What a difference a year makes
In the RealScreen Factual Price Guide 2000, distributors and producers alike said natural history was their genre of choice, and by a significant margin. The popularity of presenter-led and CG-enhanced wildlife programming was on the rise, and the fascination with flora and fauna seemed limitless. This time around, natural history ranked third for producers, and eighth for distribs, in both cases behind history and arts. So, what changed?
According to Manfred Keil, managing director of non-fiction for producer/distributor Igel Media in Hamburg, Germany, natural history has simply hit the low point in the demand versus supply cycle. ‘Distributors have been talking about [the eventual downturn of NH] for the past two years.
The reason is simple. A few years ago, broadcasters noticed that they got good ratings with natural history – and good ratings are the most important thing in the business. Every broadcaster did it, at every time, every day. They ran natural history to death, until it was nothing special anymore. Now, broadcasters in Germany have turned to history shows.’
Doug Heller, executive VP and co-managing director of Beverly Hills, U.S.-based Zia Film Distribution, agrees. ‘There was an overabundance of natural history programming. I think it flooded the market.’ Heller says he also feels the global spread of the likes of Discovery and National Geographic may have scared off some local buyers. ‘I think a lot of broadcasters in individual markets don’t feel they can compete with the audience and the advertising,’ he says, adding, ‘We have some extremely good natural history programming done by award-winning filmmakers, but other than taking it to Discovery [for example], we’re finding it difficult to get it exposed in the marketplace.’
Rising costs have also played a role in hurting natural history. While some are hailing CG-enhanced programs as the new blue-chip, the associated expenses are perhaps even more prohibitive. ‘There just isn’t enough money to make new films the way they need to be made,’ says Gioia Avvantaggiato, president and CEO of Rome-based producer/distributor GA&A. It’s not so much that wildlife isn’t popular, she points out, the issue is more about finding new ways to tell familiar stories. ‘There aren’t any new animals to be discovered, and those that we all know, we know everything about them. So, the only thing that can possibly make animal films different would be if we could make the same films using different techniques, which is not so easy or affordable.’
One way around the natural history conundrum is to expand the genre’s parameters. Jean Dufour, VP of marketing for Paris-based producer/distributor Ampersand, explains that programs labeled as travel or adventure often include a healthy dose of natural history content, and have been selling well for his company. For example, a 26 x 26-minute series called The Horsemen is a mix of genres, with part of the focus on the equine animals and part on their guardians, he says. Two French broadcasters, La Cinquième and thematic horse channel Equidia, have already signed on to the project.
Despite the wildlife content in Horsemen, Dufour says he would hesitate to label it as natural history. ‘[The term] natural history can be misleading because some people expect to see pure wildlife. We always have a problem with category definitions.’ Igel has a similar labeling dilemma with Treasure Islands, a US$330,000 copro with Austria’s ORF (produced by Vienna-based Cosmos Factory). Keil describes the one-hour one-off about three Pacific islands (Mauritius, Réunion and Rodriguez) as a combination of natural history, culture and anthropology. When it comes to classifying programs, he says he decides based on the commissioning editor or broadcaster to whom he is selling.
For history, unlike natural history, broadcasters employ a broader definition, which may partially account for the genre’s recent surge in popularity. Says Avvantaggiato, ‘History is a very wide term’ There is a tendency to mix everything together. When I think of history programs, it’s not necessarily the newsreel of the time giving you an overview of a specific year.’ As an example, she describes a program in development for GA&A about a recently discovered sunken World War II ship, the Viminale. The story will likely include science, technology, discovery and adventure elements, as well as history.
Arts programming is generally more homogenous, but its enduring appeal appears to lie in its shelf life. Brian Jackson, CEO of London-based Ginger Film Productions, says he continues to have success selling programs such as Great Russian Writers (8 x 30 minutes) and Great Russian Composers (6 x 30 minutes), which were completed in 1992 and 1994 respectively. ‘[Programs] like these have legs,’ he says. ‘They’ve got the longevity of the content, unlike, say, current affairs which doesn’t have any life beyond archival.’ The fact that arts isn’t generally mixed with other genres doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed. ‘People are slightly more open to different types of arts programs, not just performance,’ says Selina Lewis Davidson, supervising producer for New York’s Mixed Greens. Her prodco specializes in arts, and Davidson cites Worst Possible Illusion, The Curiosity Cabinet of Vik Muniz, a one-hour one-off, as a prototype. ‘It’s a collaboration between the filmmaker and the artist,’ she says. The story follows Muniz from his studio in Brooklyn to his native Brazil, illustrating how his art developed out of his early experiences and became integrated into all aspects of his life.
Davidson says she generally takes aim at the likes of HBO, PBS and the Sundance Channel, the usual suspects for picking up arts programs in the U.S. Outside of these channels, however, choices are still limited. Says Zia’s Heller, ‘You look at A&E, which is supposed to be an arts and entertainment channel, and you see Law & Order. They have varied away from their strand, obviously because of demographics and advertising.’
Popular – and huge – PBS productions such as Ken Burns’ Jazz might inspire other broadcasters to follow suit, but Heller isn’t convinced. ‘You have a very specific audience that’s geared towards PBS. And, PBS gets their programming underwritten by corporations, so they can take risks that a non-public broadcaster cannot. [Jazz] might be successful in terms of ratings for PBS, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the same will hold true for A&E.’
Outside of the States is a different story, according to Ampersand’s Dufour. ‘We can say that arts is an area we want to focus on more, because we get the feeling there is an increasing demand for those [programs], especially from thematic channels, cable and satellite. We have seen it in Europe, Latin America and China. Not as much in North America, that’s not our experience.’
Interest in reality series appears to be universal. In the wake of Big Brother and Survivor, brisk sales in N.A. and Europe come as no surprise, but other territories are demanding a fix as well. Eric Bernstein of L.A.-based producer/distrib Promark Entertainment says Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East have been picking up substantial quantities of ‘docu- entertainment’. For example, a Thai broadcaster recently bought a 67-hour block, including Crime & Punishment and Women of the Catwalk, packaged as ‘Expose 2001′.
As a category, however, reality can be difficult to define. ‘Reality seems to be a hip word,’ says Patty Geneste, owner of Amsterdam-based distrib Absolutely Independent. ‘It’s more a way of editing and filming. It’s a little bit faster, there are more close-ups. The audience gets closer to what’s happening on screen, and it’s not looking at something, it’s more a part of something.’
Despite the status of the genres now, expect it all to change in another year. Says Heller, ‘The one thing about this business is that it’s cyclical. In 2001 [maybe] we’ll see a turn back towards natural history programming.’