Production – Non-fiction to go: production news by Brendan Christie

July 1, 1998


Speed! Crash! Bankroll!

Building on the success of their one-hour Speed! Crash! Rescue! (which, according to the distributor, Adler Media of Virginia, sold into 169 countries), Indianapolis’ Nineteenth Star is producing another hour of motorized mayhem for racing fans. (Not that anyone watches racing just for the crashes…) Speedway Survival will go behind the scenes at racing venues to more closely examine the technology and medical breakthroughs in place to save a racer’s life when the worst happens.

Ready for fall of `98, the hour-long show carries a budget of around US$200,000. Adler, who distributes both titles, hasn’t begun looking for broadcasters yet. The distributor is waiting until the production has been wrapped, possibly in order to be able to package the two titles together.

Science & Technology

Hope they have bathrooms…

Voyage to the Milky Way is a 2 x 60-minute series considering humanity’s plans for spreading our own unique brand of anarchic egomania over the rest of the galaxy. Based on Carl Sagan’s belief that there is life beyond the confines of Earth, the series will examine long-distance space flight and the possibilities of humans colonizing alien worlds. The first episode will consider the ordinary person’s role in colonization, pulling it from the realms of the philosophical into the world of the everyday. The second hour looks into the technology of colonization.

Produced by New York’s Tom Lucas Productions, the two hours are being put together for roughly US$500,000, and will air on PBS in May of 1999. The series is being distributed by DDE in Washington.


The Pen being mightier…

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords is a 90-minute documentary from New York’s Half Nelson Productions. Airing on PBS in February of next year, SoldiersÊis narrated by Joe Morton, whose film work includes Terminator 2 and Blues Brothers 2.

The film breaks the history of the African-American voice in print into separate sections: the growth of the Black Press and the founding of Freedom’s Journal, the first black periodical, in 1827; the biographies of journalists, editors, writers and cartoonists who took great risks to bring another view of American culture to the forefront; and the reasons for and the impact of the decline of the Black Press over the last 30 years. The production also features the last interview with John Sengstacke, who died in 1997. He was the publisher of the Chicago Defender for over 55 years.

The film has a budget of over US$500,000, which was undertaken by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Ford Foundation, The MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Film Institute among others. Half Nelson is also working on a companion cd-rom, funded by the Annenberg School for Communications.

Nobel pursuits

Nadine Gordimer: A White African is a one-hour biographical documentary about the South African writer, winner of a Nobel Prize and two Booker Prizes. Gordimer collaborates on the film, taking viewers on a tour of her life, her work and her city, Johannesburg.

Ready for late fall, this doc is part of the One Century of Writers collection for France 3. Production started in South Africa on July 2, as a coproduction of Paris’ Gaumont Television, Via Appia Film and France 3. The budget for Gordimer is 1.163 million francs.

Natural History

Fetch your own damn stick

While it has been long accepted that animals are intelligent, it is a recent revelation that they might also be emotional. Why Dogs Smile and Elephants Cry is being produced by Fleisher Films of Los Angeles (their latest film Chasing El Nino will air on pbs’s NOVA next month). The special will combine the work of scientists and natural history filmmakers to bring viewers evidence suggesting that animals can experience the same gamut of emotions previously thought to be only the domain of homo sapiens.

Discovery is the U.S. broadcaster for the project, dividing the cost of the approximately US$500,000 production with Washington-based distributors Devillier Donegan Enterprises. Why Dogs Smile will be available in a two-hour or a 2 x 60-minute format, depending on broadcaster preference. The special is being pitched heavily as an important part of Discovery’s Spring, 1999 schedule, and will air in May. In the meantime, hug a despondent Chihuahua.

Benevolent broadcasting

Already seen in over 30 countries, Vancouver’s Omni Film Productions might have found a formula for success in the natural history genre. With one season wrapped, a second ready for September, and a third being prepped for delivery in 1999, Champions of the Wild seems to have found an audience with its accessible, conservational message.

Each of the 13 half-hour episodes features the efforts of a different scientist or conservationist. Next season features some big names in the genre – elephants, rhinos and koalas. The third season will examine, among others, the lynx, whales and the wild horses of Sable Island.

While the first two seasons were produced in association with Discovery Canada, some last-minute uncertainty on the broadcaster’s part saw the third season being produced with Canada’s Baton Broadcasting and Outdoor Life Network instead. Animal Planet in the U.S., however, will still carry the series. Champions is being distributed through Europe Images International in Paris, and is produced for roughly US$150,000 per episode.

Avoiding a mid-range crisis…

London’s HIT Wildlife is currently working on a veritable slew of high-end and blue chip natural history specials. Largely independent of its parent company, HIT Entertainment, hw has recently tripled its producer base and sells projects into over 120 terrestrial markets, and many more on satellite. hw’s preference for the terrestrial market usually translates into bigger viewing audiences and budgets. Director of factual programming, Carl Hall, is being careful to avoid contributing to what he terms, ‘a glut of mid-ranged and mid-priced product that could do our industry a lot of damage.’

Among about 16 other projects on the go, HIT Wildlife is working on The McNeil Bears, a 60-minute special about a group of 100 bears who roam an undisturbed part of Alaska. Shot over three years, Bears is a blue-chip effort profiling the lives of grizzlies at different positions in the community: the battle-scarred leader, the harried mother, and the reckless, inexperienced cub. The special is being produced by HIT Wildlife, wnet, and award-winning producer and cinematographer, Doug Bertran. Ready for May, 1999, the hour carries a budget of around US$600,000.

In the works for next mipcom is Shark Central, a 60-minute production for Discovery. Filmed in Tahiti, the project is being helmed by underwater filmmaker, Hardy Jones.

American Wilderness is a collection of four hours produced by Peter Roberts, who largely completed and financed these ‘ultra blue-chip’ productions by himself before hw teamed him up with ex-Survival producer Malcolm Penny. Ready for August, the subjects include wild mustangs and sea otters.

Ancient Mariners will be completed by late summer, 1998. This 60-minute film by producer Raymond Chevez will have two versions: one with scientists on-screen and one without. This turtle opus was shot on both 16 and 35mm, in exotic turtle retreats like Hawaii, Costa Rica and Indonesia.


Old country iron horse

Relief is on the way for the world’s agoraphobics. London’s Ian Allan Ltd. is putting together a 6 x 60-minute series called European Rail Journeys, with the promise of more to come. The first half of the series will be completed by September, and plans are in the works to expand the series for seven episodes beyond that. This railed romp will move through Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Italy and France, letting viewers travel vicariously through the eyes of the camera while never leaving the comfort of their living room.

Journeys is being represented by Virginia’s Adler Media and will be made available on aps (American Program Service) for pbs stations to pick up once it’s wrapped this fall. The budget per episode is roughly US$100,000.

For more locomotion adventure, Adler will also be ready to deliver Africa’s Champaign Trains in August. This 2 x 60-minute adventure is produced by San Francisco’s News Travel Network.


He’s got a gun, you better listen

Hybrid Films are working on a 90-minute documentary about an elite hostage negotiation team in their native New York. Talk To Me: The Hostage Negotiation Team of the NYPD is described as the ‘real-life NYPD Blue meets Dog Day Afternoon’. This isn’t another cop show; it’s about the personalities making up the response team which takes over after Emergency Services Teams have reached an impasse. The NYPD’s HNT is on call every hour of every day, and responds to hundreds of calls a year, yet much of the work they do remains largely unreported.

Talk To Me has been given a greenlight by A&E in the U.S. as an A&E Special Presentation, and has also recently been picked up by Channel 4 in the U.K. The production is being distributed by Films Transit in Montreal, Canada, and carries an approximate budget of US$350,000. While the special will be filmed this summer and will be ready for fall, it will probably not air on A&E until next spring, the broadcaster allowing the film to tour the festival circuit before it hits the air.

Under a Green Umbrella

Just past its seventh birthday, Bristol’s Green Umbrella is one of the world’s largest independent natural history and science production houses. Beyond the traditional genres for which Green Umbrella is known, they are now diversifying into new territory with natural history drama for children. Look for Wardogs and Pati’s Panther as some of the companies first forays into this field.

In a more traditional vein, Green Umbrella will be delivering Animal Minds by January, 1999. The 3 x 60-minute series is being produced for wnet and the BBC, and is being distributed through BBC Worldwide. The series is billed as the first in-depth exploration of the intelligence, emotions and consciousness of non-humans and carries a budget of roughly £1.6 million.

The much anticipated Triumph of Life series is just about to start filming. The 6 x 60-minute seeks to tell the story of evolution on Earth. Green Umbrella’s chairman, Peter Jones, describes the thought process behind the series: ‘[It's] to do with the fact that evolution is responsible not only for our physical form and shape, but a whole series of behavior patterns which, in their richness and complexity, certainly form major arenas in within which life has triumphed. [It's about] sociality, and a kind of arms race between living creatures.’ Triumph relates the behavior of organisms and groups of organisms to what’s happening at the level of the gene.

Ready for July of 2000, the series has a US$5.5 million budget. It is being produced for pbs and Washington-based distributor Devillier Donegan.

A Bouncing Baby Cornish

With the usual full slate of programs to represent, Sydney’s Jennifer Cornish Media now has the added responsibility of a new production company to consider. Jennifer Cornish Productions will fill the executive producer role on several new productions, and will also be a source for teaming Australian film crews with international clients.

One of the first projects for JCP is Sydney’s Ron Taylor Film Productions’, Ocean Planet. The 3 x 60-minute series is a retrospective of the lives of underwater filmmakers Ron and Val Taylor, revealing some of the many locations in which they’ve shot, and their many escapades. Ready for January of 1999, the series is being coproduced with Channel 7 Australia, Telecast International Germany and a yet-unnamed American partner. The series floats an approximate budget of US$180,000.

JCP is also working with Queensland’s John Young and Ray Smith of Ray Smith Productions on Wings Of Silence. Wings is a 60-minute examination of owls, as seen through the eyes of eccentric naturalist John Young. The hour is being coproduced with GA&A Italy and Telecast International. The film will be completed this October, and has a budget of around US$150,000.

Jenny Cornish, the distributor, also has a list of new programs in the works by her clients. Atlanta’s Child is being produced by Sydney’s Wild Visuals, with coproducers Channel 7 Australia and the Australian Film Finance Corporation. Ready for December, the 60-minute film chronicles the life of Jana Piper, a 16-year-old who has sailed around the world with her father since she was a child. The pair even circumnavigated the globe in 1993. The project has a budget of approximately US$150,000.

Cold War: Isaacs & Mitchell Chronicle of an Era

Ted Turner has never been accused of thinking small. At 24 one-hour episodes, the much-heralded CNN series Cold War is actually shorter than the 40 hours he originally considered. Over 600 interviews were conducted during the research phase, including ones with every living world leader who played a part in the conflict (with the exception of Ronald Reagan, whose illness prevented his participation).

The series is a production of a London-based team of CNN Productions, specially assembled for the project and headed by co-executive producers Sir Jeremy Isaacs (of The World at War fame) and Pat Mitchell (president of Time Inc./CNN Productions). Kenneth Branagh narrates the series.

Two factors motivated the producers to tell the story now, explains Mitchell: ‘We knew that for the first time we could actually document what really went on during that fifty-year struggle instead of just what each side believed about the other. Secondly, a lot of the world leaders who had led us through that period, and the eyewitnesses, were dying and getting up in years.’ The production had the good fortune of interviewing a number of people just before they died, such as McGeorge Bundy, a JFK aide.

The declassification of government documents was also a boon for the series. ‘We worked very closely with the National Security Archives in Washington to look at all the decoded documents. They were sending us declassified files daily – thousands of pages coming in day after day – and we continued to co-ordinate with them all the way through. Sometimes we’d have to go back and re-do an episode because something new was revealed.’

Research began in 1994, with filming commencing in `95, and eventually producing over 1000 hours of original footage. About 10,000 hours of archival footage was collected. The episodes are comprised of approximately 65% to 70% stock footage. Several unique sources were mined, including a previously classified kgb archive and a Soviet stock footage house which had documented almost every moment of Khrushchev’s life. Archives from cold war adversaries like North Vietnam were also tapped.

The producers also felt the helping hand of providence on several occasions. ‘We were in the former East Germany filming,’ recalls Mitchell, ‘and a guy walked up to our producer on the street and said `I have some footage that I took right after the war ended, when the Russian troops occupied Berlin. Would you like to see it?” The home movies contained gems such as a rare, if not completely unique, color print of Kennedy’s famous `Ich Bin Ein Berliner’ speech.

While in Prague, the crew was interviewing witnesses to the Soviet take-over when they were approached by a Swedish cameraman who had recorded the action, but had not been able to smuggle his footage out. Among the hundred of hours of film, the crew came across footage of a woman with whom they had just done an on-the-street interview, being hit by a Communist tank decades before.

One of the highlights of the original footage is a five-and-a-half hour interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Denied access to the Cuban leader on three previous occasions, the filmmakers were finally allowed a short meeting with him to record his answers to some pre-submitted questions. Castro spoke to the crew for over seven hours, and even revealed cold war documents. The interview could not be used in its entirety but the whole transcript will be made available on the cnn web site.

While cnn is tentative about discussing budgets, Mitchell confirmed that the rumored us$1 million per episode figure is exaggerated, but not completely unrealistic. That figure would reflect the high percentage of archival content.

Cold WarÊwill begin airing on CNN, BBC2 and ARD Germany at the end of September. It will run on twelve successive weeks, break for two weeks, and then return. The home video will be available through a direct marketing campaign commencing with the start of the series, and will go to retail outlets in more than 31 countries after broadcast, with more territories still to be added.

The same CNN Production team is now working on Millennium: 1000 Years of History, a 10 x 60-minute millennium retrospective which will be completed for the fall of 1999. Ready for the 2000 celebration, cnn also has David Wolper’s Celebrate the Century, a 10 x 60-minute which will focus more specifically on the last ten decades.

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.