Canada, and coproducers Single Spark Pictures of Santa Monica are bringing the stories of earthquake, hurricane and man-made catastrophe survivors to the little screen. Ready for 1999, Survivors is a 3 x 1-hour production for TLC. The three hours carry a budget of approximately US$1.3 million, which was partly underwritten by New York-based Tapestry International, which holds the international distribution rights. Harmony Entertainment, a Canadian film investment company initiated by Partners in Motion, also invested in the series.

Science & Technology

Making love and babies

Stockholm’s Bo G Erikson Television has begun work on a one-hour one-off examining human reproduction from an emotional and scientific point of view. The Miracle of Love features the work of world-renowned photographer Lennart Nilsson and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, an Academy Award-winner for his work with Ingmar Bergman. Slated for completion at the end of 1999, this production carries a US$2 million budget. While both international reproducers and coproducers are still being sought, broadcasters on board already include WGBH, Sweden’s SVT and ZDF in Germany.

Full of hot air

Pitched to Banff Television Festival president Pat Fern’s panel at the MIPDOC market simulation, Flying into the Future, coproduced by London’s Café Productions and Hamburg’s Vidicom, takes a 2 x 1-hour look at the past and future of airships. Criticized as being awkward, the original three-episode run was trimmed to two.

The first episode focuses on the rebirth of the Zeppelin Company. Once the height of technology and fashion, dirigibles fell out of favor with the final flight of the Hindenberg, oddly enough.

The second focuses on the race to build the next generation of super-airships. Makers of The Cargolifter (bigger than the Titanic and capable of lifting 12,000 tons) are competing against Airships Ltd. to see who can get a lighter-than-air behemoth into the sky first. Applying different construction approaches, both will be ready to launch before 2000.

To date, ARD in Germany and Discovery U.K. are involved in the production. New York’s Fox Lorber is distributing, and has made a ‘significant investment.’ Ready for late 1999, the budget for the series is roughly US$200,000 per hour.

Natural History

Germans go wild, naturlich

Nature holds court Tuesdays, primetime, on ZDF’s Naturzeit.

Serengeti is Alive (working title), planned as a 3 x 1-hour exploration of wildlife and ecology in perhaps the most recognizable area of Africa, was extended once filming began. Floods struck the region, as they do every 12 years, and the resulting footage became the subject of a fourth hour. The other episodes are dedicated to ecology, conservation, and business ethics – such as tourism and filmmaking.

Shooting began last year, and the film will be wrapped by fall of 1999. The producer is award-winning Reinhard Radke, who is also series editor. The budget per episode is roughly 600,000 marks.

Wilderness Moor (working title), from Thomas Willers, reveals the dankest and darkest secrets of bogs in the Austrian and Swiss Alps, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. The moor is the domain of the specialist – insects and animals that have found a specific niche in which they can survive.

Shot over two years with an array of gear, including time-lapse, high-speed, microscopic, endoscopic and underwater cameras, the one-hour special will be ready for the fall of 1999. The budget was approximately 500,000 marks.

Fast, Wild & Strange: Unapix International

With that kind of description, you know it has to have come from California…. Unapix International is working on a number of projects scheduled to be ready this fall.

For TLC, Unapix is teaming up with Sachnoff-Lipman Productions of Los Angeles for Strange Science: 5 x 1 hours providing scientific explanations for mysterious phenomenon – from stigmata and speaking in tongues, to odd weather occurrences. The series will be ready to air in November, and has a budget of US$1.14 million.

In a different vein, Unapix is also involved in a natural history project entitled Rulers of the Mountain Kingdom. Produced with Amsterdam’s Off the Fence Productions, and South Africa’s Clyde Films, the one-hour one-off for Discovery is being shot entirely in Africa. Ready for September, the special looks at the struggle between a black eagle and a caracol (a type of wild cat) to reclaim their place in an eco-system recently ravaged by fire. The film carries a budget of around US$350,000.

The BBC, Italian-Style

Mothercorp recently announced a three-year coproduction and licensing deal with Milan’s Mediaset. Over 20 hours of original programming will be produced by the partners, and Mediaset will also license an additional 35 hours of science and natural history programming. The original programming generated through this deal will be worth a total of £16 million.

The first series, The Human Body, is in late production. This 8 x 50-minute project is a journey through the human body and time, witnessing what happens to us as we age. The series is being produced with TLC in the U.S.

Rumored to be the most expensive doc series ever, Walking With Dinosaurs is a 6 x 30-minute series taking viewers back to the time of the giant beasts in order to experience the sights and sounds of that forgotten era. Ready for early 1999, this series will rely heavily on CGI, (explaining the big budget). Other partners on the series are Discovery in the U.S. and Japan’s TV Asahi, in association with France 3 and Germany’s ProSieben.

Sir David Attenborough, the definitive host, will serve as presenter for State of the Planet, 8 x 1 hours. The series is billed as a portrait of life on Earth, past and present, and will also rely heavily on computer graphics and animation. Ready for the year 2000, Discovery in the U.S. is also involved.

Mothercorp’s interpretation of Indonesia will be ready for the turn of the century. The 3 x 1-hour series is being produced with Discovery in the U.S., and explores the 17,000 islands that make up the largest archipelago in the world. Watch out for the komodo dragons – they’re getting a little surly with all those film crews milling about.

Going Places with Vision Films

A year after starting her distribution company, Vision Films’ Lise Romanoff is taking on an ambitious, and expanding, slate of productions. A producer in her own right, creating successful titles such as Movie Magic (which has since become part of the GRB family), Romanoff is also a Unapix alum.

Vision will be distributing Great Journeys of the Middle Ages, 20 x 30 minutes coproduced with Xplora Productions in Milan, in association with the Istituto Geografico De Agostini, one of Italy’s largest historical and geographic publishers. Half the series’ US$100,000 per-episode budget is being financed by the Italian publisher in exchange for home-video rights. The video release will be packaged with books and magazines designed to augment the series.

Journeys looks at how pilgrimages, religious wars, trade and exploration changed the shape of the world between 500 and 1500 A.D. While no broadcasters are officially involved as yet, a number of contracts are under negotiation. The series will be ready close to the beginning of 1999.

Vision will finish another geographic travelogue this month with the Istituto Geografico. World Odysseys, 42 x 30 minutes, has elicited a great deal of interest from broadcasters, according to Romanoff.

For more contemporary travel, Vision, in association with the Dryden Flight Research Center (a nasa outpost in the deserts of California), is working on 3 x 30 minutes exploring test pilots who push the barriers of endurance for both humans and machines. Test Flights: Flights of Discovery (episodes entitled `To the Limit… and Beyond’, `The Need for Speed’ and `The Computer Connection’) will be completed by mid-summer, and will land at a budget of around US$100,000 per episode.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.