On the Slate

March 1, 2001


Bitchin’ rags, man

Ever want to just run away from it all, jump aboard a ship heading off to distant lands and leave it all behind? Ever want to wear cool clothes and surf southern waters, hoping that bright colors don’t attract Great Whites? Well, then you should submit your resumé to Quiksilver International or National Geographic.

Quiksilver (the international clothing and board riding outfit) and the Nat Geo Channels have come together to produce a 13 x 30-minute series that will combine adventure, surfing, half-naked people and (oh ya") science. Titled Next Wave, the new series will be distributed by Australia’s Southern Star Wild & Real. The concept: load a diverse mixture of travelers and scientists onto a survey ship (called the Indies Trader) and sail around the globe, examining the state of the coral reefs along the way.

Officially dubbed Reef Check, the effort has the support of both the United Nations and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Beyond all that science and reef examination, there will also be much surfing done along the way (thus the whole half-nakedness thing). The episodes are hosted by environmental scientist Matt Tomaszewski and marine biologist Dr. Jo Rush. The series will be ready for May of this year and has a budget of about US$1.5 million.


Volcanic victory

The ominous words ‘I Live and Thou Shalt Live’ have been inscribed above cemetery gates on the Westman Islands in Iceland. They represent the spirit and the title of a new film by MaGus Productions of Reykjavik.

On a January night in 1973, Iceland fell victim to one of the worst disasters in her history. Without warning, in the midnight darkness, a volcano erupted on Heimaey Island, a small enclave with a population of about 5,000. Working together to rescue their small community – this included spraying advancing lava with water to buy time – they managed to evacuate almost every inhabitant. (Luckily, bad weather had kept the island’s fishing fleet in harbor that day, or else the boats might have been away.) Only a single casualty was claimed by the volcano.

I Live and Thou Shalt Live will tell the story from the viewpoint of 12 different witnesses to the event. Ready for 2002, the 52-minute film has attracted the participation of Channel 2 Iceland and DR in Denmark. The budget for the film is about US$250,000, and the producers plan to make a longer version of the film for the domestic market.

Bullion and the bomb

Rumors have been circulating since the end of World War II concerning treasures hidden by the Nazi regime as they tried to keep their stolen riches from falling into Allied hands. One of these tales has led a film crew to the mountains of southern Germany, confident they are about to uncover one of these secreted stashes. Working with evidence that suggests they have discovered the missing reserves of the Reichsbank in a cache in the Bavarian Alps, Story House Productions (which operates outlets in both Munich, Germany, and Washington, D.C.) is investigating.

Nazi Gold will be the result of this investigation, using testimonials and contemporary footage to tell the tale of the missing millions. Ready for October’s MIPCOM, Gold is a 52-minute film commissioned by German pubcaster ZDF for about US$300,000. ZDF Enterprises will be distributing internationally.

Also ready for MIPCOM, U-234 – Hitler’s Last Submarine is a 52-minute doc hoping to bring a harrowing tale from the past to life for modern viewers. At the end of the war, Hitler loaded a U-boat with his top scientists, weapons technology and weapons-grade uranium, and sent it to Japan. The mission was cut short, however, when the sub was intercepted by U.S. forces. There is evidence to suggest that those scientists and plans were then integrated into the Manhattan project. U-234 has been picked up by ZDF and Discovery International (for select territories), and has a budget of US$350,000.


Climbing to new heights

How far would you go to help sick kids? What about 20,000 feet?

Twenty-eight normal people (well, maybe not so normal), who in their everyday lives are everything from neurosurgeons to hairdressers, recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for sick kids. For over four months they took pledges from friends and family against the promise of conquering the mountain, with all the money going to the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. Their efforts will form the basis of the film Kilimanjaro for Kids, currently being produced by Dream Catcher Films in Maryland.

The film will profile the climbers and their struggle up the mountain, and will also include the battle against high-altitude sickness, a nemesis which forced five climbers to turn back above the 16,500-foot mark. The film will also look at life in the hospital, re-enforcing the reasons why these two-dozen-plus people decided to climb a mountain. There’s even a happy ending: after eight days, 23 climbers reached the summit.

At press time, Dream Catcher Films was still on the hunt for a broadcaster, although PBS involvement looked favorable. With a wrap expected for the end of this year, the budget for the project will be in the US$200,000 range.

Corporation culture

In most countries, the line that distinguishes where government ends and the free market begins is hazy. While governments around the globe spent the better part of the last few decades nationalizing corporations and assuming the responsibilities of its citizens, the socialist agenda is now finding itself being eaten away by economic realities. Governments are selling off their assets. Multinationals are being offered incentives to return to countries they were forced out of only decades before.

WGBH in Boston has begun production on a 3 x 120-minute series called The Commanding Heights that chronicles the evolution from state control to free markets around the world. Based on the book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize winning author Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw (published by Distican, 1998), the series chronicles four revolutions – one intellectual, one political, one economic and one technological – which are reshaping the way citizens, government and business interact in the modern world.

Destined for WGBH’s ‘Frontline’ strand, the series will be completed for January of next year at a cost of about US$3 million. WGBH International will handle international distribution for the project.

Fruit of their efforts

An oasis in the desert is a place of rejuvenation and refuge. So, it’s odd that the Oasis in Jericho has become the center of such controversy. Then again, most oases don’t have slot machines. The one in Jericho does.

Although gambling is illegal in Israel and forbidden in Palestine, a group of Palestinian entrepreneurs recently tried to open a casino in Jericho (the Oasis) in the hopes of separating Israeli and international gamblers from their money. Unfortunately, as is common in the region, war interfered – tank artillery took off a floor of the casino – and plans were put on hold.

This history forms the thread of a 52-minute film called Oasis, produced by GN Communications of Tel Aviv. The story will be told through the eyes of two unlikely characters: Dr. Roz Bilbul, an 88-year-old scientist who was born in Hungary and who operates a papaya farm in Jericho (and who also believes she’s found a miracle cure in an extract of the fruit); and Ezra Tissona, a 50-year-old professional gambler who has been banned from most of the world’s casinos because of his expertise. Tissona was also one of the three businessmen who tried to build the Oasis.

So where’s the conflict? One of Tissona’s former partners, Casino Austria (a casino conglomerate that operates 150 casinos across Europe) is trying to inject life back into the casino project with the help of Jibril Rajub, the Sheriff of Jericho (and possible successor to Yasser Arafat). The casino means US$300,000 a day for the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the new plan the group is proposing sees a strip of casinos (à la Las Vegas) being built on Roz Bilbul’s papaya farm. Dr. Bilbul is naturally distraught, and feels the fruit of her labor (pardon the pun) is threatened. For his part, Tissona is working against the project too, not because he’s against the casinos, but because he’s not part of the action. It might work out for Dr. Bilbul, however, because the Queen of Jordan has offered to buy her research.

Confused? Well, the film should be wrapped by the beginning of next year and will hopefully simplify this complex storyline. The Oasis project has a budget in the region of US$260,000, and has already attracted The Cable Foundation and Noga Communications/Channel 8 in Israel, Lichtpunt, Ikon and VRT in Belgium, NRK Norway, the New Foundation in Israel, TVOntario in Canada, ORF Germany, as well as Dune and arte in France.

Put your money where your clutch is

Although better known for its wildlife, Gulliver Film Production in Brisbane, Australia, has recently expanded into other fields. Gulliver’s last production, Bundy’s Last Great Adventure, was about a sugar train. This effort is a head-to-head adventure race pitting the U.S. against Australia in a four-wheel driving challenge. Dubbed Challenge, the production will be a 2 x 1-hour series which will see two teams of drivers tackle the wilds of both countries in a pair of seven-to-ten day journeys. The prize will be awarded to the team that can survive the uncertain weather, the rough roads, the random breakdowns, and one another. With Gulliver’s natural history background, there will also be a premium put on the wildlife and environmental aspects of the race.

Challenge will be shot in HD, and should wrap by the summer of next year. The budget will be around US$400,000 and although they hadn’t signed at press time, a broadcaster is almost confirmed.



Hong Kong’s Bang Productions will decipher The Asian Enigma, a 3 x 60-minute series on supernatural and natural phenomenon in the Asian region. Enigma tackles everything from the vampires of Malaysia, to UFOs in China, to underwater civilizations off the coast of Japan. (The producers say you should think of it as the Asian X-Files.) The series will wrap in the spring and is a copro with Discovery International. Bang Productions is on the hunt for European partners for this US$600,000 series.

Set to wrap at the same time, Bang is also working on The National Geographic Channel Action Asia Challenge, produced with (you guessed it) National Geographic Channels Worldwide and Action Asia Magazine. Each of the 4 x 60-minute episodes will cover an ‘adventure race’, but will also try to take in the culture, history and wildlife of the particular region being profiled.

Phantoms, Phantasms and The King

By Simon Bacal

A plethora of ghostly locales will be visited in America’s Most Haunted Places, a series of six one-hour episodes from Indigo Films. Budgeted at around US$600,000, the latest offering from the San Francisco-based production company will visit spook haunts in San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, New York City and Las Vegas. Each episode will focus on six or seven locations within one particular city, with the sixth episode featuring a selection of ghost stories from all five cities. In production until June, the series is expected to air on The Travel Channel later this year.

The first episode explores the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier used during the height of World War II. Now an historical San Francisco landmark and museum, the carrier is rumored to be haunted by ethereal voices, echoing footsteps and shadowy figures. "On one occasion, the museum curator saw a man, dressed in khaki uniform, walk down the ship’s spiral staircase to the engine room," says producer Rosemary Wall. "Once he reached the engine room, the guy mysteriously vanished. Since that incident, the curator has been a firm believer in ghosts. On another occasion, two museum staff members saw a sailor, apparently dressed in a peacoat, walk through a Christmas tree. "The ladies’ washroom is allegedly haunted by mischievous ghosts who love to bang on the pipes and make whispering noises," laughs Wall.

The series also takes in the San Francisco Ghost Tour, a local attraction headed up by San Francisco resident Jim Fassbinder. Viewers will learn about the Queen Anne Hotel in the heart of the city’s elite Nob Hill district. Now a luxury bed and breakfast, the hotel (built in 1890) originally housed Miss Mary Lake’s School for Girls, an elite academy for upper-class young women. According to local legend, the hotel is haunted by Miss Mary Lake, an attendee of the former academy. Footsteps have apparently been heard along the fourth floor hallway, while guests lodging in room 410 reported that an extra blanket had been carefully tucked around their entire body.

"There are also plenty of haunted places in Vegas," Wall says. "The backstage elevators of the Flamingo Hilton is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Elvis Presley. Also, Bugsy Siegel is supposed to haunt the hotel’s Presidential Suite.

"There’s also Vegas’ Kiel Ranch, which was built around 1855," Wall continues. "During the 1900s, two brothers were found dead on the ranch – their deaths were initially perceived as a murder-suicide. But when their bodies were exhumed in 1975, the deaths were attributed to a double murder. A caretaker, who lives on the property, has seen the two brothers together – they constantly appear together. This guy has seen them several times."

Other haunted Vegas locations include a mansion once owned by the late Redd Foxx, the star of the ’70s television sitcom Sanford and Son. "The house is currently a business," says Wall, "but the company’s employees apparently experience strange phenomenon. Computers and radios mysteriously switch on and off."

The series format will include reconstruction of various hauntings, conversations with eyewitnesses and an interview with Loyd Auerbach – a paranormal investigator and author. The mini-series will also include interviews with author Antoinette May and psychics Annette Martin, Aann Golemac and Stache Margaret Murray.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.