On the Slate

February 1, 2002


The fraying ends of history

For those who can’t afford the plane fare, NHK, Japan’s national pubcaster, has begun work on a 6 x 1-hour hd series that takes viewers on a whirlwind tour of the enigmatic cities of Asia. Mysterious Cities of Asia: Past and Present isn’t your average travel doco, however. Rather than run cameras through tourist traps, nhk will tell each city’s story from the perspective of interesting or noteworthy characters, and will stray behind private walls to see what the public is normally unable to witness for themselves. In Beijing, for example, the crew enters the hutongs – old, narrow, residential alleyways that snake through the city – to see how everyday Chinese live. These classically Chinese homes are the essence of that country’s culture, but they are threatened with destruction as Beijing prepares to receive the world in 2008 for the Summer Olympics.

Beyond episode one, ‘Beijing: Mysterious City of Ancient Alleyways’, the series also visits ‘Benares: The Holy City of Life and Death’ and ‘Yogyakarta: Merciful Kingdom in the Heart of Java’, among others. Ready for this summer, the budget for each program comes in at about US$700,000. While negotiations are not finalized, French and German partners are pending.

NHK is also at work on The Picture Scroll of the Tale of GENJI (w/t). For two years, film crews have followed the slow restoration of this most famous Japanese picture scroll. Painted 900 years ago, the artifact is not only the oldest of its kind, it is also representative of a chronological point of radical departure from classical Japanese painting. The scroll is only on display once every decade due to its fragility, but modern technology and cutting-edge camera techniques are unveiling aspects of the scroll which have faded so much as to be naked to the human eye. Filmed in Hi-Vision (HD), the film has a budget of $250,000 and will be completed this month.


Buy this or I’ll shoot you

If you’ve ever wanted a really clear view of all the good things in life you’re missing, check out In the Lap of Luxury, a 13 x 30-minute high definition series that would make even Robin Leach drool. Luxury looks at all the really expensive things most people will never have the good fortune to experience for themselves: exclusive resorts, luxury cruises, giant gems and private jets. It’s all here and it’s all out of your price range. Produced by Florida’s White Mountain Entertainment, the series will be ready for the third quarter of this year, and is being distributed by The Television Syndication Company. Each episode runs to about US$65,000.

White Mountain will soon wrap The City Walker, a series of 26 x 30-minute HD episodes that cover a common theme comparatively in three international cities. For example, the episode on ‘annual special events’ goes to New York to cover the city’s ‘Fringe Festival’, then makes the trip across the pond to see London’s ‘Notting Hill Carnival’ and around the world to visit a famous Tokyo nightclub where people go to drink and sing (and drink).

The first few episodes will begin delivery next month and are being produced for about $45,000 each. The episode mentioned above was produced with Japan’s TV Asahi. The TSC will distribute.

Also from White Mountain comes Combat Ready, a series of 13 x 1-hour HD shows entering the universe of Special Forces units around the globe. Originally intended as a much smaller production, Combat Ready has been beefed up to include a number of international forces, whether they’re stationed on aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines or on solid ground. The series will cover their training, testing to see if these forces are really ready for action. Three to five HD cameras will capture all the action. Beginning delivery in the second quarter of this year, each episode in this series carries a budget of about $150,000 (bullets not included).

Clearing the air

Paris-based Point du Jour is taking the temperature of the global health system in the 3 x 52-minute series State of Health. Coproduced with France 3 and aiming for a September wrap, this series compares several countries’ health systems to examine the influence of science, technology and economics on medical issues.

The three episodes break down into: ‘Health Risks and Security’, which looks at how global risks such as Mad Cow Disease affect a nation’s preparedness schemes; ‘Strategy and Medication’, which looks into topics as varied as the economic viability of drug research and the marketing strategies of major pharmaceutical companies; and finally ‘The Different Health Systems’, which compares the way healthcare is meted out in countries around the world. This series has a budget of about (euro)600,000 (US$530,000).

One thing the Indian medical community was not prepared for during the December 1984 disaster in Bhopal, was an accident in which a cloud of toxic gas and pesticides escaped a chemical plant, killing 13,000 and injuring half a million more – the worst industrial disaster of the last century.

In the 52-minute Bhopal – A Foreseeable Disaster, Point du Jour will follow the events of the tragedy and examine the possibility of such an accident happening today. Ready for September at a budget of approximately (euro)300,000 (US$265,000), the producers are in negotiation with several partners for this film.

Wrapping in April, Point du Jour and French broadcaster arte are working on the 52-minute conspiracy film, Did They Walk on the Moon? During the height of the Cold War, the two feuding superpowers would have done anything to outdo each other. So, did the U.S. really go to the moon, or did it invent a lunar landing? The world watched the event unfold on television, but how did they know what they were really seeing? (How do we ever know what we’re really watching on TV?) This special examines the myths and facts that surround what may have been one of the biggest marketing hoaxes of all time. Unlike the space race, this film carries a manageable budget of about (euro)300,000 (US$265,000).

Building a mystery

Ever wonder how your remote control works? What about your dishwasher? Most never stop to think about the technology that has become commonplace in their homes – most, that is, except Emeryville, California’s Michael Hoff Productions. MHP is working on a 26 x 30-minute series for hgtv in the U.S. called How’s That Work that looks at the origins of everyday conveniences. Each tale will include a biographical peek at the inventor, the evolutionary timeline of the product, and an explanation of the way it actually works. Ready for December 2002, this series is only a small part of MHP’s upcoming slate. Productions range from us$50,000 to $100,000 per half hour, and from $75,000 to $250,000 for a broadcast hour.

Also scheduled for HGTV (demonstrating the way cablecasters have become flexible in their programming logic) is the one-hour special Gardens of Alcatraz. Alcatraz was at one time the most feared prison in America. Home to Al Capone, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Robert Stroud (the famous Birdman of Alcatraz), it was also a place of extraordinary gardens, carefully tended by guards, inmates, soldiers and families for over 140 years. This hour will examine the history of those gardens, and will wrap for April.

MHP is just finishing the one-hour Subterraneans for HGTV. The film is a look at people who dream of living underground, whether that means a cave or an abandoned missile silo.

I, Detective is a 13 x 30-minute series for Court TV combining crime doc and murder mystery, with the viewer playing along. MHP explores real cases and follows the clues investigators uncovered, giving viewers the chance to evaluate aspects of the case using a series of multiple choice questions. I, Detective transforms viewers into detectives, and couch potatoes into amateur forensic scientists. The series will be ready for the end of 2002.

Soon to wrap is the 6 x 1-hour series Serendipity, coproduced with the Discovery Health Channel (U.S.), Australia’s Beyond Distribution and France Television Distribution. Serendipity uncovers the twists of luck (fate?) that have led to medical breakthroughs, advances in science and technological revolutions that have changed the world. Although the series will soon be ready to run in many territories, the producers are still looking for a U.K. outlet.


Telling the whole tale

Scotland’s The Factual Factory (the joint venture of Glasgow prodco Wark Clements and Australian distributor Southern Star) will soon embark on a massive World War I epic for Channel 4 in the U.K. Dubbed The First World War, the price tag for this 10 x 1-hour series will run to US$3.6 million (£2.5 million), and will be based on the book of the same name by author and Glasgow professor Hew Strachan.

The series will go beyond the battlefields of Europe to examine the conflicts that raged around the world, from Asia to the Middle East, to South America. (Of all the films you’ve seen on the subject, how many have suggested that the First World War was really worldwide…?)

The film will make use of veteran interviews, unseen footage and original documents and is set to wrap some time in 2004.

Treasure hunts

Budapest’s Marker Film is a relatively new player in the international doc scene, having been founded in 1999. But, it has a number of mysteries up its sleeve, including the inside track on a few treasure hunts. While the producers are in negotiation for some of these films, they remain on the lookout for more coproduction partners.

How does a 1,700-year-old treasure cause a global conspiracy, murder and an international court case? The answers can be found in The Mystery of the Seuso Treasure, a 52-minute project Marker Film hopes to have wrapped by the end of this year. The tale of the Seuso Treasure begins in 1973, when a teenage boy finds several silver utensils in a quarry. A few years later, he is found hanged in his cellar, his part of the treasure gone. What follows is a trail of intrigue that coils across Europe, with several countries and individuals laying claim to the priceless treasure, estimated to be worth over £100 million (US$140 million). The trail ends in a New York State court, with the Hungarian government suing a u.s. museum for ownership of the ancient silver. Now in development, this film has a budget of about US$200,000.

In another tale of treasure and deception, Marker Film is putting together the 52-minute film The Gold Train. In April, 1945, a train carrying the wealth of the Hungarian Jewish community headed West, away from the advancing Red Army. The train carried jewels, priceless paintings, furs, gold and every other conceivable form of booty, valued today at about us$65 million. After nearly being snatched by the ss, and then by the Hungarian Nazi party, the train blundered into U.S.-controlled territory and was seized by the American army, which directed the train and its contents to the Salzburg Army Store. In 1948, the army decided that the owners of the treasure could not be found, and the treasure was auctioned off (after much of it disappeared into unknown hands).

Szabolcs Szita is a historian following the path of the treasure. He’s been on the trail for over 50 years, collecting evidence and conducting interviews, but he and the few surviving members of the Hungarian Jewish community have little hope of the treasure’s return. Ready for the year’s end, the film is budgeted at $220,000, and has attracted interest in Germany and the U.K.

Happily, there are less sordid treasures on the Earth – or, more specifically, in the Earth. Rhenium is an extremely useful element. Add some to your metal and you get a strong alloy that can resist high temperatures, can be hammered into shape without becoming brittle, produces little friction and can be recycled thousands of times. It’s found its way into satellites, cell phones, and missiles, but at $1,450 a kilogram, it isn’t cheap.

One of the most promising sources of this element is a volcano in Russia – a very active volcano. In The Hidden Treasure of a Volcano, Marker Films explores the attempts to pry this alloy from the turbulent Earth using, of all things, a giant wooden umbrella and cat litter. The volcano vents hot gases (950°C) that are rich in the mineral, which Russian scientists hope to collect and refine. If their plan works, this single Russian volcano could become the source for half of the world’s supply. Marker Film has exclusive access to both scientists and research, and are currently in negotiations with several broadcasters. Ready for the summer of 2003, the projected budget for this 52-minute film is $300,000.

The colorful past

London’s Trans World International, Carlton U.K. and PBS affiliate KCTS Seattle are teaming to produce the next installment of the In Colour brand. The Perilous Fight: America’s World War II in Color (note the U.S. spelling Anglophiles…) will look to corporate and public sources to find footage for this peek into American life at home and on the front during the ’30s and ’40s. Executive producer Martin Smith wants the film to be a ‘people’s history’, and will use material from personal diaries and private color footage captured at the time. As Smith observes, the production is timely, especially in the U.S. as people give more thought to ‘questions touching on ethical issues and the principles of civic duty.’ KCTS is canvassing the public for hidden footage treasures, especially those relating to African-American stories, and tales of under-represented communities.

The 4 x 1-hour series is ramping up for a fall broadcast, and while PBS sources say a budget was hard to pin down due to the nature of the production, previous In Colour titles were produced for about US$500,000 per episode (and spelled correctly).

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.