Non Fiction to Go

Natural History...
April 1, 2000

Natural History

Sure, but can they sing?

London’s HIT Wildlife and SANHU (the South African Natural History Unit – a joint effort between the South African government and Route 66 in Johannesburg) are at work on two new projects, which are scheduled to appear later this year.

Ele Tele is a 52-minute film which will give viewers an elephant’s-eye-view of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Through the use of a specially constructed camera and microphone rig (which is attached to an elephant matriarch named Ellie), the film captures every event in the life of a family of elephants. The camera is comparatively light – well, if you’re an elephant – but will transmit a video signal up to 20 kilometers, which SANHU is then able to pick up through the use of a mobile tracking post or a helicopter-mounted unit. The lens on the camera is even fitted with a self-cleaning shield. Ready for June of this year, the project is being undertaken for Discovery.

Ele Talk picks up the research where the last project finishes. This one-hour film will examine an attempt at translating the language of elephants being moved from Kruger Park to Marakele National Park in northwest South Africa. Thanks to conservation efforts, the elephant population has begun to recover in Southern Africa, but now overpopulation has become a problem and elephants will have to be moved. U.S. scientists William R. Langbaurer (Pittsburgh Zoo) and Dr. Anne Savage, (Disney’s Animal Kingdom) are hoping to capture and translate the infrasound communication between the elephants before, during and after the move, possibly discovering what the creatures have to say about the move. The second Ele project will be wrapped for this September. The budget for both projects is in the millions.

Now you see it…

Although Aldabra Productions is a brand-new prodco, the La Spezia, Italy-based company has several new projects in the works. Both of the efforts listed below will be wrapped in early 2001, and run to an hour in length. At a budget of about US$320,000 each, they have attracted the interest of both a U.K.-based distributor and an Italian broadcaster, but as of press time, no deals had been signed.

The Tides of Aldabra: Life on a Distant Island examines a particularly erratic patch of ocean, and the creatures who live in it. Twice a day, tides transform Aldabra into the largest raised atoll in the world, where millions of gallons of seawater temporarily create a giant lagoon in the sea. Fish and sharks, and over 150,000 giant tortoises call the atoll home.

Evolution Dreampond: The Diversity of Life in an African Lake focuses on the explosive evolution a single family of fish (the cichlids) has had in an ancient lake in the African Rift Valley. These fish show remarkable differences in colors, morphology and behavior to their cichlid cousins. The hour also looks at the balance of the ecosystem: the giant otters, fish, eagles and cormorants who live off the lake.

Aldabra is on the hunt for potential coproducers for these and its other new programs.

Challenged chimps

Australia’s Southern Star Wild and Real will be distributing a number of new one-hour docs from LJM Productions in the coming months.

One of the main efforts from the Melbourne-based prodco will be Chimpanzees of Central Africa (w/t), a chimp doco soon to be shot in an orphanage run by Sheila Siddle. The recent recipient of the Jane Goodall Award, Siddle and her husband run a home for 60 emotionally and physically damaged chimps. So far Australia’s Network 10 has picked up Aussie rights. The film is budgeted at about US$350,000 and is set to wrap for MIPCOM in October.


Death… wholesale

Connecticut’s CABLEready is thinking about genocide.

By this summer, the distributor will be looking for interested parties for The Genocide Factor, a 4 x 1-hour series produced by Tampa’s Media Entertainment. The series takes a pleasant stroll down through the history of genocide, from biblical times to the present day. Interviews include Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel and u.s. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Also included will be stories from Holocaust victims, as well as those of Kurdish and Cambodian survivors. The budget for the series is about US$500,000.

The class of 1999 BC

London’s Lion Television will be tackling an Empires series for Washington’s Devillier Donegan Enterprises. Along with the help of PBS, the three companies will be working on The Egyptian Empire: Egypt in the New Kingdom. All will be revealed about the lives of the ancients in this series. For example: Few know about the ground-breaking rights for women in Egyptian culture, including access to contraceptives – or the six-month work year for laborers. Typical for the Empires series, this effort will be larger-than-life, and take advantage of huge casts and a library of visuals. Ready for spring of 2001, the 3 x 1-hour series has a budget of about US$1.8 million.

Lion is also working with Discovery Health on an effort called Class of ’75. On top of the 4 x 1-hours for broadcast (which will follow the alumni of a quarter-century-old graduating class over the course of a year), the partners are also planning weekly web updates on the characters. Class of ’75 will tackle topics like dealing with cancer, raising ‘problem’ children, or even the struggle to conceive. Discovery Health will also be running interstitials, directing viewers to the website and encouraging them to watch the quarterly broadcast installments. The first episode will air this November. The on-screen effort has a budget of about US$215,000.

Real or silicon?

The Santa Clara Valley Historical Association in Palo Alto, U.S. is going back to Silicon Valley in the hopes of revisiting the success it had with The Silicon Valley: 100 Year Renaissance. The new film, Silicon Valley 2001, will be wrapped this October. Both films have been funded primarily through the income from a coffee-table book (both sponsorship and sales) called The Making of Silicon Valley: a 100 Year Renaissance.

PBS Plus distributed the original film, but as of press time, no commitments had

been made for the second. The first film was narrated by Walter Cronkite, and explored the culture and history of Silicon Valley, including interviews with such Silicon Valley alumni as Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard, Steve Jobs and Scott McNealy (Sun Microsystems).

The new 54-minute film will continue the history of the most technologically advanced valley in the world, and has the corporate cooperation of some of the largest Silicon Valley companies: Intel, Cisco, IBM, Lucent and Hewlett Packard. About half of the ballpark US$300,000 budget is already in place.

Up yer Celt

Claiming to be the first series that gets the real inside information, The Celts is a 6 x 60-minute effort being undertaken by a Celtic coalition. U.K.-based Opus Television are the producers on the project, with coproducers in the form of Cardiff-based distributor S4C International, Welsh broadcaster S4C, and CCG (the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee). The series uncovers the roots of the Celts in the darkest days of prehistory, and follows them right up to the present dark days. Once masters of the lands stretching between the Black Sea to the Atlantic, the Celts are considered by many to be the originators of European culture. Scheduled for spring completion, the series has a budget in the £800,000 (US$1,270,000) range.


Faith, hope and charity

Brenda Wooding, formerly of Adams Wooding Television, has formed her own company and headed west. The new L.A.-based entity is dubbed Brenda Wooding Television, and has a number of projects on the go.

Sister Helen Travis: Running on Faith is being coproduced with Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman of New York. Helen Travis decided to become a Benedictine nun at the age of 54 – after her 15-year-old son was stabbed to death in a gang fight, her husband died of a heart attack brought on by alcoholism, and her youngest son died during an asthma attack. According to Sister Helen: ‘In times of crisis, you’re either made or broken. I was made.’ Sister Helen concentrates on her work at the John Thomas Travis Center, a home she founded for alcohol and drug-addicted men in one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in America, New York’s South Bronx. Unfortunately, before the film was completed, Sister Helen died. The film will concentrate on her life, her work, and the future of the men she was trying to save.

Sister Helen Travis will be available in both a 70 and a 52-minute version, and is scheduled to be completed this fall at a budget of about US$350,000. The film will air on HBO in the U.S. in 2001.

Everything I Have is Yours is a 60-minute film from BWT, Terri Randall Productions, and Diane Karnett Productions (both of N.Y.). Living liver transplant surgery – where the patient finds a living donor who will voluntarily give up a majority of their liver – is rare, for obvious reasons. This film will concentrate on one of those rare cases. John Vilardi has liver cancer, and can either wait on an organ donor list or find a living donor. In what can only be described as an extremely charitable act, his sister Felicia offers 60% of her liver. The film will look at both this story and the scientific realities of such an operation.

Everything will premiere on Discovery Health in the u.s. in the fourth quarter of this year. The budget for the film is in the US$250,000 ballpark.


Booze, sex, guns

Igel Media, the producer/distributor from Hamburg, has all your vices covered.

The slippery slope to hell begins with Bars of the World, a 6 x 26-minute series that takes viewers on a tour of global watering holes known for their charm, flair and inebriating libations. The initial run of six episodes is set to wrap at the end of 2001, but the series is likely to continue. Each episode rings in at around us$40,000.

After visiting the bars of the world, Igel will be tackling the History of Sex. (Make your own connection…) This 6 x 52-minute series will be wrapped for the end of this year, and will examine how ‘inventive people were, and still are, in turning biological reproduction and human sexual practices into the fascinating, the controversial, and even the abhorrent.’ (Strangely enough, the last usually involves a bar in some way…) The series will trace sex through history, but the producers promise not to be sensational. This slap and tickle comes in at US$125,000 an episode.

And from sex – as it so often does – the trip continues on to train robbery. Igel will also be distributing 4M Productions’ 52-minute special Father’s Day. The U.K. producer plans to have this fly-on-the-wall doc wrapped for the summer. It tells the story of legendary train robber Ronnie Biggs, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. The film also examines the life of such men, their obsessions, and the lives of their children as they come to terms with their gun-toting fathers. This film comes in at a budget of over US$50,000.

Aperitifs and anesthetic

Based in London, TVF is a producer/distributor that has been in the business of factual since 1982. The company’s distribution entity, TVF International, currently represents over 60 producers, and because of that, has a long list of projects in the works.

Under the Knife is a collaboration between TVFI and u.k.-based Principal Films, and looks at the past, present and future of surgery through the stories and experiences of surgeons, scientists and patients. The human body is a complex machine, and putting it back together when something goes wrong is not for the faint of heart. Ready for the end of 2000, the series will come in either a 3 x 52-minute or 6 x 26-minute format. So far, TLC and France’s La Cinquieme have signed on. The budget for the series is just over US$1 million.

From the U.K.’s Marquee Films comes a 4 x 26-minute series which follows four teenagers as they pursue their goal of becoming football stars. Two are white and from the suburbs of Johannesburg, and two are black and from Soweto. (Johannesburg is vying to host the 2006 World Cup.) Ready for the end of this year, Goals and Glory is being distributed by TVFI and comes in at a budget

of about US$160,000.

From Octopus Productions in the U.K., Street Cafe is a 13 x 26-minute series that takes you on a tour of the world and shows you what people are eating. Cafe journeys from Japanese Koryoriya bars to Moroccan market bazaars, giving viewers a roadside view of each country. Distributed by TVFI, the series will be wrapped for the end of this year, at a budget of US$50,0000 an episode.

Closer to completion, TVFI will also be representing White Boy in Africa (w/t), a 52-minute special that follows a New Yorker’s exploration into the culture of the Hadzabe, one of the original peoples of South Africa. The story is that of an ancient culture under siege by the first world. Produced by Terri Leppan in South Africa, the hour has coproducers in the form of S.A.’s Mnet and Travel in the U.S. Ready for July, the hour has a budget of about US$170,000.

Heads up!

Any minute now (well, to be fair, in August…) things will begin falling from the sky. But there’s no need to worry. It’s all right on schedule.

The 140-ton Russian space station MIR has served its purpose and is returning to the world which created it, splashing down some time in early fall. In time for

the troubled station’s re-entry, Jones Communications of Washington D.C. and Moscow-based coproducers VideoCosmos (who hold the rights to much of the Russian space archive) are producing a 52-minute special on the station called The MIR Chronicles – A Life In Space. The special will take advantage of about 160 hours of unseen footage shot on the station itself. The main thrust of the special will be the daily life on MIR, how the scientists lived, and what caused the litany of near-disasters which befell the station.

The budget for the special is about US$250,000, and it has already brought Discovery International into its orbit. The completed show will be available this spring, and is being distributed by the CDC United Network in Belgium.


Lonely and quirky

London’s Pilot Productions, creators of the Lonely Planet series, are at work on another quirky travel series called Ian Wright’s Amazing Adventures. The new 13 x 30-minute romp looks at the adventures of real travelers – far from the dreary world of the packaged tour or the staid cruise ship. The producers promise a fast-paced program, and it will be hosted by one of the popular hosts of the Lonely Planet series, Ian Wright. Wrapping this September, the series comes in at about US$220,000 per episode and will air on the Discovery Travel Channel.


I told you not to look up

In case you didn’t have enough to worry about, or had just started to sleep again now that the Cold War is over, Frankfurt-based Neuzeitfilm has just begun work on a 210-minute project called Among Star Wars and the Middle Ages – About the War in the Next Millennium. Although negotiations are on with other broadcasters, the project is destined for a ZDF/ARTE themed evening.

The production delves into the weapon systems of the future and tries to surmise how military strategy will be affected by the rapid pace of technology. Among the discoveries hoped to be uncovered: What kind of wars will the world see in the next millennium? What will Europe’s role be? Can we avoid it, or should we start cashing in our retirement savings now?

The 210 minutes will be broken down into (roughly): ‘Star Wars: Weapon systems of the future’ (60 minutes); ‘Past wars as an example for the future’ (40 minutes); ‘The war of the Great Power and its fight for oil’ (30 minutes); and ‘Africa: the last world war?’ (45 minutes). Neuzeitfilm will also be working on an international version of 60 or 90 minutes (for which they are seeking partners), and a DVD package.

Ready for the end of this year, the themed evening will hit the air some time early in 2001. The budget for the evening will be in the US$300,000 range, plus the investment required for an international version.

Neuzeitfilm turned to Trotsky for one of the best marketing lines of the year: ‘You may not be interested in the war but the war is interested in you.’


Machines of War

Can you imagine what it was like to roll through enemy territory in a Sherman tank or fight battles in the air piloting a Spitfire? Just in case you can’t, London-based prodco Flashback Television is going to help, with a 4 x 60-minute series commissioned for the History Channel in the U.S. called Battle Stations.

Described by producer Taylor Downing as a series about the machines and men that won World War II, each episode focuses on a different piece of hardware. The four featured machines are the Spitfire (the British fighter plane that won the Battle of Britain in 1940); the DC-3 (the American Douglas transport

aircraft); the Sherman tank; and the DUKW (pronounced ‘duck’ – an amphibious transport truck).

Flashback has the support of London’s Imperial War Museum, which will be contributing the majority of the archive material, supplemented by the National Archives in Washington, D.C. While the series will include vintage images and interviews with war veterans who actually used the machines, the reconstructions promise to be the most innovative element.

Says Downing, ‘We find surviving examples of the machines, we get them working, and we get miniature cameras inside them.’ With the Spitfire, for example, a mini-cam will be placed behind the pilot (looking forward) and below him (looking up), to give a sense of flying a Spitfire during an aerial dogfight.

Budgeted at around US$150,000 to $200,000 per hour, production on Battle Stations is set to wrap by the end of May. Broadcast on the History Channel in the U.S. is scheduled for July, while in the U.K., The History Channel will reserve it for September to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Susan Rayman

Life and Art

During the initial filming of Beyond the Fatal Shore – a 6 x 1-hour series about Australia and its people – author and filmmaker Robert Hughes was involved in a serious car accident. Rather than shutting down the US$2.9 million production, however, he ordered filming to continue while he recovered. Fully aware of his brush with death, Hughes later integrated his new perspective on life into the fabric of the program.

The history, culture, identity and destiny of the land Down Under provide the broad themes for the six episodes. In the first program, titled ‘Body and Soul,’ Hughes joins gay revelers for Sydney’s Mardi Gras, and examines Australia’s rejection of its British puritanical roots in favor of a more relaxed, open and sexually free society. Episode two – ‘A Good Country is Hard to Find’ – reveals the impact Australia’s difficult landscape and vast space has had on its culture over the past two centuries. Episode three, ‘Money Class and Power,’ looks behind the egalitarian mask of the nation’s supposedly classless society. The fourth installment, ‘Dreamtime,’ focuses on Aboriginal issues, while the fifth looks at immigration. In the final episode, ‘For Queen and Country,’ Hughes considers Australia’s place in the world – past, present and future.

Produced by London-based Oxford Television, along with coproduction partners the BBC, New York pubcaster WNET, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and U.K. distributor NVC Arts, Beyond the Fatal Shore is set to wrap by July.

NVC Arts is also coproducing a 10 x 24-minute series called Private View. Hosted by actresses Joanna Lumley and Anjelica Huston, among others, the series provides a first-time tour of some of the world’s greatest private art collections, as well as insight into the people who own them. London-based Convergence Productions is helming the project, and the U.K.’s Channel 5 is onboard as a copro partner and broadcaster. The first four episodes of the US$963,000 series air in late April, while the rest are scheduled to follow this fall. Susan Rayman

Solid Foundations

Elvis impersonators of all shapes and sizes are explored in The King is Dead: Long Live the King!, a 50-minute special in production at L.A.’s Solid Entertainment. The project, budgeted at approximately US$350,000, explores such impersonators as El Vez, (the Mexican Elvis); The Flying Elvis (who skydives in sequins), and Nolan Vance (the 9-year-old Elvis). Though the project, which is being produced for TLC, is scheduled to be delivered to the network during the third quarter of this year, no airdate has been finalized.

‘It’s men, women and children – anyone who wants to be Elvis,’ says Richard Propper, Solid’s director of international licensing. ‘There are Elvis impersonators in Finland, Taiwan, France, Spain and countless other countries throughout the world, so there’s really a cross section of people who feel empowered by The King.’

Other Solid projects include Above All Others, the story of the race for the 1999 World Skydiving Championships, and an 87-minute special called The Real Stuff, both budgeted between US$350,000 and $395,000. Coproduced by Aspect Ratio Films, The Real Stuff, is a journey inside the space shuttle mission STS-86 and the rescue of space station MIR. In 1998,

MIR collided with an unmanned supply ship which was delivering food, equipment and oxygen to the space station. The crisis unfolded as Dan Wetherbee was documenting the crew’s life in spaceflight readiness training. Wetherbee spent almost 24 months with the multinational crew, which included four Americans and one Russian.

‘Initially, Dan was making a documentary about required training to become a space shuttle pilot,’ says Propper. ‘So he was on the spot when the crew members were told ‘This is now a rescue mission.’ SONY had just manufactured a DV camera which weighed about one pound, so NASA agreed to let the camera on board for the rescue mission. In the doc, the crew are essentially the camera men, so we experience their emotions as they take off, we see their helmets smash against the headrests and we feel their elation during the docking with MIR.’ Simon Bacal

NFB: Not just for log drivers anymore

The National Film Board of Canada is a Canadian film institution that directly produces or aids in the production of about 80 to 100 documentary and animation titles every year. While the NFB has offices from sea to sea, all of the following projects are being undertaken by the Toronto office.

Among the productions on the slate is the 55-minute Thin Ice. Only Canadians can fully appreciate what it’s like to have the United States as a neighbor. Thin Ice explores the differences between the two nations, told through the observations and experiences of one of the best-known satirists in America, Bruce McCall. Like many talented Americans, McCall is Canadian. He moved from his native Toronto to L.A. early in his career, so he is in the unique position of offering viewers the inside view of two similar but distinctly different cultures. Thin Ice is being produced by Gerry Flahive, and will be wrapped this summer at a cost of about US$270,000.

Spirits of Havana is a National Film Board production undertaken by Peter Starr. Spirits is a journey into Cuban music and society, as seen through the eyes of Jane Bunnett, one of Canada’s premier jazz flautists and soprano sax players. The film will be a road trip, exploring an artist’s creative quest, as well as the musical landscape of Cuba, 40 years after the revolution. This 75-minute project will also be wrapping this summer, at a budget of about US$270,000.

Speaking of rapping, producer Karen King is hard at work on her 60-minute project Raisin’ Kane: A Rapumentary. Ready for the summer at a budget of about US$200,000, the film follows indie Hip Hop band Citizen Kane, as they put the finishing touches on their first album and get ready to tour. It’s an uncertain time for these four young Canadian men as they attempt to break into a tough U.S. market while trying to make a name for themselves at home. What are their goals? What has their dream cost them personally?

The film intends to be an insight into the record industry, four men tackling it for the first time, and also the psyche of the black male.

Lastly comes a unique project from Silva Basmajian. Kim Campbell was the first woman leader of a North American nation. She stepped into the role of Canadian Prime Minister in 1993 and then led her party to the most crushingly one-sided defeat in the history of Canadian politics. But who was really at fault? Was it Campbell’s hated predecessor, Brian Mulroney? Was it the press? Was it Campbell herself? What caused this crushing defeat, and what does it say about the future of female leadership in North America?

Kim Campbell Through The Looking Glass is a 71-minute project which will be wrapped by late spring, and comes in at a budget of about US$250,000.

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.