Production News

October 1, 1999


Telling Stories

True Stories is a relative newcomer to the German factual scene. Now in its second year of existence, the company both develops and distributes non-fiction programs, and is looking to extend its reach into the international market at MIPCOM.

Ready for spring of next year is Robert Ressler, The Man Who Lives With Monsters. The 50-minute doc is a portrait of the man who coined the term `serial killer,’ and delves into the most significant cases from the files of this former FBI special agent. (Ressler also consulted on the film Silence of the Lambs.) Notable subjects include Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy.

The hour is a coproduction between Washington’s CBO Productions and True Stories. So far, VOX in Germany is the only broadcaster signed on to this US$220,000 special, although several international broadcasters are circling.

Geishas (w/t) is an intimate 90-minute look into the lives of these mysterious and misunderstood women, focusing on the top practitioners in Tokyo and Kyoto. The doc presents the everyday life of today’s geisha and contrasts it with the memories of famous geisha, such as Kiharu Nakamura, who served in the 1920s and ’30s, the heyday of the geisha. The special includes private archival footage, and according to True Stories, they even have access to the stars of the trade at the Geon geisha in Kyoto (where Steven Spielberg and his feature film project Memoirs of a Geisha have been denied access).

Geishas has a budget of approximately US$380,000, and is a coproduction of Axel Engstfeld Produktion of Germany and True Stories. The special has some foundation funding, and strong interest from German public television, although the goal for MIPCOM is an international coproduction partner. The special should wrap before autumn 2000.


Axes to grind

Having already sold over four million copies in 20 languages, a series based on the book Our Bodies, Ourselves sounds as though it might have a healthy audience. The book, which encouraged women to take control of their bodies by understanding their health and treatment options, and to work for social, economic and political change, will soon be a 13 x 30-minute series of the same name.

Bodies will be based on the content of the book. It is a coproduction from Context Media (a Providence, Rhode Island-based company founded by former execs from Netscape, Disney and other influential Internet and media-related companies), and Boston’s Louise Rosen Ltd. The budget for the series is about US$300,000 per hour.

Also being repped by Rosen is pickAxe, a 95-minute (at present) film looking into the struggle of a few guerrilla environmentalists bent on saving old-growth forests. Told from the inside, it shows confrontations between police and protesters, forest encampments built to block logging roads, sit-ins, a hunger strike and the eventual success of the protesters. (Found in the bios for the two directors, Tim Lewis and Tim Ream: `Tim likes to videotape cops. Tim goes to jail a lot.’)

The director duo is part of pickAxe Productions, based in Oregon. The program will be wrapped in December, with a budget of about $450,000. Although no broadcasters are on board as of press time, the filmmakers have managed to finance their production through grants, donations and in-kind services.

Marriage and wandering

Dubbed Betrothed, this one-hour project from Tel Aviv’s Transfax Film Productions tells the story of a marriage in a commune in Southern Israel. The commune is made up of a group of about 2000 African Israelites who maintain a vibrant culture, with health care, high moral standards and a holistic approach to life. They are also bigamists, and this marriage will see a new wife introduced into an established family.

Ready for May 2000, the special is a coproduction with Keshet Broadcasting (Channel 2) in Israel. The budget is approximately US$110,000.

Leopold Lahola was a Slovakian writer and director and one of the pioneers of Israeli cinema. After his experiences during the Holocaust, Lahola spent much of his life wandering, trying to come to terms with his experiences. The one-hour production highlights his achievements in writing and his film credentials.

Coproduced with broadcaster/producer Noga Communications (also of Tel Aviv), the one-hour special should be completed for April of next year, at a budget of around $90,000.

A behind-the-scenes look at Israel’s number-one tv host, Dudu Topaz, King of Ratings is a one-hour production filmed over the last four years. Also a coproduction with Keshet Broadcasting, this production should be wrapped by July of next year, at a budget of about $170,000.


The Queen… and the price of pork bellies

Atlas Media of New York has been around for about ten years. Their specialty, as president Bruce David Klein puts it, is ‘re-inventing forms’ by putting their trademark quirky spin on themes audiences might be finding stale.

Currently, Atlas employs about 45 people, and produces over 75 hours a year. Budgets range between US$100,000 and $200,000 for each one-hour episode, and between $30,000 and $75,000 for half-hours.

For those wanting to scare the hell out of the in-laws next holiday, Atlas is preparing 26 x 30-minutes of Extreme Cuisine, now airing on the Food Network. The series concentrates on wild dishes, quirky restaurants and eccentric food. Some notable themes: The World’s Biggest Pickle, Recipes With Bugs (and you can even learn how to cook every part of a pig…. every part). The current production stint will have the series running through March 2000.

Exotic Islands, a 26 x 30-minute for Discovery’s Travel Channel, is now going into its second season. Hosted by model Hunter Reno, the series takes people to islands as diverse as Iceland or Fiji, which is as close as most will get to a tropical island or a supermodel. The series will be ready for July of next year.

For American Movie Classics/Romance Classics, Atlas is putting together a 13 x 30-minute series entitled Royal Families of the World. For those who were wondering, yes, there is another royal family in the world besides the Windsors in England. Atlas will be headed to Monaco, Japan, and Sweden (among others), hoping to make you feel really bad about your pleb lifestyle. The series will wrap by December, and is being distributed by the U.K.’s Beckmann Communications. (Pearson International in London, Beckmann, and now New York’s Tapestry, handle most of Atlas’ catalog internationally.)

For The History Channel, the prodco is putting together a second installment of History’s Lost and Found, 14 x 60-minutes of history told through artifacts surviving to the present day (Kennedy’s death car, or Hugh Heffner’s robe…). This installment will continue through June 2000.

Dinner to go… fast

Virginia’s Adler Media will be distributing a slate full of the musical and the mysterious in the coming year (and some things about fast cars).

Dinner on the Diner is a 4 x 50-minute series taking viewers on four different trains to experience four different countries and their gastronomic goodies. Ready for spring of next year, the series is being produced by New Hampshire’s Gandy Dancer Productions and Connecticut Public Television. It will air nationally on PBS.

Produced for about US$1.4 million, the series features train routes in South Africa, Scotland (with the galloping gourmet, Graham Kerr), Spain, as well as the famous Orient Express (with Martin Yan).

The 50-minute Welsh Choir of Choirs from UPL, a production company based in London, should be ready to air late next year. The special sees the 50 voices of the Cantorion Colin Jones performing in the fourteenth century Manchester Cathedral. The sounds of the choir are mixed with views of the countryside and the structure itself. PBS is already aboard this $150,000 production.

In a completely different vein, Adler will also be repping 24 Hours of Indy from Indianapolis-based Nineteenth Star. Destined for TLC some time in May 2000, the 50-minute special follows 20 videographers as they track crews, cars and some of the half a million fans who show up for the famous race. Nineteenth Star also just wrapped Secrets of Speed, about design and testing facilities for race cars. Also destined for TLC, the two come in at about $275,000 each.

Wrapped, but undercover until MIPCOM, Cosmonaut Cover-Up is a 50-minute special looking at strong evidence which suggests Yuri Gagarin was not the first man in space, but that instead it was a Soviet test pilot named Vladimir Ilyushin. Produced by L.A.-based Global Science Productions, the special has a price tag of around $200,000. Newspaper, eyewitness and government evidence says that Ilyushin was up first, but as he crashed in China, the flight was kept secret. The mysterious pilot lives in Moscow and cried when he first heard his story was being told, according to the producer. However, when the camera crews arrived, he changed his mind and said Yuri beat him into space. (Ilyushin still works for the military complex in Russia, and his daughter is a professor in a Soviet Military Academy. So, it all depends on how paranoid you are.)

Scoping out new phenomenon

Liberty International Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based producer/distributor, might only be a year and a half old, but it already has a library of close to 800 hours. Liberty’s specialty is factual, kids and features, and it manages to add about 75 hours of original programming annually. They are also actively seeking out new libraries to add to their own.

The company’s approach to production, according to Patricia Ryan, executive vp of international sales: ‘You have to look at [a broadcaster's] schedule and see where you can slot [yourself] in.’ Ryan prefers to wait until series are wrapped before she takes them to broadcasters. She finds that this seems to be the buyers’ preference now. Liberty produces most of its own factual for about US$100,000 an episode.

With the contracts freshly signed, Scope is the newest factual effort from Liberty and coproducers Ideal Television. The 65 x 30-minute series looks at the things that help us understand and improve the human condition: arts, anthropology, computers, history, etc. A host will be chosen by mipcom, and much of the filming will be done in Brazil (nice foliage, you know). The series will wrap by the middle of next year.

Completed for MIPCOM, or shortly thereafter, Phenomenon is a 13 x 60-minute series hosted by actor Dean Stockwell. Phenomenon explores the mysteries of our time, some of which have just recently been uncovered in secret Russian files, only now being opened for the first time. The series is a coproduction with an investor group, with Liberty handling international distribution. So far, Image Entertainment in L.A. has taken DVD rights, and broadcasters in Canada and Latin America have signed on.


A SWYNK of water

Water, the Drop of Life, is a series exploring one of the most important issues this planet will face in the next millennium: the scarcity of fresh water. The United Nations has calculated that if we do not change our habits, one third of the world will face water shortages within the next 25 years.

The 13 x 30-minute series is being filmed in wide-screen Super 16, and will visit more than 35 countries. The series explores the economic, social, spiritual, agricultural, industrial, domestic and health and safety issues surrounding water. Some of the interviews include: Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter and Shimon Peres.

Water is being produced by SWYNK Productions in the Netherlands, and is being distributed jointly by the producers and EMS (a Netherlands-based distribution company). The series will be ready for spring 2000, and has a budget of about US$3 million. So far the broadcasters involved include TVA Spain, and Channel 1 (Netherlands public television).

Taking flight

A new face on an established company, Trans Atlantique is probably more familiar to most in its previous incarnation as the Wingspan Network. With a new identity (since June) comes a new, and more comprehensive, approach to production themes, and an international push. The Maryland-based company is in the process of actively seeking out projects in which to invest. On their production slate currently,

Tech Trek is a 13 x 30-minute series, the pilot for which will be ready for mipcom. The rest will be delivered in mid-2000. Each episode explores modern science and technology, but also looks back at inventions from the past and demonstrates how they affect our lives today. Each episode comes in at about US$100,000.

Produced with France’s Zeaux Productions, Pioneers of the Deep is a 6 x 60-minute series which will explore the ocean floors with ifremer, the Institut Français pour la Recherche et l’Exploitation de la Mer. ifremer is a French organization concerned with marine research and the commercial exploitation of marine resources. The series will examine the work and the people who make up the undersea crews.

Two episodes will be ready for the end of this year, with the other four to be completed next fall. So far France 3 is currently involved with this $250,000 an hour production.

Ready for the end of the year, Lee: Beyond the Battles is a one-hour special looking at the life of General Robert E. Lee: dedicated son, husband and father, graduate of West Point, civil engineer, and owner and emancipator of slaves. The hour comes in at a budget of about $200,000.

Look Ma, no cage

Stalking the Big Sharks and companion piece, Stalking the Big Crocs, will again see host Wayne Crawford getting oddly close to dangerous animals. Crawford recently survived a series called Stalking the Big Five, where Maryland-based producers Advantage Media Group say he was able to unleash his ‘unabashed curiosity’ and ‘concerned respect for animals and their environment.’ Rumors persist about Crawford’s sanity, however.

The open-sea shooting (with no cage, for that intimate shark feel) will take place in the Protea Banks at the Masai Mara Reserve in Africa. The producers are aiming to have Big Sharks ready for the fourth quarter of this year, and Crocodile for the beginning of next. Both are 52-minutes in length and are being produced for Animal Planet. The budget for each of the episodes is in the US$300,000 area.

Send this rhino to camp

Famous German zoologist/cameraman Dr. Rudolf Lammers is hard at work on two new productions aiming to be wrapped up for MIPCOM 2000. The first effort is Africa From The Ground Up, a 13 x 30-minute series looking up at the continent from the perspective of the smallest of Africa’s animals. This is one series where the elephants and tigers play the role of supporting cast. The series is being handled by London’s HIT Wildlife, and has a total budget of about US$1.5 million.

Also from Lammers and hit is a one-hour entitled The Drinkers Dilemma, about the classic wildlife catch-22: you’ve got to drink to survive, but going to the water hole might kill you. Predators lurk at the water’s edge, just waiting for the thirsty to approach. The one-hour will also be ready for next year’s MIPCOM, and has a budget of about US$500,000.

As far as this MIPCOM is concerned, HIT will be featuring a slew of new productions for which they are both distributor and coproducer. Realm of the Ancient Redwoods is a 60-minute effort from Wildway Productions in San Francisco. The hour explores the ecosystem of the Earth’s last remaining Redwood forests on the coast of Northern California, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the cluster remaining in the remote mountains of China. The hour has a budget of US$500,000.

Also new is Mkomazi: Return of the Rhino. This $500,000, 60-minute doc is being produced with The George Adamson Wildlife Preservational Trust in the U.K. The film follows the re-introduction of the endangered Black African rhino into the Mkomazi Game Reserve in Tanzania. Proceeds from the sale of the film will be put directly back into the rhino re-introduction effort. For each $50,000 raised, another rhino will be able to enter the reserve.

Ships in full sail

Silhouettes of the Desert Sands will be the culmination of many years of work for zoologist/filmmaker David Curl, who is based in the Northern Territories of Australia. The filming process alone is scheduled to take over three years.

Distributed by Southern Star Sales, the hour will look at the groups of camels occupying Australia’s wilds. Few people outside the continent recognize that any camels have called Australia home, never mind the fact that the country boasts the largest population of wild camels in the world. Curl claims that the best natural history takes time, and it has taken almost a year for the wild camels to come to terms with him and his equipment.

This camel opus comes in at a budget of more than US$500,000. So far, Discovery U.S., the BBC, Canal+ in Spain, YLE Finland and ABC in Australia are involved. The special will be wrapped by March 2000.


Even with almost 80 hours on the slate for the coming year, Jim Hanley, founder of Toronto’s Sleeping Giant Productions, remains confident he can remain true to the sg motto: Television That Matters. While much of SG’s fare flies in the face of the current shockumentary trend, Hanley is confident that ‘even difficult matters of mind and spirit can be tastefully and stylistically rendered into entertaining and top-rated television.’ Some highlights of the new slate: Age of e is billed as a consumer’s guide to the new spirituality. The objective is to offer understandable answers to questions about the mystic and spiritual. The series will run to 13 half-hours, and has been sold to Vision in Canada, and cable’s Wisdom TV in the U.S. New York’s Winstar TV and Video is distributing. Production began in September for a January wrap, with each episode coming in at about CDN$75,000 (US$50,000).

The Believers is a 4 x 60-minute biographical series about the origins of spiritual masters. Included are: George Fox (founder of the Quakers), Saint Francis of Assisi (Franciscans), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science) and Baal Shem Tov (Hassidism). Vision and Odyssey in the U.S. (now a Hallmark-Henson Network) are involved. The series will be ready for January, at a budget of about CDN$125,000 (US$84,000) per episode.

Sects and Cults is being completed for Vision and ACCESS Television of Edmonton, Alberta. The 8 x 30-minute series is being produced in conjunction with the University of Alberta, and will be part of a full-credit course which delves into the definition and question of cults. (When, for example, is a cult a cult and not a religion, and who defines that line?) The series will be ready for spring of next year, and will also be in the CDN$75,000 per episode range.

Serial Murder is a 3 x 60-minute series based on a third-year university course being taught at the University of Guelph in Canada. Currently looking for more partners, sg maintains that this series will not be typical serial killer fare, but will take the high road, examining the concepts and the fascination we have with serial murderers. TVOntario is the broadcaster involved, but a contract with a u.s. distributor was pending at press time. The budget for each episode will be in the CDN$300,000 (US$200,000) region.

Return of the Gods is a 4 x 60-minute series which intends to take viewers to the four corners of the world in order to explain the origins of the major religions. Shooting is underway in Japan, the U.S. and India. The series is a coproduction between SG, Vision, Odyssey as well as Conscious Wave and Dreamtime Productions (both of Italy). Ready for January, the series will air on Vision, Odyssey, RAI 1 in Italy, and TSI in Switzerland. New York’s Unapix Entertainment will handle distribution of this CDN$300,000 per episode series.

Early in the planning stages, Memory and Justice is a 4 x 60-minute series based on the book of the same name by Erna Paris (SG has obtained the rights to the book). The series delves into the difficulty we in the twentieth century have coming to grips with our memory (i.e. guilt). Some examples: how the U.S. has never come to terms with its slaver past; how, to a large extent, both Japan and France have hid behind a mask of victimization for their roles in wwii and deny complicity – whereas Germany has been forced to face its role and has become stronger for it. The series will wrap with an examination of the whole concept of justice, and such things as War Crimes Tribunals.


Imago Productions, the Norwich-based prodco launched by Vivica Parsons, has produced over 50 hours of programs in its first two and a half years. Currently, Imago employs five long-term staff, and works with a stable of about 12 freelancers. The key to being able to produce at that level, explains Parsons, is keeping tight control on their overhead and being able to deliver projects at what many would consider significantly lower budgets.

Although a large portion of Imago’s output is destined for Anglia (the regional itv network for the east of England), the immediate future sees Imago looking to spread its programming into markets further afield. Over the next two years, Imago has plans to add about 50 new hours of programming to their catalog, and is looking to expand their efforts in the international marketplace.

Wrapped in time for this MIP is Mission Wild, a 13 x 30-minute series for Carlton/National Geographic. The series looks at people who dedicate their lives to conservation. Featured are stories from locales as diverse as South Africa, Russia, Thailand and the U.S., focusing on creatures such as tigers, condors, and wild dogs. Perhaps the strangest story is that of a flightless, nocturnal parrot that growls like a dog. Currently, there are only 63 of the angry little birds left in their native New Zealand.

Each episode of Mission Wild is being completed for about £70,000.

For the end of this year, Imago is working on a one-hour special entitled Bears Behind Bars (w/t). The hour is scheduled to wrap in time for the commencement of a global campaign to end captivity of bears in tourist parks in Japan. Bear parks are the fifth most popular tourist attraction in Japan, although conditions in many of the parks put their occupants at risk. The budget for this one-hour is about £100,000.

When war ravaged what was once a largely rural community dependent on its animals for its livelihood, the animals were largely overlooked during the rebuilding efforts. Animal Refugees: The Animals of Kosovo is a 50-minute doc about a group of specialists who are going to the war-torn region to help rebuild the region’s economic and agrarian base by supporting the animals upon which the communities rely. The prodco was approached by the World Society for the Protection of Animals for exclusive coverage of their efforts in the region. The production has a budget of about £170,000, and will be completed for January of next year. While all the u.k. broadcasters Imago has approached have turned the story down, an international deal is pending.

Zoo World (formerly Whipsnade) is headed for its second 13 x 30-minute season. Produced for itv and Animal Planet Europe, the new series is looking to have more of an international feel. Suitably, therefore, Imago is on the hunt for more global partners. The series focuses on an animal park called Whipsnade, the largest open zoo in Europe. The new series will go into production at the end of this year, for delivery in the spring of next. Each episode of the series is being produced for about £30,000.

Also for spring 2000, Imago is putting together a series with filmmaker Bruce Davidson. With access to the work of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the series considers the possible fate of some animals had they not come under the wing of concerned conservationists. The series will be distributed by London’s HIT Wildlife, and will come in at about £250,000 per episode.

Farther off in the future, and somewhat mysterious, is a one-hour (also yet unnamed) special Imago says will showcase stories from the files of one of the biggest U.S.-based international crime institutions. Although still masked under a cloak of secrecy, Docstar and Canal+ are already aboard. The production will be ready for mipcom 2000, and will have a budget in the £300,000 range. This message will self destruct in ten seconds.


Montreal documentarian wins japanese HDTV grant

by Peter Vamos – PLAYBACK

Buoyed by CDN$10,000 (US$6,700) in development funding from Japanese pubcaster NHK, Montreal doc-maker John Curtin is moving ahead with his HDTV project Ten Seconds of Eternity. The one-hour doc, budgeted at CDN$1 million (US$670,000), will chronicle the lives of four top sprinters leading up to the 100-metre event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Development money was awarded based on a proposal Curtin submitted during this year’s Banff Television Festival. The production, Curtin says, will be one of the first documentaries in Canada shot in HDTV.

Ten Seconds of Eternity will follow sprinters Donovan Bailey of Canada, Maurice Greene of the U.S., Trinidadian Ato Boldon and Namibian Frankie Fredericks, over the year leading up to the gold-medal race at the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia. Curtin previously produced several documentaries including Olympic Warrior: Donovan Bailey’s Story.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.