Production News

January 1, 1999


Finding the Target

Former managing director of London’s Mayfair Distribution, Alison Rayson, struck out on her own last August with a new company, Target Distribution. Launched with financial support from London-based U.K. independents Tiger Aspect Productions (a pioneer in the docusoap field), and TalkBack Productions, one of the main motivations for the launch was to provide producers with more personalized service. Says Kate Bourne, Target’s sales manager (who herself recently made the switch from Primetime Television), the goal was ‘to ensure that the producers needs are met, and their interests are maximized in the international market.’

About one third of Target’s catalog is factual, with the balance comprised of drama, comedy and formats. While they currently only represent a handful of producers, the distributor is looking to add to their stable of producers with some international additions.

Among the productions currently in the works is: The People’s Vets, an 8 x 30-minute series which follows life in The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a facility which provides 24-hour emergency care for sick animals. The series is being produced by Nick Shearman Productions, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tiger Aspect.

Cop Shop, a 7 x 30-minute docusoap produced by Tiger Aspect, reveals the personal and professional lives of the members of a small town police force. Both series are intended for ITV, and should be completed for April. Each episode carries a budget of roughly £75,000.

According to Bourne, docusoaps are an art form that strikes just the right chord with English viewers. ‘I think the skill of these programs is to get the characters and the setting right. But, there’s something voyeuristic about the British that makes us quite obsessive about these things.’


Running on faith

Boston’s Blackside Inc. is in the fundraising stage for a 6 x 60-minute series called This Far by Faith, a US$5 million project. So far, major funding commitments have been made by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore (a charitable organization dedicated to helping disadvantaged children in the United States), the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago (an institution dedicated to helping groups foster lasting improvement in the human condition), the PBS/CPB Challenge Fund, the Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Airing on PBS some time in the Fall of 2000, this series looks at how African-American religious communities have helped to shape the democratic ideals of American life.

Perverse sculpture and marriage

London’s Mallemaroking Productions has some secrets they want to share with the world. The producer is working on a group of series entitled Secret Cities, beginning with their Secret London effort. The 6 x 30-minutes will look at the hidden people and places of London, including its ghosts, its bizarre architecture and its perverse sculpture. The series will reveal stories about the cities which few outsiders would have heard. Beginning with London, the plan is to feature New York, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Cairo, and Berlin in future efforts. The first series will be wrapped by July and is being distributed by London’s Louise Rosen Ltd. The series’ budget is about US$50,000 per half hour.

Rosen will also be distributing Famous Couples: Love and Power (working title), produced by Los Angeles-based Banda Productions. Marriage can be hard, but it’s next to impossible when both partners are public figures. The 12 x 30-minute series looks at the marriages of writers, rulers, painters and explorers, and will be completed by October. Each episode comes in at about $100,000, alimony not included.

Going Dutch

The Dutch, arguably more than some others who get more credit for it, were one of the first European peoples to embrace the new world and migrate to it in large numbers. Their influence is still felt today, although few seem to acknowledge it. Next to Japan and Britain, the Netherlands is the third greatest foreign investor in the U.S. From Santa Claus to land reclamation systems, Dutch culture and ingenuity has infiltrated and been adapted into American culture on a grand scale.

The Dutch is a production of Amsterdam/New York’s TV Matters, and New York PBS station, wnet. While still in the earliest stages of development, the goal is a 4 x 60-minute series for the PBS outlet. The producers and the station are in the process of drumming up the three and a half to four million dollars the production budget will require, but the goal is to begin working on the production by next summer. The completion date is scheduled for the Summer of 2001.

The series producer is Stephen Stept, who was recently supervising producer on Blackside’s The Great Depression.

Not just Babel

Tower of Life, is a 60-minute production from Noga Communications of Tel Aviv, with the help of WETA, New York’s PBS incarnation. The hour is based on a novel by acclaimed author, Yaffa Eliach, which was entitled Once There Was A World. The production tells the story of life in a Jewish shtetl in East Europe during the Holocaust, including some disturbing revelations about Nazi collaboration. Tower will be ready for Spring, and will have a budget around US$440,000.


Climb every mountain…

Adrenaline Films in Florida have begun randomly scaling things in expectation of their 4 x 50-minute series, Seeking Summits. The series will not only document the adventure of the climbs, but will look at what kind of people climb mountains and what makes them do it. There are no broadcasters involved in this series yet, but it will not be completed until the end of this year. The average budget for each episode is about US$300,000, and the series is being distributed by Adler Media of Virginia.

Adler has also just begun the preliminaries on some productions from an L.A. company called Crew Neck Productions. Look for a 2 x 50-minute dubbed The Unknown Superman, as well as two other Unknowns still in discussion, but rumored to involve big Hollywood names. Crew Neck is also beginning a short series called Commercial, which will be a look at the programs between the programs.


If I could talk to the animals…

Paris-based Segment Productions and French broadcaster La Cinquième are working together on a few new wildlife series for the this year. Fish Talk is a 26 x 5-minute series of segments which reveals the myths and legends of the undersea world, as told by its watery inhabitants. The series will be completed by the end of March, with a budget of approximately US$400,000.

The coproducers are also working on a 13 x 30-minute series called Ocean Tales. Each episode introduces viewers to a new undersea specialist, who takes them along for undersea exploration and adventure. Forget the blackboards and the egghead theories, these scientists get into the water with whales and crocodiles, and dive the limitless depths of the ocean, all in the name of exploration. Tales has a budget of approximately $1.2 million, and will be completed by May. Both of these series are being distributed by Paris’ Marathon International.

Marathon Productions, the distributor’s creative arm, is also working on some natural history of its own. Nature’s Babies, a series about… well, you know what it’s about, was originally scheduled to run to 4 x 60-minutes, and had sold into Italy, the U.K., Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia and Korea (among others) but the demand has motivated the production of an additional four episodes. The Discovery Channel and Canal+ France were involved in the original production run, and so far Discovery has signed on for the second half of the series. The last four episodes will run about $1.4 million (the same as the first four), and will be completed by the end of this year.


Ichneumon: The Thicket’s Devil is a one-hour documentary being produced by Bitis, an offshoot of AKA Films in Madrid, Spain. The film explores the world of a singular type of mongoose, one of the largest of the species in the world, and the only one of its kind in Europe. Coproducers involved in the project are Canal+ in Spain, and the BBC. Set for a December delivery, the hour has a budget of around US$420,000 and is being distributed by London’s ITEL.

Why you little…

Roger Whittaker Films in Australia is working on a 2 x 60-minute series about the little things in life – at least the ones that can kill you. Little Killers is being distributed by Washington’s Devillier Donegan Enterprises, and is being produced in association with the Discovery Channel and the Australian Film Finance Corporation. While most people tend to think about the big predators with the pointy fangs when they think of animals which can kill, not many remember the little creatures who kill with their venom and nasty little teeth – like snakes, spiders and mosquitoes. The series will be completed by June, and carries a budget in the US$340,000 range. Note: Kenneth Starr will not appear in this series.


Science Lessons

Strap on your goggles and dig out the bug spray, French producer Gedeon is looking to tackle some tough science in the next year.

In 1926, giant drawings were discovered in Peru, scratched into the floor of the desert. Drawn by the Nazcas, a seemingly primitive people, scientists have since been baffled by their origin and purpose (although most point to local Taco Bell outlets). The Enigma of the Nazcas is a 52-minute special which profiles the work of archeologist Giuseppe Orefici, a specialist in the huge carvings who has worked in the field for 17 years. The hour is a coproduction with La Sept/ARTE and Discovery and will be ready for June. The budget is approximately US$500,000.

Shipwreck in the China Sea is a 52-minute coproduction with ARTE and WGBH (for NOVA) which will be ready for March. The hour explores a 15th-century Chinese Junk sunk 60 meters below the surface of the China Sea. On board are between 6,000 and 15,000 pieces of porcelain and jars, and no one knows what else. Shipwreck has a budget of about $550,000.

In Help Congo!, viewers will get to follow the efforts of two scientists as they try to re-introduce chimpanzees to the forests of the Congo over a six month period. The 52-minute film is a coproduction with France 2 and Discovery and will be completed by August. The price tag for the adventure is $430,000.

Latin Lessons

Just before last October’s MIPCOM, New York producer/distributor Unapix Entertainment announced their expansion: the addition of another franchise which had been dubbed Unapix-Docere. Docere is a production entity which aims to be a full-service content creator for the educational market. (Docere – pronounced Doh-kay-ray – comes from the Latin root for documentary, and means `to teach’… just in case those kind of things keep you up at night).

Tim Smith, president of Unapix, sees the mandate of the new entity ‘to produce quality non-fiction programming that can be cross-platformed.’ Besides putting together broadcast programming, Docere’s main goal is to create books, videos and dvd, and build an on-line presence for all their titles. Each new release is intended to be an event: ‘We’re looking to develop brands and franchises in non-fiction,’ explains Smith.

Docere will not produce in-house, but will originate most material and then look to the international production community for their services. Docere hopes to hang on to as many ancillary rights as it can, in order to make the cross-platform approach viable.

Productions in the works include: Young Heroes, a 13 x 30-minute series produced by Toronto’s Protocol Entertainment. The series will feature the lives of child heroes and heroines from every era – from kids who fought against racism in the deep South, to a child who, like Anne Frank, avoided Nazi concentration camps for the duration of World War II. The series is being distributed by PBS Plus, and will be ready for the fall. Production is just beginning, as is the search for the US$4 million budget.

Mandela: A Biography is a 3 x 60-minute production also intended for PBS. Coproduced by Massachusetts-based Story Street Production and Johannesburg’s Films 2People, the special will air in May on PBS mainstay, Frontline. There has been interest expressed in the series by both a British and Japanese broadcaster as well, but as of press time nothing had been confirmed. This three-hour look at the revolutionary, Nobel Prize winner and ex-prisoner will come with a price tag of about $1 million.

Returning for a second season with five one-hour episodes is Superstructures. Four episodes of this new season focusing on the big and mind-boggling are being produced by L.A.’s Banda Productions, with one of the hours coming from Carlton Productions in London. The episodes average about $170,000 each and will begin showing up on TLC beginning March. Unapix-Docere is also talking to Carlton about a 3-hour series about surgeons called Cutters.

One of the backbones of the new production entity will be Unapix’ Great Minds series. Some of these series have already been produced and aired (Great Minds of American History, of Business, of Science and of Medicine), but the franchise is being extended. Each of the series have been produced in conjunction with magazines (such as Forbes and Sports Illustrated), so look for – among others to come – The Great Minds of Healing with Health magazine, and The Great Minds of Hollywood which has yet to be partnered to a publication.

Accounting Lessons: Canadian doc-makers launch investment arm

Saskatchewan-based doc producers Partners In Motion are launching a distribution and equity investment arm through subsidiary company, Harmony Entertainment.

First established by Partners two years ago, Harmony is a financing company composed of a consortium of investors who have pooled together capital to provide bridge financing on Partners’ proprietary documentary programs. However, with a proven track record, Partners’ president, Chris Triffo, says Harmony is now ready to expand into equity investment and interim financing for outside projects designed for the international market. Partners holds 97% ownership in Harmony.

Partners’ GM, Ron Goetz, says the company intends to raise between CDN$500,000 and $1 million in capital for reality-based, information and documentary projects with international sales potential. In its first year Harmony will interim finance approximately four projects and take an equity stake in another four.

Partners will continue to work with outside distributors on their major projects, while Harmony will focus on selling less commercial fare – what Triffo dubs ‘more personal, passionate projects.’ Triffo anticipates repping from 10 to 20 programs in the first year.

Triffo and Goetz moved into distribution based upon the success they found independently selling their one-hour doc Dad, which has aired on SCN (Saskatchewan Communications Network) and Vision in Canada. However, during development and production, the producers could not find a distributor willing to take on the project (which chronicles Triffo’s father, whose life was devastated by alcohol, drug abuse, and mental illness).

Partners have inked sales of Dad to HBO and Canada’s CBC Newsworld, and a deal with ABC Australia is pending. The BBC has also expressed interest in the project, says Goetz. ‘Within 14 months of completion, all the investors in the project been paid back in full and are in a profit position,’ says Triffo.

Partners In Motion’s 1998 slate is worth CDN$2 million and the company is looking to increase its reliance on coproductions to beef up 1999 volume. Harmony’s activities should sweeten the incentive for these joint ventures. ‘Over the past year we have begun to seriously look at international coproductions as a way to build a critical mass of production,’ says Goetz.

Partners’ latest project is a copro with Single Spark Prodctions of Santa Monica. Survivors, a 3 x 60-minute series of CDN$1.3 million, is fully financed outside the Canadian market with a broadcast license from TLC and distribution from N.Y.-based Tapestry. The financing also included the Saskatchewan labor tax credit. Survivors profiles people who have lived through devastating natural and manmade disasters. Harmony Entertainment is handling Canadian distribution.

Production is underway on two docs for History Television in Canada – the CDN$200,000 feature-length film Northwest Assignment, a historical doc chronicling a turn of the century gold rush along the B.C. coast; and Birdman, a CDN$120,000 one-hour on Saskatchewan aviation pioneer William Gibson. scn has also licensed both projects.

Beyond Medicine, a joint venture with Calgary’s Merry Dancer Media, is in post. The 13-part series exploring alternative medicine is licensed to wtn and scn and totes CDN$500,000 per episode.

Recently completed is Ground Zero, a one-hour, CDN$100,000 copro with Tri-Media Productions of Saskatoon. The doc examines the effects of global warming on the environment via an international research project undertaken by nasa and features Richard Chamberlain and astronaut Piers Sellers. SCN and the Knowledge Network are on board. An international distributor is being sought.

On Partners’ development slate is Falsely Accused, a four-parter looking at innocent people who have gone through the prison system. Goetz says the lead broadcaster will likely be an American cable company, although the project is also generating interest north of the border. scn and the Saskfilm funding agency have kicked in for development. The budget will range from CDN$40,000 to $300,000 per episode. Cheryl Binning

PRODUCTION PROFILE: Alda science you need…

Scientific American Frontiers is heading into its tenth season next year… which means The Chedd-Angier Production Company and host Alan Alda have begun thinking about the commute from Mars to the Galapagos

If you’re going to start your own science strand, it’s good to begin with a solid foundation. Both of the principles at Massachusetts-based Chedd-Angier definitely qualify, both being nova graduates who made their declaration of independence in 1979. John Angier was one of three producers imported from the U.K. by Michael Ambrosino in the mid-70s to help launch the strand, and eventually graduated to executive producer. Graham Chedd was the first science editor on the series, and soon became a producer himself.

Although Scientific American Frontiers may have its origins in the NOVA tradition, that’s where the connection ends. ‘Right from the early days,’ recalls Angier, ‘Graham and I felt that there was room for other kinds of science television. It’s beneficial not to just have the full-length one-hour documentary. We were always looking to create a magazine format show that could do shorter items, and doesn’t have to do the definitive program [on a topic]. There’s an enormous scope of subject matter out there which can all have its place on television.’

Frontiers began life as Discovery: The World of Science, and was produced in conjunction with Time’s Discovery magazine. Shortly after, it made the switch to Scientific American, with an appropriate change in name. In the ’93/’94 season, ex-M*A*S*H star, Alan Alda, came on board as host. Angier wasn’t certain about the decision to bring on a celebrity, especially when Alda made it clear he wanted to be involved, and not be a static host. As it turned out, the chemistry worked, and Alda’s personality helped to draw out scientists and create more of an on-screen presence. ‘We were extremely lucky with Alan because he’s genuinely interested in science and informed about the subject… not that we knew that to start with.’

Each season of Frontiers is produced for Connecticut Public Television, and consists of five hours. The budget for each episode is just under US$500,000, with the GTE Corporation being the sole underwriter on the show.

This year’s episodes examined, among other things: odd initiatives which might make the trip to Mars possible (Journey to Mars); a look into animal intelligence, including some abstract tests which might put the question to rest (Animal Einsteins, which airs January 20th); an investigation on how little things can lead to big solutions – like how hot peppers can ease the suffering of an aids patient (Life’s Little Questions, airing February 24th); as well as a look at spiders – social colonies of Amazon spiders, jumping spiders, virtual spiders and cures for arachnophobia (Spiders!, which airs April 21st).

Production on the tenth season has already begun. It will include a trip to the Galapagos to explore the natural history and biology of the islands, with special focus on Darwin’s trip and how people are carrying on the research. The season will also feature an exploration into the world of robots which have been patterned after living organisms – like the RoboPike at mit.

Unlike many producers, Angier isn’t overly concerned about the international market. ‘I know the trend nowadays is to make shows that are deliberately language-light to make them more exportable. Well, we don’t do that. That’s not going to work with our particular format. We’ve said to ourselves that the way to make this thing work is for it to use language. So we’re going to lose out on some foreign sales. Tough.’

Chedd-Angier produces for PBS and cable, but a large percentage of their business also comes from non-broadcast sources, such as museums. According to Angier, whether or not institutions offer a lucrative prospect to producers is uncertain. ‘Sometimes there’s money in it and sometimes there is a distinct lack of money in it… Museum production is incredibly unpredictable. One of the things we’ve learned over the years, is not to fool ourselves by trying to predict how a particular project will go. They’re all different. They’re all individuals. It’s not like making television projects, where we know we have an hour, and it’s going to be about this, and we pretty much know how it’s going to work out. Museums are wild. They’re a roller coaster.’

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