Getting the Message Out

Regardless of the finite space given to conservation on TV, many wildlife producers remain committed to what appears to be an impossible stand. At the Jackson Hole Film Festival last year, over 120 filmmakers banded together to create Filmmakers for Conservation,...
October 1, 2000

Regardless of the finite space given to conservation on TV, many wildlife producers remain committed to what appears to be an impossible stand. At the Jackson Hole Film Festival last year, over 120 filmmakers banded together to create Filmmakers for Conservation, a group aiming to explore different ways of bolstering conservation in and through natural history programs.

A key concept of the initiative is the drive to ‘give something back’. One aspect of this is the ‘Robin Hood Fund’, which supports educational programs promoting conservation, especially in the developing world. ‘This fund is inspired by a Robin Hood philosophy,’ explains Haroldo Castro, vice president of international communications at Conservation International in Washington, D.C. ‘Taking from the rich to give to the poor. A league of committed broadcasters would donate 1% of the bottom-line budget of their blue-chip productions to sustain the fund. Any production with a budget of more than us$400,000 would donate an additional cent per dollar of their bottom line. Amounts under $5,000 often quickly disappear in large productions, but can be effective in creating low-budget educational productions.’

According to Castro, self-interest rather than philanthropy should induce broadcasters to support the fund. ‘It is questionable whether blue-chip films are helping to protect the environment on which they are completely dependent for inspiration and revenues.’ He is convinced that without action, it is simply a matter of time before the well runs dry. The Filmmakers for Conservation initiative will be on the agenda at Wildscreen this month.

Chris Palmer, executive producer for National Wildlife Productions in Virginia (a division of the National Wildlife Federation), has been producing programs with a conservation message for over two decades, but is finding it more difficult to sell films that are ‘too direct.’ ‘It’s becoming harder to sell film ideas with an obvious conservation message because they’re equated with low ratings. Programmers are under great pressure to get good ratings. It’s easier to convince an executive to go skydiving than to commit to a conservation film. As a producer, you have to be very innovative in how you frame and tell stories involving conservation,’ he says.

Bo Landin, exec producer of Sweden’s Scandinature Films, agrees that conservation is a hard sell, but puts part of the blame on producers themselves. ‘Programmers know their audience, but often take a more conservative view. You have to convince them that your film won’t be like so many environmental message films, which bore a general audience – and me as well. As producers we need to come up with fresh ways of telling natural history and conservation stories if we hope to reach new audiences.’

Landin speculates that the science background of many wildlife filmmakers, himself included, may block their ability to break out of the dominant story mold. ‘We’re partnering wildlife filmmakers with writers and producers from other backgrounds – like drama and literature – to come up with fresh approaches. Conservation isn’t boring, but often the way it’s handled is.’

Palmer suggests a glut of poorly conceived conservation efforts may be one hindrance to future sales. ‘Thousands of hours of natural history programs have aired in the past decade,’ he observes. ‘As a concerned producer, I have to ask myself if any of it really benefits wildlife or habitat? We’d like to think it does, but in most cases we simply don’t know.’ He added that some natural history films may actually undermine conservation efforts by downplaying conflict and habitat loss, and lulling viewers into complacency.

Some producers are seeing tangible results from their efforts, however. ‘The tuna industry threatened to sue CBS if it aired a film I shot,’ recalls California-based underwater filmmaker Howard Hall. ‘[Entitled] Dolphins, Whales and Us, [it was] about the mass killing of dolphins in tuna nets off Mexico. CBS wouldn’t budge, and the tuna industry backed down. Instead of suing they started the ‘dolphin-safe’ tuna certification program, and even bought a block of air-time on the program to publicize it.’ Hall speculates that the press coverage generated by the controversy also boosted ratings.

Washington, D.C. filmmaker Allison Argo noted that her film The Last Frog has been used effectively by the Declining Amphibian Population Task Force to gain public support for their work, and is very popular with young audiences. ‘It’s really gratifying to see kids warming up to frogs and seeing them with fresh eyes,’ she says. Likewise, her award-winning Secret Life of Cats has been utilized by conservationists, like the American Bird Conservancy, in their campaign to reduce bird mortality from hazards like TV towers and domestic cats. ‘I make these films because I want to make a difference, and so I can live with myself,’ she says.

Since her success with Urban Gorilla, Argo feels she’s been fortunate to be commissioned to make a series of natural history films dealing with conservation themes. ‘So far, no one has told me to cut back on anything. But, I work hard to keep the story interesting, and put the message into a non-traditional package to keep them engaging. It doesn’t help the cause if viewers change channels. Programmers don’t need to look over my shoulder because I police my scripts [for preachiness] myself,’ she says.

Argo does many rewrites to improve audience appeal. ‘I spend long hours re-working each story to keep viewers engaged. My current project, Urban Elephant, has been a real challenge because of the bleak outlook for Indian elephants in captivity and in the wild. I’ve struggled to find a positive way to tell the story so that I don’t lose the audience. That wouldn’t help the cause at all.’

Landin agrees that arousing emotions is key. ‘A good dramatic story can always get shown. If you can touch the audience – make them sad, angry, happy – it doesn’t matter

if the film is about conservation, they’ll watch it. Look at how many people saw the Keiko [the whale] story. They probably raised more money to save Keiko than to stop whaling, because people were touched,’ he says.

Landin indicates that his domestic audience expects Scandinature programs to deal with conservation/environmental issues. ‘Europeans, and especially Scandinavians, are quite environmentally conscious. They demand that we take a stand if there is a conservation issue in the program.’ He notes the company’s increasing use of websites to link viewers to researchers and conservationists featured in Scandinature programs. ‘Besides facts, we provide [online] background about the persons and organizations featured in our programs, so viewers can contact them directly and offer assistance.’ He points to Cheetahs Running For Their Lives, a film about Lisa Hanson’s campaign to save cheetahs in Namibia, as an example. The film returned good ratings across Europe, helped raise money, and even spurred a few viewers to travel to Africa to volunteer in the effort.

Petaluma, U.S.-based underwater filmmaker Hardy Jones has also found a possible outlet for conservation online. ‘Trying to help save the ocean is best done in a non-profit arena, and the Internet is a great medium,’ he says. Jones and partners created, a site featuring short videos and factual information about specific topics and issues. ‘Our TV docs should help promote the site, but soon we’ll also be doing live webcasts. One concept we’re promoting is that of witnessing, so things that are done in secret can be exposed and stopped. We’ll use dramatic, behind-the-scenes footage from many sources to spotlight problems,’ he says. According to Jones, cheap dv cams and bandwidth expansion on the Internet are making this and other applications technologically feasible.

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.