A Turning Point in History

To put together (and ultimately successfully produce) a two million pound (U.S.$3.26 million) 26 x 25-minute series with American, Dutch, French, Austrian and Australian broadcasters as coproduction partners was a challenge. It tested to the utmost the artistic and commercial skills...
November 1, 1998

To put together (and ultimately successfully produce) a two million pound (U.S.$3.26 million) 26 x 25-minute series with American, Dutch, French, Austrian and Australian broadcasters as coproduction partners was a challenge. It tested to the utmost the artistic and commercial skills of the production, financial and legal talents of London-based TransAtlantic Films (TAF).

The production idea (originally conceived from a meeting with TLC’s John Ford and TAF president Revel Guest during MIP-TV in 1992) was wonderfully simple: take the leading critical moments in history, which would (hopefully) be accepted as such by all our prospective coproduction partners, and through dramatizing the events on location, tell the story of History’s Turning Points. However, the realization was somewhat more complicated.

In TAF’s 30 years of producing documentaries, we had always had a British broadcaster (BBC, Channel 4 or an ITV network company) as the lead coproduction partner to help fund our films with an American or Continental broadcaster (thus the provenance of our company name), but this time we could not interest any of the British companies. We then had to look further afield, and were fortunate in persuading The Learning Channel (TLC) in the U.S. to be the lead coproduction partner. We had previously coproduced our Horse in Sport series with their sister company, The Discovery Channel.

The next broadcaster to agree was Teleac from Holland, who had earlier coproduced Greek Fire with us. (Greek Fire was a ten-part series exploring how the modern world has been influenced by Greek culture. C4, A&E, Sweden’s M&S Lersten & Associates and E.R.T.S.A. of Greece were also coproduction partners on the project).

We had sold several programs to Oesterreichischer Rundfunk (ORF) in Vienna, but never coproduced with them. This time they agreed to come on board from the beginning of production, as was the case with SBS TV in Australia. La Cinquième from France, who had never worked with us before, agreed that the program concept, length and subject matter seemed to fit their needs. Also at this time, we completed preliminary negotiations with Radio Television Espanola (RTE), the Spanish national broadcaster, but were having difficulties because of the possible change in corporate governance of RTE following their national elections.

Because the coproduction partners would provide funding for almost 80% of our total production budget (2.4 million pounds) and the balance of 20% could be deficit-financed by TAF in accordance with our business plan, the green light was given. Pre-production was started, the production team selected, and the lawyers instructed to complete negotiations and close all coproduction contracts as soon as possible.

Since we were coproducing with broadcasters in five different languages, we had to satisfy each of them that the programs could be produced in a manner allowing all partners to present in their own language – just as if they had produced the series themselves – before the contracts could be closed. The traditional concept of delivering the English-language version with an m&e track with textless graphics, front titles and end credits (for international sales) would not really be sufficient.

So we decided to script the programs as `docu-drama’ – i.e. dramatize the story with actors on location (but have no synch dialogue) and film in a documentary style as if the cameras were present at that particular moment in history. Each country would then have their own narrator dub the voiceover in their own language. We had previously produced a pilot for a C4 drama series (Man in a Fog with Tim Piggot Smith) and felt comfortable with trying to combine this style of drama with our traditional documentary style of filming. Although this technique proved more costly than we originally budgeted – we used one or two equity actors (but only if absolutely necessary), plus non-professionals hired locally for each episode – it did satisfy the language requirements of all our partners.

However, agreeing with our very different broadcast partners on the 26 ‘turning points’ was not so easy. Each country had its own view of what were key events, and even when we did agree there were different interpretations (often irreconcilable) of the same turning point. Was the turning point of the story of Christ, for example, the crucifixion or the resurrection? How should Christ be portrayed – according to the Gospels (and if so, which one?) or as a straight historical story of a Jewish son of a carpenter who claims to be the messiah riding into Jerusalem on a donkey?

In the end, even with such a renowned historian as Asa Briggs (author of A Social History of England and History of British Broadcasting) as our series consultant, we could only agree on the subject matter (and the way in which to handle it) for the first 13 episodes. As a result, the contracts were written for an initial series of 13, with only an option to go forward with the second 13. In addition, in the middle of final contract negotiations with RTE, they informed us that they had to withdraw from the project because their new management, installed after the elections, had insisted that all foreign coproduction commitments be canceled.

This was a set-back to our financing. Fortunately our bankers, London-based Coutts & Co. (who had financed our very first production in 1968: Fun City, USA, a coproduction with the BBC and Group W/Metromedia in the U.S. on Norman Mailer’s efforts to become Mayor of New York City) agreed to go forward with us on just the first 13 episodes, and without RTE’s much-needed financing, since they shared our faith that the second series would be commissioned as soon as the first series had been able to show its excellence in the marketplace. Coutts was also aware that we were still trying to raise additional financing from markets which had not been licensed to our coproduction partners – world book and home video rights, plus television for the rest of the world – and they knew we had been reasonably successful in similar efforts for other productions (Greek Fire and the eight-part, one-hour series Horse In Sport, a copro with C4, ABC Australia and Discovery Channel in the U.S.).

In fact, we were able to secure a very useful advance (in the mid five figures sterling) for worldwide book rights from London-based Boxtree Ltd on the basis that the book would be co-authored by the executive producer Revel Guest and scriptwriter Andrew St. George, of the first 13 programs of the series.

For U.S. and Canadian home video rights we turned to Ambrose Video of New York, who felt that the length and subject matter of the series would lend itself not only to traditional home video, but also to the educational non-theatrical market. At the same time, as we were in negotiations with New York and L.A.-based tv distributor Unapix to have them represent our back library, Unapix agreed to provide a separate advance for those markets and media in the rest of the world which had not already been licensed.

Upon completion of production in 1995, after receipt of all of the funding from coproduction partners, plus the advances for home video, tv in the rest of the world, and book rights, almost 90% of final production costs of the first series of 13 episodes was covered, and taf was left with only 10% to be deficit-financed from future sales.

Fortunately, the first series of 13 episodes was a success for our coproduction partners (the series aired at least four times in all of the broadcasters juristicions) and also won a number of useful awards at festivals like Prie de Baie, Houston and Chicago. All of the original coproduction partners re-commissioned a second series, and we went on to coproduce another 13 programs late in 1995 with all partners except ORF, which had undergone a major internal reorganization during this period. Fortunately, Discovery Europe joined as a coproduction partner for the second series (after licensing the first) and more than equaled ORF’s previous commitment.

We learned a great deal from the first series and were able to improve on the docu-drama techniques and deliver the second 13 episodes at less cost, but with better production values than the first series. This helped recoup the initial deficit of the first series – principally caused by RTE’s withdrawal and added to by the unexpected strength of sterling against the dollar – and justify our bankers (and our own) confidence in financing the deficit of the first series.

Sadly, we never could get agreement from our partners on how to tell the story of Christ – and thus the script for this turning point still sits in our files, ready to be resurrected for the next series.

Justin Albert joined TAF (now celebrating its 30th year) in 1988 and is presently managing director. He produced History’s Turning Points and also directed several episodes. He’s currently producing (and directing one episode of) a TAF production on the building of the Three Gorges Dam in China for Discovery Channel and TLC, to air in 1999.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.