Out in Namibia a few months ago, a Hollywood producer arrived by private plane at our camp. He was scouting for elephants for a movie. I didn’t ask him whether he was after pink ones or white.
We got to talking about the wildlife business. ‘Sounds just like Hollywood,’ he said. ‘We’ve only got twenty bankable stars – like Schwarzenegger and Cruise. You’ve only got twenty kinds of charismatic megafauna – like lions and cheetahs. We have a few big studios who dominate the market. You have a few broadcasters who dominate your business. But both of us make stuff that’s global and they want lots of it. Better keep surprising `em, pal.’ And with a puff of his cigar he flew up and away to find some bigger elephants.
He has a point. With international wildlife slots multiplying faster than rabbits, there’s a vast demand for material, and unless we’re careful, people will tire of seeing the same animals over and over again. The challenge is to avoid global glut and keep surprising them.
In RealScreen’s special issue on Natural History, Nature executive producer Fred Kaufman and Keenan Smart of National Geographic threw down a challenge for producers to innovate. Independent producers need to take up that challenge.
In Hollywood, producers constantly have to work through the genres to come up with something brand new and keep their stars on the screen. Romantic comedy, black comedy, sci-fi, western, fantasy, love story, coming of age, action/adventure, redemption, even mockumentary. They try to bring unusual combinations together. A species of charismatic megafauna in comedy? Look no further than the success of Schwarzenegger in Twins.
In Britain, several independents are trying to break the mold of wildlife programming, and remake it. John Downer Productions, Green Umbrella and Zebra are all pushing at the frontiers, with series like Supernatural and Animal Intelligence. At Tigress, we’re trying to do the same thing differently with In The Wild. The series has a comedy (a dolphin documentary with Robin Williams), a detective story in the Galapagos with Richard Dreyfuss, a romance with Goldie Hawn and elephants, and an ironical documentary in which John Cleese admits his love for lemurs, but decides they may not survive if there are human beings on the planet and shoots himself (he really does…). We’ve taken the soap opera format and adapted it for a weekly episode about a group of 40 unruly chimpanzees in deepest Dorset. And the price tag isn’t enormous for this yearly series called Monkey Business.
So where does that leave us? A shark comedy? A whale western? A zebra stallion fantasy? A dolphin extraterrestrial soap? A grizzly redemption? No one knows. But if Hollywood is anything to go by, charismatic megafauna are here to stay. It’s the story approaches that have to change.
Jeremy Bradshaw, managing director of London-based Tigress Productions, was a producer and senior producer at Survival Anglia from 1975 to 1990 and has over 140 documentaries to his credit