Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And where there’s an audience and a broadcaster, there’s a producer. As the natural history genre continues to prove a ratings-winner for broadcasters globally, the supplier pool keeps getting deeper and more diverse. RealScreen checks in on four production companies: four different philosophies, four different dimensions, four different locales…
‘Keep your boots muddy!’
It’s how Bo Landin of Sweden’s Scandinature signs off every letter he writes, and it’s been his advice to natural history filmmakers for the last 25 years.
‘Only if you are getting your boots muddy are you truly out there in real-life situations, seeking answers to real issues,’ explains Landin, co-founder and executive producer of Scandinature Films, based in a converted barn in Karlstad, Sweden.
Sweden’s documentary film industry has flourished for decades in a country with a well-educated population and strong public broadcasters that faced no commercial competition until just six years ago. The natural history films that Scandinavians produced, though, were rarely successful on the world market because they were considered by many to be just about as entertaining as, well, watching the sun go down.
‘We can just watch landscapes and changing lights – we are quite obsessed with light,’ explains Landin, citing the midnight sun in Nordic summers and total darkness every winter. ‘We worship the sun.’
Scandinature Films was created in 1982 by Landin and cinematographer Hans Ostbom and was successful during most of the `80s with a number of ecological docs and investigative films. Picking up prizes at film festivals all over the world, Scandinature was also producing an environmental series on Sweden’s SVT between 1985 and 1990. The company stirred a political scandal in 1989 after the release of Seal Mourning, its investigative report into the Norwegian seal hunt.
Landin says by the time the `90s arrived, commissioning editors were no longer interested in his environmental films and it was time for Scandinature to diversify.
‘We realized if we are going to continue to produce films, we have to diversify and bring forward the ecological content of our films rather than the political,’ he recalls. ‘It’s taken a few years for Scandinature to prove that we could also produce the highest quality natural history docs and I think nobody denies the fact that we’re up there at the top with all the big companies.’
In fact, Landin claims his company has become the Scandinavian natural history unit. He also hosts a weekly natural history series on Sweden’s TV4 called Naturen. Produced by his wife Marianne, the program has become the second highest rated show on Swedish television, according to Landin.
Scandinature currently has several films on the market, distributed by ITEL, including: Candamo – A Journey Beyond Hell, a 1 x 52-minute film by Daniel Winitzky that follows three men of the Ese’eja ethnic group through a remote region of the Peruvian rainforest, produced for US$500,000; and Taiga – Forest of Frost and Fire, a US$545,000 production about the boreal forest that encircles the northern hemisphere, available as either a 2 x 52-minute or 1 x 52-minute. The latter has already been picked up by Discovery U.S., WDR in Germany and NHK in Japan.
Both films involved long shoots in remote locations so the relatively modest budgets are somewhat surprising. Landin says he doesn’t believe natural history docs have to be expensive to be good.
‘People talk about one million dollar or pound budgets – I find it very hard to justify budgets like that for these films,’ he explains. ‘I think a lot more doc films could be produced for less money, if we spent more time thinking about storylines.’
Scandinature’s strongest North American ally is Discovery, a frequent production partner, but Landin says he’s negotiating with National Geographic. He adds there’s a big difference between what North American broadcasters are looking for and what broadcasters in other parts of the world want.
‘Americans want higher tempo – much more action and, unfortunately, driven too much by a predator-prey relationship. Feed, fuck and kill is what I usually say, and I find that a bit boring,’ he says. ‘I think we’re underestimating [the viewer]. Of course American commissioning editors say I’m wrong on this because they point to viewer statistics. If you want to keep an audience of white males 25 to 45 they should probably continue to do those films. I just think you could diversify and get a bigger audience if you did other films.
‘I know the American market is very niched and we have to accept that. Unfortunately, that means we produce films for the lowest denominator.’
Landin also has a problem with broadcasters who are reluctant to allow humans to appear in natural history films. He believes people are essential ingredients in most of the films he makes, and he usually allows them to speak their native tongues. Broadcasters, Landin says, are starting to come around. ‘They have changed, but they are still a bit scared of the human element,’ he says. ‘We need to include people in our natural history films.’
Landin also says broadcasters need to start being honest with viewers and stop trying to portray all natural history filmmakers as brave, adventurous people who are out in the wilderness risking their lives.
‘We [the filmmakers] all know we took the car out and walked a few yards from the car in eight cases out of ten – and we have all the tourists standing behind our back, especially in Africa,’ he says.
‘We need to be honest to our audience. We need to tell them that so many of our films are actually shot with habituated or tame animals because the audience still believes these are wild creatures. Quite often they are, but we all know that quite often they are not.’
Some might view Landin’s remarks as bad for business, but he makes no apologies for being opinionated. In fact, at 1996′s Wildscreen in Bristol, Landin proposed a set of ethics guidelines for natural history filmmakers. He hopes the document will be a hot topic of conversation at Wildscreen this year.
‘I think the international market has always seen me as a rather rebellious person fighting for things that the natural history people normally didn’t fight for,’ he admits. ‘My concern is the truth. Some people seem to think if you do a textbook documentary film on nat history you have produced the truth, and to me film is an illusion and that’s what we’re creating as filmmakers.’
Landin says although there remains intense viewer interest in natural history programming in most of the world, preferences in some markets are beginning to change. He cites TV2 in Denmark, which recently dumped its primetime nat history program, and the growing number of broadcasters in Europe who are demanding more European material. ‘They’re tired of Africa,’ he says.
Scandinature has several projects in production, including films about Cuba, the foxes of the island of Talan and the elephants and lions of Etosha National Park.
Scandinature’s catalog will be well represented by ITEL at MIPCOM this year, where the company is pushing Dead Sea Scrolls, a 1 x 52 -minute coproduction with Discovery U.S. with a budget of US$465,000, and The Death of a Bison Bull, a 1 x 52-minute US$455,000 coproduction with WDR Germany and TV4 Sweden.
Landin, meanwhile, hopes to start working on different kinds of films as his company continues to evolve.
‘I am bored. I can’t take more natural history,’ he admits. ‘I want to see other kinds of films.’
Producer Profiles -
United Wildlife (pg. 12)
Asterisk Productions (pg. 22)
Wild Visuals (pg. 24)