Greystone gets vertical

In 1980, Craig Haffner, chairman and CEO of Hollywood-based Greystone Communications, met partner Donna Lusitana while both were working at ABC in the U.S. Six years later, they decided to strike out on their own, and created what could now be...
April 1, 1999

In 1980, Craig Haffner, chairman and CEO of Hollywood-based Greystone Communications, met partner Donna Lusitana while both were working at ABC in the U.S. Six years later, they decided to strike out on their own, and created what could now be considered an independent studio. According to Haffner, ABC was the ‘finest finishing school’ they could have hoped for.

‘In that era,’ he explains, ‘you learned how to work with a controlled amount of money. There was no such thing as cost over-runs. You just made as much quality material as you could. We literally made thousands and thousands of hours that ran on the ABC stations and the network. That was our model – how to create a mini-studio that could do a volume of work, but had the flexibility to do what I would call handmade films.’

Greystone began with five employees, and currently has 70. Their approach to themes is fairly simple – find a niche, and cover it as comprehensively as possible. Much of their historical focus is on the Civil War, for example, and they now have over 532 hours on the conflict in their catalog. ‘Up until [we began],’ recalls Haffner, ‘no one had done that kind of quantity on a subject-matter, but we believed that cable was going to open up programming in the way that the mega-newsstands had done with other niche interest [material].’

The company produces a mixture of fully-commissioned material for cable (especially The History Channel and A&E, which took 35 new hours last year alone), material for network broadcast, and productions directly destined for video. At any given time, Greystone has over 100 hours in various stages of completion, each carrying a budget in the US$250,000 to $300,000 range. (See Sidebar for some project details.)

The vast majority of projects are handled with in-house production staff. The prodco has even begun actively looking for a half dozen additional producers to expand their roster. Haffner says only producers with ‘very substantial resumes’ should apply. (There is, however, the added benefit of a new Dairy Queen across the road to help entice prospects.)

The company has begun exploring international coproduction as well, and recently originated an idea for a movie for A&E which became part of the cablecaster’s three-picture deal with London’s Granada Media. Greystone and Granada will begin work on the as yet unnamed two-hour made-for-tv special this year. The film is based on the life of Howard Carter, the man behind the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Much of Greystone’s success has to do with accurate fortune-telling. ‘What we have done over the course of the last three years is try to focus on what the business is going to be five years into the future. Our belief has always been that we’re going to have to be a very broadly-based company.’

Other than just production, Greystone’s base is built on publishing, home video, wholesale distribution, e-commerce and retail. Currently, one of the company’s main priorities is to create a more complete on-line presence. Haffner expects that by fourth-quarter of this year, 30% of his company’s assets will be dedicated to Internet activities. While programming with a web component is just being developed, e-commerce is already a priority.

On-line retail efforts mirror those taking place in the real world. ‘Three years ago, we decided that one of the audiences that knew us best was the history audience, and in particular, we were coming to the end of production on a successful series called Civil War Journals. We looked at a couple of different markets where we thought we could put our banner up, and we ultimately bought a building in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was a nineteenth-century building, which we refurbished and then set up as a retail operation. It’s all from a kid’s mind-set: `Gee, let’s put on a show.”

While Gettysburg hosts two million visitors a year, there were no major marketing efforts in place to take advantage of the traffic. The prodco opened The Greystone American History Store in July 1996 to concentrate on mid-priced marketing efforts intended to tap that potential market: home video and DVD, audio, books, photos and other miscellany under $50. Greystone also hit the mark with a line of miniature soldiers which seem to capture the imagination of visitors. They traveled the world collecting exclusive licenses from manufacturers, and now have a thriving miniature business. Current hot sellers: Civil War soldiers, Napoleonic era, World War II (thanks to Saving Private Ryan), and the British at Rourke’s Drift (Zulu War) soldiers and accouterments.

Greystone have also initiated a visitor-searchable database which they’ve called The Civil War Soldier Search. The search allows customers to find ancestors who served in the Civil War. The database will provide people with information about the companies and regiments in which their family had seen action.

Next on the retail slate is an American History for Kids, set to open in Gettysburg within the next two months. The company is also looking for two more historical sites in the U.S. that will be suitable for the main chain.

Greystone Home Video plays an important role in the success of the company’s retail effort. Launched last year, the line is entirely handled in-house. (They also have a kid’s video line, dubbed Greystone Adventures.) This year will see the release of The Unknown Civil War, a 26-hour series which Greystone wholly-owns. With a budget of over $3 million, the series is destined first for the video market, with broadcast prospects to be considered some time in the future. The Unknown Civil War documents in detail the people and events which shaped the Civil War. Production began in 1998, and is slated for release through June of this year.

Rights play an important role in the viability of Greystone’s video line, but Haffner picks his battles carefully, especially when there are partners on a project. ‘In the world of cable right now,’ he explains, ‘they pretty much want to own everything. Part of what we’re doing in the design of our new materials is seeing what platforms can be carved out. It’s on a case-by-case basis. We’re most interested in [developing] the products that tie into the themes we’re already exploiting. That’s where we’re going to negotiate the hardest. The other part of it that makes it so labor-intensive is the fact that for many of these projects we’re going to have international co-partners, so you really get into how to hold onto the rights but make it work for everybody.’

To accompany their video efforts, 1998 also saw the launch of Greystone Publishing. Within the next few months, six guidebooks relating to different aspects of American history will hit the shelves. The books will be available at National Parks and on-line at the Greystone site, as well as in Barnes & Nobles and Borders Books & Music, among other retail outlets. The publishing arm will be particularly tied to the Unknown Civil War project, and will offer the opportunity to explore in greater detail subjects the videos have touched on.

Over the next six months, Haffner says that the production entity will be concentrating on Internet efforts, and most especially, trying to tie all their diverse efforts together on-line. Also look for a factual dvd roll-out, and maybe even walking tours of historical American sites, beginning in Gettysburg.


The Spirit of Yosemite

Beginning in May, and lasting for over a year, a Greystone film crew will camp out in Yosemite in an effort to capture the majesty of the Valley, as well as sites off the beaten path few get to see. The 20-minute film is being financed by the Yosemite Fund and the National Parks Service, and will be ready to debut at the Yosemite Center in the summer of 2000.

Haunted History

Last year, The History Channel aired four hours of this series during their Halloween week special. The cablecaster has ordered four more one-hours for this year. Topics include: ‘Haunted Washington,’ ‘Haunted New York’ (including a look at Edgar Allen Poe), ‘Haunted San Antonio,’ and ‘Ghost Ships’ (which will include the Flying Dutchman).

The series places ghostly events into historical context, and relies heavily on witness accounts and the work of professional ghost hunters.

The Roman War Machine

Destined for a spring appearance on The History Channel, this 4 x 60-minute series is an examination of what may have been the greatest army of all time. Over 2000 years, the Roman Empire spread from the highlands of Scotland to the wastes of Arabia. This series will examine the weapons and tactics of the world’s first professional army. It will also profile great leaders of the era, like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Augustus, Hadrian and Constantine.

Civil War Combat

Also for THC, this 4 x 60-minute series tells the personal stories of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The emphasis is on the man-in-the-field rather than the sweeping history of armies as a whole. It will focus on what it was like to be a person in the conflict. Titles include: ‘Hornet’s Nest,’ ‘Bloody Lane,’ ‘The Battle of Antietam’ and ‘The Battle of Gettysburg.’

Shooting begins in June, for air some time in November.

The Fremantle Diary

Greystone is still in the process of finding international partners for this series, which is still early in development. The Fremantle Diary is a record of the Civil War made through the eyes of a British officer on a three-month vacation. Lieutenant Colonel Fremantle of the Cold Stream Guards visited the U.S. in 1863, taking photographs and recording an extensive diary. The stories are full of dry observational humor, bold adventure and dangerous drama. (Fremantle was a witness to the battle of Gettysburg.)

Tales from the Haunted Realm

Early in development, this 6 x 60-minute series profiles the work of famous British photographer and ghost-hunter, Simon Marsden. The series will make use of the work of directors and producers who have had their own encounters with the haunted realms. Greystone is also looking for international coproduction partners on this project.

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.