Finding money from sources you’re already using

When Discovery greenlighted Holly Stadtler's newest project, she found herself in an enviable but difficult position. The American cablecaster agreed to underwrite part of the budget, but she was on the line for the rest, and that meant drumming up some...
September 1, 1998

When Discovery greenlighted Holly Stadtler’s newest project, she found herself in an enviable but difficult position. The American cablecaster agreed to underwrite part of the budget, but she was on the line for the rest, and that meant drumming up some dollars… fast.

Stadtler, who owns Dream Catcher Films in Maryland, had been working with Discovery for several years, producing films such as The Making of The Leopard Son, Coma: The Silent Epidemic (for which she has been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding background analysis of a single current story) and Footsteps of a Bear. The new project, coproduced with Eleanor Grant, is called Buried Alive, a one-hour medical-history doc about the hazy line between life and death, full of stories of the dead returning to life and the living being buried alive.

Through some act of providence, the day Discovery sent her out into the world to find the dough, she came across an ad from the Washington outlet of PVS Speer International, a Nashville-headquartered post facility. PVS Speer was on the hunt for coproduction opportunities with local producers. She took her chances and made the call.

The result was an unorthodox deal which got the film made, and seemed to give all the partners what they wanted.

For Discovery’s traditional amount of financing (although Stadtler would not comment on this amount specifically, DCI usually wades in with 40% to 50% of budget), they received rights for the main territories, such as the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Africa.

PVS put up a little money, but their main contribution was in in-kind services: equipment, crew, off-line editing, on-line editing, audio mix and record, graphics, motion control, tape stock and everything else a post facility could provide. In return, they received rights to distribute the film in the remaining territories (French Canada, France, New Zealand, Australia, Asia), home video rights, and rights to the stock footage. PVS has the right to distribute the film for the next ten years, after which the rights revert to Stadtler. PVS and the filmmaker will each share a percentage of income from distribution revenues, once the post facility recoups their original investment.

PVS also gets the rights to her outs, which include just under 30 hours of interviews, voodoo ceremonies, landscapes, re-enactments of burials and various other B-roll material. Stadtler gets a percentage of the stock sales, and has limited free access to the material for future projects (up to three minutes per project).

Most important of all, however, Stadtler got to make her film.

The end result is a one-hour production, which will be completed by the end of September, with a total budget of just over US$300,000 (including in-kind services). When the credits roll, they’ll read: Dream Catcher Films for Discovery Channel, in association with PVS Speer.

While it might seem a little unusual for the cablecaster to be sharing credits and rights with a post facility, PVS Speer saw this deal as a natural progression from what they had already been doing. ‘We feel that coproductions are the way the future is going to be going,’ explains senior account executive for original programming, Dana Voorhees. ‘Especially for the production and post production facilities in this market. It’s really going to give them an opportunity to retain some ownership in product, and [give us a chance to] start to establish a library on our own. As the face of the post production industry changes – and it’s promising to change substantially over the next few years – we felt that it would be an excellent opportunity to have some ownership in some programs.’

PVS created an offshoot company about a year and a half ago called Speer International, mainly to take advantage of coproduction opportunities and produce independently. Their first project was a 6 x 30-minute series called Wine 101, which has been picked up by PBS for the next two years. Starring Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce, it’s a coproduction with Washington’s Ward Productions, and according to Voorhees is so successful that many PBS stations are using it during membership drives.

Speer International also independently produced Komodo: To Capture a Dragon. The one-hour doc details research being done into the immune system of the Komodo dragon. It also gave them an opportunity to expand their fledgling library with some rare footage of the dragons. Ten were captured during the course of the film, and there has already been some international interest in the footage.

Their next project will be on the opening of the Kennedy Center Opera House. Highlights will include President Bill Clinton conducting the national symphony orchestra, and Vernon Jordan reciting Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech. That production will be a Speer International Production, with The Kennedy Center and Diversified Leisure and Media Group Incorporated in Washington (which is part of Kennedy Center).

All these extracurricular activities are becoming a necessity for post houses, says Voorhees. ‘I think a lot of houses are going to start getting into it. It’s becoming a real market for this kind of strategic alliance with people. I’m certain that the post houses that have the financial wherewithal to do it are going to start to do it. They’re going to realize that in a couple of years, [people like] Holly are going to have their own avid, and they’re not going to need us for half the stuff that she needs us for now. We need to find ways to be more resourceful in the marketplace and be a service to the community in other ways, and this really points directly to getting involved in coproduction agreements.’

Voorhees can foresee a time in the near future when the big post houses will only be providing high-end digital work and complicated cell animation, and the small and medium size houses might not have work at all. ‘The ones that are ahead of the curve are the ones who are getting into this kind of thing now, instead of panicking in five years, when they can’t figure out why the numbers are off.’

Stadtler admits having some initial misgivings about using an unfamiliar crew, but having finished the lion’s share of the film, she now sees some advantages. ‘I think that filmmaking is such a collaborative effort that you have to continually find new talented people.’ She was careful to maintain editorial control of the project, and built a team around her vision. ‘What the [PVS] facility can provide is extra bodies on hand to make a dub, or an assistant editor to work the late shift. It’s a very good situation because you have this company around you, instead of working in the basement of a freelance editor’s home.’

To Stadtler, the unorthodox nature of the coproduction is just a sign of the times, and perhaps a window into a future trend in filmmaking. ‘I think that in today’s marketplace it is so hard to see your vision come to fruition that you have to find inventive ways to get the funding. I think that this is one way to get a large chunk of the funding with a minimum amount of risk. The facilities have a lot at stake too. From their standpoint, they also want your product to come out looking really good.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.