Upfront: Non-fiction News

SOUTHERN STAR BUYS PRIMETIME: Aussie distrib's Strategy to Target Factual...
November 1, 1998

SOUTHERN STAR BUYS PRIMETIME: Aussie distrib’s Strategy to Target Factual

Australian producer/distributor Southern Star has snapped up the U.K.’s largest independent distributor, Primetime, for £3.55 million.

The deal gives Southern Star access to approximately 7000 hours of programming from a pool of around 200 producers internationally. Primetime chairman Richard Price and CEO Richard Leworthy will stay on in a consultative capacity. Simon Willock will remain as managing director.

Southern Star chairman, Neil Balnaves, said of the buy: ‘The acquisition of Primetime is Southern Star’s next step in becoming one of the major independent distributors of English language programming and should place us in the top ten worldwide.’

From Primetime’s point of view, the deal is seen as a way of securing greater funds for program investment. Observers claim that the company has found it increasingly difficult to compete in the deficit funding market.

The Primetime acquisition is the second time in two years that Southern Star has raided the U.K. market. Previously, it acquired another independent distributor, Circle Communications, for £10 million.

Although Primetime has a broad-based catalog, its recent strategy has been to concentrate on factual shows, according to Willock. At MIPCOM, he presented Earth Reports (52 x 30-minutes), Witness (26 x 26-minutes), Diana: Secrets Behind the Crash and Jonestown, a Fulcrum Productions film about the mass suicide of 900 Americans in Guyana. As part of Southern Star, Primetime will sit alongside factual producer Oxford Scientific Films. Andy Fry

DISCOVERY TAKES FRANCE: Teams with Pathé’s Voyage

Discovery Networks International has struck a deal with two-year-old French broadcaster Voyage, a travel-oriented specialty with 1.5 million subscribers, to launch a ‘co-branded, co-produced’ slot on the service as of December 5. The slot will run from 6:30-7:30 pm on Saturdays and Sundays on Voyage, which is a subsidiary of Pathé. In addition, Discovery will supply branded episodes of two popular series to air on Voyage outside the programming block.

Discovery Networks Europe will supply over 200 hours over two years to air in the hosted programming block – dubbed Circum – and outside of it. Discovery will also supply 75 episodes of the travelogue Travellers and the five-part Eco-Challenge special.

According to Discovery Networks International president, Don Wear, the partners have also ‘contemplated a long-term relationship, and that might indeed include new channel launches.’ The current agreement satisfies Wear’s desire to break into one of the few remaining markets Discovery has not cracked: ‘The one thing that had disappointed me was that we were not more available in France,’ says Wear.

Wear also hinted that more European branded blocks are in the offing. Earlier this year Discovery launched a branded block on Germany’s ZDF. Brendan Christie


Discovery Networks International and ITEL of London announced a multi-million dollar, multi-year deal at MIPCOM that will provide 160 hours of new programming to Discovery services outside of the U.S.

ITEL will provide DCI with premiere specials and mini-series involving natural history, scientific exploration and cultures of the world. In addition, Discovery will also acquire rights for close to 100 hours of programming already in the ITEL catalog and future productions.

The ITEL programming acquired under the deal is available to air in January 1999 on any of Discovery’s global services.

Also at MIPCOM, Discovery Communications (DCI) announced a two-year coproduction and distribution agreement with Canal+ for scientific exploration programming. Point du Jour, a production subsidiary of Canal+, will coproduce four programs with Discovery Channel in the U.S. The projects will air on Discovery Channel worldwide while Point du Jour retains TV rights in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. The first two programs – one on the sunken ruins of Cleopatra’s palace and one on the remains of Napolean’s warships – will be produced by Toronto’s Cinenova Productions. Dustin Dinoff

BBC DOC ON THE EXORCIST: Repackaged for U.S. Retail

Twenty-five years after its release in Britain, Warner Bros’ legendary horror film The Exorcist, a story about a 12-year-old girl who becomes possessed by the devil, is the subject of a BBC documentary. Presented by journalist and author Mark Kermode, The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist includes interviews with director William Friedkin, William Peter Blatty (who wrote the novel upon which the film was based), and cast members Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller. Also included are extracts, never seen before out-takes and screen tests.

Budgeted at approximately US$130,000, the documentary, which recently aired in the U.K., is being marketed by Warner Home Video in the U.S. A 49-minute version of the documentary will comprise part of the special collector’s box set, currently scheduled for release this month. Thirty-minute versions were included in special packages that accompanied the film’s recent release as a video cassette and laser disc, while the newly released dvd edition included a 75-minute version.

‘When I first saw The Exorcist, I was terrified by its suspense,’ says Nick Freand Jones, who directed and produced The Fear of God. ‘Its unease and unsettling quality remained in my subconscious for a very long time. There’s a dream sequence where a priest [played by Jason Miller], sees his deceased mother emerge from a subway exit. It’s all in slow motion, there’s no noise and we see subliminal flash frames of a strange demonic face. Then the scene cuts to a sequence where Linda is screaming at a doctor. Those scenes are incredibly haunting and frightening. You don’t forget them in a hurry.’

In Britain, The Exorcist has been banned from video shelves and television screens by the British Board of Film Classification since the early 1980s. Kermode has constantly been campaigning for the ban to be lifted, and Jones hopes the documentary will help to reverse the BBFC’s decision. Simon Bacal


A dozen of the U.K.’s largest distributors have linked up with independent producer’s lobby PACT to find ways of promoting British programs overseas.

At the heart of their proposals is a new trade body called The British Television Distributors Association (BTDA). Founding members of the group include BBC Worldwide, Carlton International, Channel 4 International, Granada International, Minotaur, ITEL, HIT Entertainment and Pearson International.

The main goal will be to raise the profile of British programs overseas. It has the backing of broadcasting minister, Janet Anderson, who said: ‘We need to do more to improve our export performance. The BTDA can play a vital role by improving the quality of marketing and establishing training initiatives.’

It is not clear if the government will provide extra funds for BTDA initiatives. However, the creation of a formal trade body was a prerequisite of any industry-wide funding being granted. For now, BTDA income will be generated by member subscriptions.

The chair of the new body, hit director of sales, Charles Caminada, welcomed the partnership with pact as an opportunity for producers and distributors to work together more closely. ‘Increasingly producers are looking to the international market to help fund their programs. The joint venture with pact should help make that possible.’

PACT chief executive, Shaun Williams, said the new body underlined his own association’s commitment to boosting exports: ‘Fourteen months ago the government said it was imperative that the U.K. do something about the poor balance of trade deficit in audiovisual.’

In the past, PACT has successfully worked with British television distributors at markets such as NATPE. Williams says: ‘That partnership will now be strengthened. PACT will provide lobbying muscle and administrative back-up.’

According to Caminada, the BTDA’s priority will be to boost membership. However, there are still questions over whether companies with foreign ownership can join. Major factual distributors such as GEM, Primetime and Circle Communications are all wholly or partly foreign-owned.

The creation of the BTDA is the result of 18 months work and has involved a significant contribution from Minotaur managing director, Jane Lighting. ‘At one level, we are all competitors. But we have recognized it is in all our interests to have a unified voice on promotion and marketing if we are to face up to serious competition from the U.S. and the rest of Europe.’ Andy Fry

FILM BANK BOY-OUT: Stock Consolidation Continues

Stock footage conglomerate Second Line Search (SLS), Hot Shots Cool Cuts (HSCC) and Action Sports Adventure (ASA) has purchased Film Bank, one of the largest stock footage libraries in Los Angeles. The buy gives Second Line, primarily based out of New York, an affiliate on the West Coast, and for ASA, already one of the more prominent sports footage companies, the new California-based outpost is located conveniently in the extreme sports capital of the world. For Film Bank, it’s a chance to offer their clients a bigger catalog, including ASA’s sports footage, while retaining their identity.

‘We will still remain Film Bank and they will be Hot Shots, Second Line Search, and ASA,’ says Paula Lumbard, who remains president of Film Bank. ‘The company will still be a separate entity because we have a whole separate set of clients and separate collections.’

Film Bank’s holdings include the West Coast chapter of the cnn library and representation of more than 80 cinematographers and production companies. Says Todd Pavlin, principal at the SLS, HSCC, ASA combination: ‘Film Bank is probably the second biggest [footage] library in Los Angeles, behind Energy. We really feel that Energy needs some competition out there.’

The SLS group is spending of late. It recently signed New York’s oldest local news station, WPIX, and Hot Shots itself has secured 3500 feature, industrial, public domain, training and corporate films. However, the acquisition of Film Bank is the crown jewel.

‘It was certainly one of the bigger acquisitions in the stock footage industry in the last few years,’ says Pavlin. ‘Certainly the biggest acquisition we’ve made.

‘Consolidation makes a lot of sense… There are really only so many key individuals and key people in this industry and trying to get them all under one roof is beneficial.’

Pavlin is exploring plans to expand even further as business continues to thrive: ‘We are involved in discussions about acquiring other libraries. The reason a lot of companies [Time-Warner, Microsoft] are interested in companies like ours is because we are starting to control millions and millions and millions of hours of content, and they see us as a jumping off point to reasonably priced programming.’ Dustin Dinoff


U.K. factual producer Bazal Productions has secured financial backing from a major manufacturer for what it calls ‘a new brand in natural history programming.’

The company, which is yet to be named, has provided an undisclosed sum to partially fund the production of an umbrella strand called Animal Alert which will encompass the creation of four separate program concepts. All of the new series build on Bazal’s existing expertise in making low-cost reality documentary strands such as Pet Rescue. For the first time, however, Bazal will be taking the docusoap approach out to international locations.

Each of the four series focus on ways in which humanity is combatting environmental and natural degradation. The first, California Rescue (13 x 30 -minutes) tells the story of a marine rescue center on the U.S. west coast. Two more series, Waterworld (4 x 50-minutes) and Running for their Lives (4 x 50 -minutes) look at endangered species and efforts by naturalists to save them and their habitats. The final program of the quartet continues the theme by looking at The Great Barrier Reef (13 x 30-minutes).

The series is being executive produced by Nikki Cheetham. For more on Bazal, see The British Innovation, starting on page 34. Andy Fry


Former ABC/Kane Productions International president, Nick Durie, will head National Geographic Television’s new Program Enterprise Group. He will be assisted by executive producer, Christine Weber. Andrew Carl Wilk has moved up the ranks at NGT to executive VP of programming and production. Wilk will oversee the management of all NGT non-fiction programming.

Alex Holmes has been appointed editor of the BBC’s Modern Times slot following Stephen Lambert’s move to London indie RDF. For the last year, Holmes has been working on the development of a new BBC investigative documentary unit.

Southern Star Circle has promoted Clare Birks to the new position of director of programmes. Birks will oversee the strategic development of all programming activities in the U.K. and will take overall responsibility for production in factual, including the Natural History Production Unit at Oxford Scientific Films.

At BBC Worldwide’s divison for factual global brand development, Phil Clymer has been named brand manager for science, Alix Tidmarsh as brand manager for natural history, and Joanne Sermon as brand manager for documentaries. Stuart Mullin will act as commercial manager, Sheila Ableman is the team’s editorial director, and John Howson rounds out the roster as the head of millennium licensing.

Sue Vertue is leaving her director and producer roles at Tiger Aspects Production to join her mother, Beryl Vertue, at Hartswood Films. Tiger Aspect is promoting Andrew Zein to commercial director.

Discovery Communications has elected Donald Baer, White House advisor and laywer, to the office of senior VP of public policy and communications, including responsibility for corporate communications and government relations.


Timewatch’s Hitler banking exposé

BBC’s Timewatch could be in for some controversy thanks to an upcoming episode entitled `Banking With Hitler.’ The program, produced by Paul Elston, is reported to reveal that it was not only Swiss banks who cooperated with the Nazis, but banks in the U.S. and U.K. as well. Fearing lawsuits, it’s possible the BBC may not air the program at all. At press time, the broadcaster and its distributor, ITEL, were not commenting.

Unapix dives into educational market: Docere

L.A.-based Unapix is looking to exploit the reported US$665 billion educational market by launching a new unit, Docere, aimed at TV, the Internet, publishing and ancillary markets. Docere, a separate company, will provide creative consulting and deficit financing in exchange for domestic TV, publishing, video and international distribution rights. The prototype for the new effort is Unapix’s Great Minds series.

C4I cuts commission

C4I, the distribution arm of Channel 4, has cut its commission rate from 30% to 25%. By undercutting the industry norm, C4I, under new head Bernard MacLeod, aims to attract significant new business from indie producers. MacLeod says: ‘C4I is determined to offer the best deal in town to independents.’ C4I is also planning a major website with the aim of becoming the central site for all U.K. independent programming. JMA


HIT in development

Indie distributor HIT Entertainment has ploughed £2 million into a raft of new projects with international producers. The most significant project is a series on U.S. wildlife called American Wilderness (4 x 60-minutes) being made by Peter Roberts Productions.

The other three projects on the slate are all 60-minute specials: Masters of the Desert, a look at Bedouin lifestyle by Kuwaiti director Abdulla Al-Mekhyal; Ancient Mariners – A Sea Turtle Story from Earthviews Productions; and Rangiroa Atoll: Shark Central from Hardy Jones and Julia Whitty Productions. HIT’s director of factual programmes, Carl Hall, will executive produce all four productions. AF

More for Y2K

The BBC and WGBH in Boston are planning to broadcast the turn of the millennium to the entire planet during the 24-hour program 2000 Today. It will begin on December 31, 1999 at 10:30 GMT and be broadcast live for the day, worldwide to an estimated 800 million viewers. The program is being planned by an international team of programming reps from the BBC, WGBH, ABC (U.S.), ABC (Australia), CBC (Canada), CCTV (China), ETC (Egypt), RTL (Germany), SABC (South Africa), TF1 (France), TV ASAHI (Japan), and TV GLOBO (Brazil).

Nature in Germany

Hamburg’s Igel Media has acquired exclusive rights in all German-speaking territories for Holland’s Nature Conservation Film’s complete library. The deal includes films such as Cat, Queen of the Serengeti and Serengeti Stories.


In the July/August issue of RealScreen, the location given for the advertising agency SMASH was incorrect. The company, and Back Page contributor Rick Beyer, can be found in Boston, Massachusetts.

In the September issue, the profile of Fox Lorber Associates contained an error. The director of Classifed X is Mark Daniels, not Melvin van Peebles. Van Peebles is the narrator and one of the film’s subjects. To clarify, in addition to home video and theatrical releasing, Fox Lorber coproduces television and theatrical documentary films and series.

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.