Production News

March 1, 1999


Operating theater

Paris-based Les Films d’Ici has already found a coproduction partner in the form of France’s La Sept/ARTE for their 90-minute doc, Memory of a Hospital. The film can’t exactly be described as the history of the (soon to be closed) 300-year-old Laënnec Hospital – rather it’s an examination of a hospital as a theater in which people have lived and died for a third of a millennium. The film should be completed by the end of this year, and has a budget of US$282,000.

Also from LFd’I and coproducers La Sept/ARTE, as well as Simple Productions in Belgium, comes a 52-minute film dubbed The Hague Tribunal. The Tribunal was established in May of 1993 to bring to justice those who had committed atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. In one case alone, the tribunal is struggling to come to terms with the 10,000 people who have gone missing from the city of Srebenica (which has since been declared a security zone). The film will be completed by mid-October, at a budget of around $350,000.

Our Metamorphoses is an 80-minute film from LFd’I, which should be completed by Spring 2000. The $530,000 doc is an examination of economics in the former Soviet Union, or more accurately, it’s about the conversion of several hundred million Communists to a free-market economy. So far, no broadcaster is attached to the project, and the lines to buy bread and toilet paper aren’t getting any shorter.

Sound and fury…

Toronto’s Sleeping Giant Productions and London’s British Pathe are teaming up to produce 20 half hours entitled Great Speeches – with the likelihood of more episodes to follow. The Canadian producer initiated the idea, but decided early into the project that an essential part of the speeches – the historical context – was missing. That’s where Pathe came in. With its extensive archive, the U.K. producer was a perfect fit. The subjects range from the political to the scientific, and from the social to the artistic. Among those profiled in the series are Robert Oppenheimer, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Leon Trotsky and William Faulkner.

The series is being produced for Bravo! in Canada, with negotiations underway in other territories. This first batch of Great Speeches should be wrapped up and ready for broadcast in January of 2000, at a budget of about US$50,000 an episode, a reasonable rate which reflects an extensive use of Pathe’s own archive.


Out of Africa

Sydney’s Beyond Productions is working on a 3 x 60-minute series exploring the possibility of all our ancestors sharing a common beginning in Africa. The First Journey has already been sold to The Learning Channel in the U.S. and ABC in Australia. Journey should be completed by June of this year, at a budget topping US$200,000 per episode. Beyond’s distribution arm will be handling the series.

In a somewhat different vein, Beyond will also be bringing the slathering minions four one-hour Beach Week Specials. Destined for the Travel Channel, each episode will focus on a different beach and beach lifestyle, and will include beach fashions around the world. The hours are being produced for a rather skimpy $100,000 per hour, and will be wrapped up by early spring. (Rough life, this being a producer…)

Also from Beyond comes Science Frontiers, a 6 x 60-minute series for TLC to be completed by April. Each Frontier explores controversial and exciting developments in science, and will run about $200,000 each.

Returning for a 14th season, the newest Beyond 2000 effort will be ready by late 1999. The science and technology series is a mainstay for Discovery Channel Europe and most other international Discovery channels.

The big questions remain, however: Will there be a name change for season 15 of Beyond 2000? How can we get more beach fashions into primetime? Only time will tell.


Fantasy Islands

For those of you who want to get away from it all for a while, there are still a few places on the Earth you can go that don’t (yet) have their own Starbucks franchise. Maybe you could consider the Aleutian Islands – a string of small land masses in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?

The Aleutians (w/t) is a coproduction of Dunedin’s TV New Zealand and Oregon Public Broadcasting. This 2 x 60-minute series explores the habitat and evolution of the islands, and should be completed by the spring of 2000, at a budget of approximately US$800,000. The entire series is being filmed in 16 x 9 DTV format.

Fornication etc.

Giant Panda Breeding in China is one of the newest offerings from LJM Productions in Melbourne. This one-hour looks at the world’s largest panda research center in the Sichuan Province, and tells the story of how a baby panda is conceived, born and then raised. Distributed by Southern Star, the special should be wrapped up by the middle of this year at a budget of around US$260,000.

Lesley Hammond and Jenny Walsh, the filmmaking pair who make up LJM, will also be delivering another panda project by mid-’99. Red Panda is a 4 x 60-minute series looking at the panda in its natural Chinese habitat. Also carried by Southern Star, the series has a price tag of around $195,000 an hour. The filmmaking pair are also just about wrapped on The Proboscis Monkey of Borneo (an hour about the monkey with the big nose) and The Llama Family (a special about `the ships of the Andes’) in Peru. These efforts bring the total number of hours the Australian distributor carries from the duo to 13. Also notable: in preparation for this year’s MIP-TV, Southern Star has added more than 25 hours of natural history to their catalog.

Torturing your camera people made easy

Natural History New Zealand has sent camera crews to the four corners of the globe to capture stories. (As long as they stay away from Wrangle Island…) What follows is a partial list of the projects in production. All titles are subject to change.

Guaranteed to make you think twice before you get into the bath, Serpents of the Sea is a one-hour coproduction with the Discovery Channel in the U.S. and Studio Hamburg, which should be wrapped in October. NHNZ sent a six-person crew to the Timor Sea’s Ashmore Reef to capture footage of the snakes on a six-week shoot. While little is known about the animals, some sea snakes are known to be extremely venomous, can grow to seven feet long (and as thick as your arm), and come equipped with inch-long fangs. (Not like those cobra pansies…) The special comes with a budget of around $600,000.

Also ready for October, Iceberg (a coproduction with New York’s WNET), sent a four-person crew to Drake’s Passage in the Antarctic for a five-week shoot. At their final destination they will be filming indigenous wildlife, both underwater and on the surface, proving once and for all that most natural history filmmaking is based on a dare. The budget for this one-hour should be in the $600,000 range.

The fruits of that exploration will also result in another hour called End of the Earth. Also a coproduction with WNET, this hour should be completed by April, at a budget in excess of $450,000. This special follows the journey of ice and cold of the Katabatic wind from the South Pole to the frozen coasts of Antarctica, to find how climate is affecting the continent.

Part of the ten-hour Wild Asia series, The Arid Heart is a coproduction with Discovery and Studio Hamburg, and should be completed by August. Filmed in the comparably friendlier climates of Mongolia, India and Nepal, in this hour the two-woman film crew braves temperatures varying from 30C to a chilling -35C, harsh dust storms, and ticks the size of your fingernail. On the whole, Wild Asia delves into little-known stories of Asia’s wildlife. In this installment specifically, the subject-matter includes wild horses and Bactrian camels. Arid Heart has a budget in excess of $800,000.


My dad’s stronger than your dad

Not wanting to be left out of the who-can-cover-the-building-of-the-biggest-doohickey race, the WGBH Science Department in Boston and Washington’s Production Group Inc., are working on a 5 x 60-minute series called Wonders of the Modern World. This US$6.9 million series is an examination of the biggest, most mind-boggling construction projects on the face of the Earth.

Each of the five episodes covers a single structure, exploring its history, and the evolution of the technology which allowed the construction to take place. Projects included are: the Golden Gate Bridge, The English Channel Tunnel, Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Aswan High Dam, and the Skydome in Toronto. David Macaulay, notable author and illustrator of The Way Things Work, will serve as the host for the series. The series also parallels ancient constructions with our present-day marvels, to show that there are more wonders on the world than just ancient ones. (Like the cost of hot-dogs at the Skydome, for instance…)

Main funding for the series comes from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS/CPB, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations in Florida (a national philanthropic organization established through the benevolence of the late American aluminum magnate, Arthur Vining Davis). The series should hit the air in the spring of 2000.


What ever happened to…?

Toronto’s Bitter Boy Productions is hard at work on a feature-length doc that will be a must-see for anyone who was glued to a radio in the 1980′s. Searching for Roger Taylor explores the New Wave phenomenon and its impact on television, film and other media. Interviewees include Stewart Copeland (The Police), Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet), Arthur Baker (New Order’s producer), Lol Creme (director, and half of Godley and Creme) and Gary Numan, to name only a few.

Scheduled to wrap by the Spring of this year, the doc will come in at about US$265,000 (hair spray not included). The theatrical version of the film should run to about 90-minutes, but a shorter version will be made available for television.

Ode to Orbison

Ready for the summer, Montreal’s Filmoption is preparing a profile of everybody’s favorite Wilbury, Roy Orbison. The Roy Orbison Story is a 60-minute special which will examine the career of one of the most prolific and best-loved artists of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Guest appearances will be made by Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen. The US$330,000 doc already has the backing of Bravo! in Canada, and ITV in the U.K.

McCartney will also be making an appearance in Filmoption’s Rock This Town. The 13 x 60-minute series looks a the link between famous rock stars and the towns from which they originated. McCartney (Liverpool), will be profiled along side Bob Geldof (Dublin), Phil Collins (London), Alice Cooper (L.A.), Celine Dion (Montreal), and many others. The series is still in development, but should be ready by some time in 2000.


Hot Air – by Simon Bacal

Exploring the consequences of nuclear weapons, Downwinders: the Nuclear Pandora’s Box, is currently in production at L.A.-based production company, Electronic News Group. Director and producer Lee Lew Lee (whose credits include All Power to The People, Panama Deception, Mandela in America, L.A. Riots and South Africa Now), expects production to continue through 2000.

Scheduled to air late this year on as yet unnamed broadcast outlets throughout Europe and Asia, the two-hour HD documentary, which is budgeted at approximately US$400,000, features interviews with figures such as former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who speaks of the Cold War and his dread for the future; and General Lee Butler, a former Commander in Chief at U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) who was charged with protecting America’s military superiority.

‘Most people believe that one side will win a war, something which goes back to the days of the Crusades,’ Lee says. ‘In those days, a man could mount his stallion, stick his opponent with a spear and emerge the winner, but there are no winners when it comes to nuclear war. We really are talking about the utter annihilation of human life within 45 minutes. I don’t think that the average person really understands the dire consequences of nuclear technology. So, this documentary will hopefully enable viewers to realize that the human race is facing destruction unless positive action is taken to prevent the continued spread of nuclear weapons and technology within the next 15 years. Everyone must work together to abolish these things, without becoming angry and pointing accusatory fingers at one another. Success will depend upon participation by community leaders, grass roots organizations, politicians and financial institutions.’

The documentary also tackles issues such as the titular downwinders – people who have been exposed to radioactive fallout from nuclear bombs, waste and accidents.

‘Several thousand soldiers in the U.S. military were used as guinea pigs during battlefield practise involving nuclear tests because the military brass wanted to determine how close people could get to nuclear weapons,’ Lee explains. ‘Now, those guys are suffering from leukemia and a variety of cancers. A few years ago, [the army] made an official apology, but the apology really didn’t mean anything because the damage had already been done.’

Also explored is the 1985 explosion of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl. ‘After the explosion, toxic material escaped into the environment and spread towards Kiev, an area of the Ukraine,’ Lee says. ‘As it spread across Scandinavia and into Europe, it contaminated the food, and people began dying. To date, no one’s admitting the real number, but I’m willing to bet that around 50,000 people have died from contamination.’

Enter Booth, Grinning – by Simon Bacal

The Plot To Kill Lincoln, a one-hour special scheduled to air on TLC in the Spring, examines the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by actor John Wilkes Booth at Fords Theater on April 14, 1865.

Produced by Indigo Films, a California-based production company, the US$200,000 special includes dramatic recreations, photographs, paintings and interviews with historians Robert L. Mills, James Lange, Edward Steers Jr. and Michael W. Kaufman.

‘According to legend, Booth – who worked alongside a gang of conspirators – escaped punishment and lived under various aliases,’ says David M. Frank, president of Indigo Films and executive producer of the special. ‘Most people believe that Booth was shot by soldiers in a barn following the assassination, but mythology tells us that he lived for another 20 or 30 years in Oklahoma. On his deathbed, a man, who was living under the name of David George, apparently admitted that he was Booth. Eventually, a showman commandeered the body, traveled around the country and charged people to see the body of `John Wilkes Booth.’ Now, a man who claims to be a descendant of George, wants the body exhumed for dna testing – something which will determine whether Booth is buried in the grave.’

Lilly Marlene? – by Simon Bacal

Marlene Dietrich, the performer who entertained thousands of front-line troops with song and dance during World War II, is the subject of a documentary currently in production at the Associated Producers Group in Los Angeles. Executive producer and president, J. David Riva (who is also Dietrich’s grandson), hopes the US$400,000 feature-length Marlene Dietrich: The War Years will boast interviews with long-time Dietrich friends such as former first lady Nancy Reagan, Germany’s ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl and fellow performer, Rosemary Clooney. Clooney will also provide partial narration.

‘Hopefully [actor] Maximillian Schell, a longtime friend of Marlene, will direct this documentary,’ reveals Riva, who expects his documentary to receive a theatrical release in 2000. Schell previously explored Dietrich’s world when he helmed the award-winning documentary Marlene.

‘Marlene, who was born in Germany, was one of the first non-Jewish celebrities to leave that country,’ says Riva about the entertainer, who died in 1991. ‘When she left Germany, she did not fear persecution by the Nazi regime. In fact, she was asked by the Ministry of Propaganda to be a figurehead for the German government. But, she declined because she disapproved of the Nazis’ activities.

‘The documentary will also feature footage of Marlene entertaining masses of u.s. troops,’ says Riva. ‘Basically, she worked within spitting distance of German soldiers. That was quite unusual because most of the performers worked in the back units, but she very often performed close to the front because she wanted to convince the German soldiers that they were supporting a bad cause. Marlene really loved Germany, so she wanted the war to be over quickly since she yearned to free her people from Hitler. At one point Hitler and the Nazi regime placed a price on Marlene’s head. It’s taken a long time for many Germans, who originally branded Marlene a traitor, to realize that she was desperately trying to prevent the ruination of her country.’

The international political area and entertainment community have generated interest in Dietrich’s legacy. A museum built by the German Government in honor of Marlene Dietrich will open in Berlin in 2001. According to estimates, the structure, which will stand alongside the current Holocaust Museum, will host six to ten million visitors per year. Additionally, director Pedro Amoldovar will helm a feature film about Dietrich’s work, which is scheduled to begin production this year.

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.