A Joint Venture

When Yasmin Anwar, commissioning editor of multicultural programming at Channel 4 in the U.K., heard the pitch for Rebel Music: The Bob Marley Story, she knew it would attract an audience. She also knew that the Jamaican theme was a perfect...
October 1, 2000

When Yasmin Anwar, commissioning editor of multicultural programming at Channel 4 in the U.K., heard the pitch for Rebel Music: The Bob Marley Story, she knew it would attract an audience. She also knew that the Jamaican theme was a perfect fit for the ‘Caribbean Summer’ week being built around the cricket season. But she still didn’t know if the doc was for her.

‘We normally commission pieces because the kind of material we are looking for is rarely replicated elsewhere. Our stuff is edgier,’ says Anwar. ‘The freedom at Channel 4 is to make programs you can’t see on other channels. When the BBC does something different, people start complaining about paying a license fee. People expect us to challenge them, to be more mischievous. That’s one of the great joys of working here.’

A Marley doc, although popular, wasn’t original. ‘The main thing I needed to know, was that they had something new to say,’ says Anwar. ‘And they convinced me they did. London’s Antelope Productions had already secured access to archives, never-before-seen footage, and interviews with Rita Marley. They just wanted coproduction money.’

She was happy to give it to them. C4 invested about us$250,000 in the project. Three other sources were equally enthusiastic. Contributions from The Experience Music Project in Seattle (a museum celebrating world music), Antelope’s parent company Télé Images in Paris, and New York’s Thirteen/WNET (for their American Masters strand) brought the total budget to around $1 million.

Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of American Masters, says she rarely works on coproductions, but for this project, she was willing to make an exception. ‘Our documentaries are shown nationally in primetime, and they are expected to be films of a certain scale. Most American cable documentaries follow a photo-interview-photo-interview format, and they’re ‘fair-using’ [footage] – using clips under 15 seconds so they don’t have to clear them. We do million-dollar films, so it’s nice to be shown a proposal that is such high quality but will cost less.’

Antelope’s Mick Csaky, exec producer on Rebel Music, says investigative legwork was a key element to winning funding. ‘Three years ago, we had the idea to make the definitive account of Bob Marley’s life in time for the twentieth anniversary of his death, but it’s not easy to get in touch with the Marley estate. The rights to footage and music have also changed hands many times: from Island to Polygram to Universal,’ he says.

Securing interviews with Marley’s family was a challenge. ‘It was quite a task to convince Rita Marley to let us do this project. She’s getting proposals all the time,’ says Csaky. ‘The family finally gathered and met us in Miami, where we showed them other biographies we’d done – Josephine Baker, Placido Domingo, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. I think what convinced them was the idea of Bob Marley being in that classical artistic company,’ says Csaky.

Only after the footage was identified and the interviews were in place, did Csaky start assembling the budget. ‘We knew we’d need a big sum of money to make this film because of the cost of clearing the archive footage. We also wanted to spin off a DVD and a video,’ he says.

But Csaky knew he wouldn’t be looking for the entire budget from one source. ‘We very rarely do 100% commissioned pieces within the U.K. Because of the strength of our distribution relationship, we look to exploit international markets. It’s taken 20 years for us to build relationships with coproduction partners like A&E, PBS and the History Channel in America, and channels like NHK and its commercial counterpart TV Asahi in Japan.’

Working for different broadcasters can mean tailoring a project to separate needs. ‘Channel 4 wanted a certain narrator – a British voice. For our international version, we have a narrator with a Caribbean accent. The C4 version is also shorter – running 78 minutes – compared to the 86-minute version we will provide for our American partners, who wanted more context on the reggae music genre,’ says Csaky. Susan Lacy was also concerned that the Jamaican political situation be properly explained to her u.s. audience, and that the partnership would provide enough opportunities for input from the broadcaster.

The final results have met with approval on both sides of the ocean. Channel 4 aired the first version of the documentary in late July, and American Masters will have the American premiere in February 2001.

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