Production News

April 1, 1999


Go West, Young Woman

What do you call a program where you take strange women (well, women who are strangers to you…) to exotic parts of the world so that you can record their reactions and interactions with the mysterious and the unfamiliar? Cameraman Doug Spencer calls it a 13 x 30-minute series, and has dubbed it Escape.

Spencer is a film crew of one, although he has teamed up with Toronto’s Gorica Productions and Montreal-based distributors Filmoption International. In each episode, he chooses a new partner (who ranges in age from 20 to 80), and heads out to explore what he terms ‘cultural and human geography.’ The series is more about the traveler and self-exploration than it is a traditional travelogue. As Spencer is the sole crew member and narration is dubbed in afterwards, the series should also travel well itself.

Because of the unencumbered approach, Escape is being produced for about US$200,000, and will be wrapped by this summer. A second series is planned, to be completed by the same time in 2000. So far, only Canada’s WTN Network has been signed up.

Go everywhere, young man

At ten years of age, a young boy’s family decides to take a year off to travel the world. Traveling through the exotic backwoods of India, New Zealand and Australia, the family experiences natural wonders, the history of unfamiliar places and cultures the boy has never before come in contact with.

Narrated by ten-year-old Guy, A Journey in the Middle of Life (w/t) is a 4 x 30-minute series being produced by Tel Aviv’s Noga Communications. The series is destined for Israel’s The Documentary Channel (Channel 8), and will be completed by mid-summer. The budget for each episode is roughly US$60,000.

Or just go Wild!

Pilot Productions of London, the company that brought you the world-famous Lonely Planet series, is working on what might be a logical follow-up. Treks in Wild America will be a 13 x 30-minute series, with each installment featuring two 10-12 minute adventures which will take place somewhere in Canada, the U.S. or Mexico. Watch as slightly mad people canoe, white-water raft, and ride horseback through some of the most beautiful wilderness of North America. (Rumors abound that Pilot will also be working on something similar for the international market, with treks that take place around the world. Look for managing director Ian Cross at MIP-TV and maybe he’ll pitch you…) Treks in Wild America is headed for the Travel Channel in the U.S. and will be wrapped by the end of the year, although some episodes will be ready by the fall. Each installment lurks around US$85,000.

Pilot is also hard at work on the sixth Lonely Planet series, which will take them into the first quarter of 2000 – not to mention to the 82nd hour. Talks have just begun with broadcasters for the seventh and eighth seasons. Pilot has also wrapped the first episode of their new A Short History of the World series. The series mixes adventure and history to try to explain everything from the exotic to the everyday. According to Cross, the series is still two to three years away, and the hunt has just begun for broadcasters and a team of hosts to put a face on it.

The Miraculous Mistake: The Leaning Tower of Pisa should also be wrapped by MIP. Three years in production, and delayed by the cautious preservation efforts of the Italian government, the hour should be wrapped in time to premiere next season on NOVA and Equinox (both C4 and WGBH are in on the project). Pisa is a coproduction between Pilot and Roman prodco Paneikon. At a budget of several hundred thousand dollars, the special includes extensive 3-D animation and special effects.


A woman with connections

Niece to one president and wife of another, Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman like few others of her time. Hers was a life marked by wealth and drama, as well as key world events and personal turmoil. She was also a major advocate for peace and the human rights movement, long before it was the fashionable or respectable thing to do.

Produced by New York’s Ambrica Productions and the Filmmakers Collaborative in Massachusetts, Eleanor Roosevelt is a 2-hour special which should be completed by 2000. Headed for WGBH’s American Experience strand, the production carries a million-dollar budget, partially underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Wounded pride and Wounded Knee

Access, that’s what it’s all about. Get your hands on something no one else has and the sales will come to you. That’s what Teleduction is trying to do. The Washington, Delaware-based production company has done a number of series and one-off specials (primarily for PBS and U.S. networks), and is currently in negotiations for several more.

Ever wonder what it takes to be an actor? Endless rehearsals, keeping fit, acting classes, trying to find work and making decisions that could make or break your career: Do you do that nude scene? Do you take the casting-couch route? Do you work commercials? These are the decisions that will determine the path of your career.

The Working Actor is a 26 x 30-minute series looking for pre-sales at MIP-TV. The series takes advantage of a library of 800 celebrity interviews Teleduction rescued from oblivion (a Philadelphia news station had consigned them to the trash heap). The episodes are mid-ranged (below US$100,000), and the first episode (‘Boot Camp For Hamlet’) will be ready for the market.

In an entirely different vein: with three days notice, Lisa McWilliams of Teleduction got a call to film a unique Native American ceremony. That footage has become the basis for an hour-long special called The Healing of Wounded Knee: A Native American Story (w/t). Wounded Knee has a long history of Native conflict. In 1890, 200 unarmed Sioux were massacred by the 7th Cavalry while they performed a religious ceremony. In 1973, a group of Natives and non-Natives from the American Indian Movement (AIM) staged a protest, which turned into a 71 day stand-off with the u.s. government and military. The fallout from that occupation led to 60 uninvestigated murders in the 1970s of Native Americans by Tribal Police.

The ceremony McWilliams filmed was a celebration of the stand-off, but it also led her to investigate the other events which have scarred the historic place. The film is half completed, and Teleduction is looking for a broadcast partner to help complete the under-$300,000 project.


Through a diamond, darkly

Produced by Transfax Film Productions in Tel Aviv, Diamonds and Rust is a 52-minute special about the underwater diamond mining trade. Just off a deserted beach in Namibia, Yam Diamonds runs an underwater mine for DeBeers. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, the mine pulls 500 tons of gravel from the ocean floor every hour, so it can be sifted for diamonds. The work is extremely hard, and the workers live in cramped and dangerous conditions. Theft, according to the filmmakers, carries the threat of lifetime imprisonment or death, and sadistic supervisors use intimidation and threats to drive the labor force in this floating work-camp.

Ready for some time in the summer, Transfax is currently in negotiations with several broadcasters, but at press time nothing had been solidified with a contract. The estimated US$140,000 budget is, however, being partially underwritten by a $40,000 investment from the New Foundation for Cinema and TV in Israel.

Lion-on-the-wall documentaries

What do you do if you’re a U.K. production company looking to make headway into the U.S. market? A good way to start is by hiring one of the brains of a large American distributor. That’s what London’s Lion Television did, picking up a new head of U.S. development in the form of Devillier Donegan’s Ciara Byrne. Added to that, the production company has also introduced a large slate of new fly-on-the-wall programming, some with U.S. partners.

File under potential lawsuit: Lion is in the planning stages for a series which is going to be titled Castaway. The concept: take 30 people and drop them onto a deserted island off the Scottish coast – and then leave them there for a year. The footage will be culled from cameras hidden over the island, hopefully providing an unobtrusive glimpse into practical survival approaches and primal social interaction. While the length and format of the series will largely depend on the type of footage captured, the budget for the project is £2 million. This Lord of the Flies-esque series is destined for the BBC.

Lion is also working on a series which will be 4 x 50-minutes for PBS (through WGBH), or 10 x 30-minutes for BBC1. Called Boston DA, the project is an observational series about the real-life dramas that take place in and around an American courtroom, as law firms take capital cases to a jury. Ready for March of 2000, the series comes at a price tag of US$1.2 million.

As a follow-up to their Airport series, Lion is just wrapping LAX in time for MIP. The 3 x 50-minute doc for A&E (or 6 x 30-minutes for Channel 5 in the U.K.), is being handled globally by Carlton International. LAX in Los Angeles is the airport where the stars mix with the common folk (well, as you walk past them in first class…). The series has a price tag of around $300,000 per episode.

Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho…

ABC Australia is early in the process of putting together six hours about the daily grind that is your life. The Working Life is a 6 x 60-minute series about the history of work, although it is still very much a work in progress.

The pubcaster is still looking for a coproduction partner to pick up about a third of the budget. abc is hoping that the series will have strong international legs, so look for much of the content to be non-Australian (possibly more American?), and the format could also be subject to change. Aiming for an August 2001 completion date (and that’s not taking into account any coffee breaks), each episode weighs in at about US$190,000.


Lost: One coelacanth. One city.

In 1998, filmmaker Hans Fricke stunned the scientific community by filming a coelacanth, a fish that had been thought to be extinct for over 75 million years. (Apparently, no one had bothered to ask the coelacanth…)

Fricke’s newest effort, an exploration to find the creature’s hidden breeding ground, is being produced by German broadcaster ZDF, and has been titled Hunting for the Home of Coelacanths. This prehistoric lobefinned fish is thought to be the ancestor of all vertebrates, so such a find would be a scientific shocker, to say the least. Distributed by ZDF Enterprises, the US$600,000, 55-minute special should be completed by the end of 2000. ZDF is also on the hunt for coproduction partners, which should be much easier to find.

As well as looking for lost vertebrates, ZDF is also on the search for a lost city in the deserts of Western China. The ominously-titled He Who Enters Will Not Return is a 52-minute trek to find a city buried beneath the sand of the Takla Makan desert, one of the harshest and least hospitable parts of the earth. (Not to be confused with Detroit.) The quest will also hopefully solve the riddle of the discovery of remnants of prehistoric European settlers found in Asia from thousands of years ago. Scheduled to be completed by November of this year, the hour is destined for ZDF and NRK in Norway. The search and film is budgeted at about $225,000.

Hanging in there

Surviving the Wild is an 8-hour natural history series focusing on the plight of several animals who are wrestling with extinction. Each one-hour episode examines the obstacles facing a specific animal, and how they are managing (or not managing, as the case may be) to adapt to the new challenges they face.

Produced by Marathon International of Paris, with TF1 France and Discovery International in as coproducers, the series will be completed by the end of this year. The total budget for the series is around US$2.7 million, or just under $350,000 per hour. The first two episodes, concentrating on cheetahs and orangutans, will be completed soon, with others to follow on elephants, lemurs and something called an oryx.

Natural History series: Just add water

ABC Australia’s Natural History Unit (Aunty of the Outback), is putting together a series of zoo stories for kids. Designated Zoo Tails, the series is a collection of 40 one-to-five minute episodes which can be run as interstitials or cut together to make longer shows. The series is comprised of all original footage which is being shot at three Australian zoos, and tells the story of the animals who live there and the people who love them. The series has a voice over and separate m&e tracks for easy assembly in foreign territories.

Zoo Tails is completely live-action and is targeted at the five to nine-year-old market. It is not based on any other projects, so licensing won’t be a problem.

Distribution is being handled by ABC International, with preview material available for mip. The series has a budget in the neighborhood of us$120,000.



by Virginia Robertson (Kidscreen Magazine)

Santa-Monica kidcaster, Nickelodeon, is jumping into the millennium fray with a four-hour documentary called Nickellennium. Documentary filmmaker Linda Schaffer pitched Nick the idea two years ago and is now circling the globe with a four-person crew, filming kids around the world for the TV event that will air on Nick January 1, 2000.

The documentary, budgeted at just over two million dollars, features kids expounding on their visions of earth and humanity in the next millennium. It will also incorporate 10 to 15 animated segments depicting these imagined future worlds, created by international animation artists. Nickellennium airs in segment form during the first 24 hours of the year 2000 as part of the event of the same name, but will then be reformatted as a 90-minute TV movie, which Nick plans to air as a special throughout the year. Over 500 hours of footage will be shot by Schaffer’s crew during their 14-week traveling stint, and about 60% of the final product will feature American kids, with non-English-speaking segments being subtitled or dubbed.

Schaffer has found that each child subject envisions an entirely different world future. ‘Kids are really divided,’ she says. ‘Some of them are very anti-technology and think it will make people lazy. Then there are those that really embrace it.’

Schaffer shoots kids against a simple textured background or a blue screen so that more detailed, futuristic backgrounds can be added later. ‘We consciously avoid any depiction of the here and now,’ Schaffer notes. Known for her Comedy Boot Camp special for Comedy Central and American Dreamers doc on TNT, Schaffer believes that the film will find a life after Nick, perhaps on the film festival circuit, where it may interest adults audiences as well.

Schaffer’s itinerary at press time included stops in Jamaica, India, London, Ireland, Italy and England, as well as a few days shooting kids in Manhattan.


by Susan Rayman

Snow-capped and awe-inspiring, the great peaks have fascinated humans since time began (climbing casualties aside, that is). With that in mind, Los Angeles-based Mandalay Media Arts and the nova team at Boston’s WGBH are mounting Seven Summits, a 7 x 60-minute series to be shot in high definition. According to MMA co-chairman Barry Clark, Summits offers ‘a look at the great mountain ranges of the world and their impact upon cultural, political and natural history.’ The series features one mount per continent, including Africa’s Kilimanjaro and Antarctica’s Vinson Massif. David Breashears (Everest) is the director/cinematographer of the production, which is expected to begin shooting by the end of the year. The budget is US$750,000 per hour.

Further downstream, MMA is also about to start filming Rivers of Life, another hd series. Clark describes the 8 x 60-minute production as ‘a series on the great rivers of the world [Yangtze, Congo, Amazon et al] told by travel essayists like Peter Matthiessen and Paul Theroux, traveling the rivers from their head waters to their mouths.’ mma and Washington distributor Devillier Donegan are currently in discussions over the $750,000-per-hour series. They’re aiming for release in 2000.

Continuing with the nature theme, MMA has Primal Contract – ‘an exploration of the long and ambivalent partnership between humans and other animals’- on the slate for 2000 as well. Written by Richard Conniff and produced by Jason Williams (Lost Civilizations) of Washington’s JWM Productions, Primal Contract will be a 4 x 60-minute series. Washington PBS outlet WETA and distributor Beyond International in Australia have joined MMA as partners on the project. In keeping with the trend, Clark says mma hopes to keep the budget at around $750,000 per hour.

Speaking of ambivalent relationships, nothin’ says love/hate like the history of World War II. Everyone knows how it ended for the big guns like Hitler and Stalin (or do we?), but what about the everyday people? In The Color of War, an 8 x 60-minute series, the little guys have their say. Clark describes it as ‘a personal retelling of the stories of the Second World War from both sides of the line.’ The HD series will include some nifty film work, such as ‘colorized, never-before-seen archive footage, newly transferred to high definition from 35mm negatives.’ No broadcasters or distributors are onboard as yet, though Clark hopes to release the series sometime next year. The budget is $750,000-$1 million.


By Simon Bacal

Big things are happening for the Washington Monument. Besides undergoing an extensive restoration, the 110-year-old D.C. landmark, named in honor of President George Washington, is the subject of a special 60-minute documentary currently in production in the nation’s Capital. With a budget estimated to be over US$500,000, The Washington Monument: It Stands for All, is scheduled to air on The Discovery Channel next year. The special is the contribution of Washington-based KnightScenes Inc., a company which has previously produced titles such as the Primetime Emmy Award-winning Vietnam POWS: Stories of Survival.

‘The Discovery Channel commissioned me to do the definitive film on the Washington Monument – the history and restoration weaved into one package,’ says KnightScenes’ vice president of program development, Brian Leonard (who also serves as the documentary’s writer, director and producer). ‘Since I’m a massive American history buff, I grabbed the opportunity to become a part of this project.

‘The special will begin with an exploration of George Washington, his background, those accomplishments which earned him the monument, the monument’s design and funding,’ Leonard continues. ‘Instead of being funded by the government, the project was actually financed by the people – thanks to a special plan, which accepted a maximum one dollar donation from every person in the United States.

‘The monument reached about 150 feet, they ran out of money and the Civil War broke out. So, there was a 25-year period when the Monument wasn’t touched. That lasted through half of the 1850s, the entire 1860s and most of the 1870s. During the late 1870s, the U.S. government commissioned an army core of engineers to rework the foundation and complete the monument. It was finally completed around 1887 and opened in 1888.’ According to Leonard, the Monument’s restoration, which is being funded by companies such as Target Stores, Kodak, 3M, VISA, USA and Coca-Cola, is a three step process.

‘Phase one is the interior work – namely electricity, heating, elevator. Phase two is the repointing of the Monument’s interior and exterior, and phase three comprises of two observation decks.’

As part of the Monument’s restoration, Discovery Communications has created, designed and built a two million dollar state-of-the-art interactive interpretive center on the Monument grounds. The National Park Service Washington Monument Interpretive Center, which is being constructed in partnership with the National Park Foundation (NPF) and the National Park Service, will feature exhibits, videos, touch-screen interactives, audio soundscapes and graphic displays. Made possible through a donation by DCI to NPF on behalf of the National Park Service, the center opened in mid-February and will remain open until restoration is complete in the year 2000.

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