Blazing a Trail

Whether unearthing long-forgotten fossils or tracking down new animal species, scientists and broadcasters have often worked together on research expeditions, to their mutual benefit. Now, independent production companies are beating broadcasters to the punch and investing in expeditions themselves.
March 1, 2002

Whether unearthing long-forgotten fossils or tracking down new animal species, scientists and broadcasters have often worked together on research expeditions, to their mutual benefit. Now, independent production companies are beating broadcasters to the punch and investing in expeditions themselves.

The rewards can be substantial – cutting-edge story ideas, early and sometimes exclusive access to experts and their findings, and increased leverage with broadcasters (research contacts can be a useful bargaining chip). And, while it might be assumed that only prodcos with the means to support broadcaster-size budgets can finance these expedition-based projects, several small program-makers assert that the biggest investment is time, not money.

Still, this route is a gamble for independent producers. The total cash contribution may not be much higher than any other documentary undertaking, but research expeditions generally require a higher-than-average amount of up-front financing. If after months or even years of work the research does not yield the hoped-for results (imagine the disappointment of an empty vault or indecipherable documents), the prodco could be left to absorb the majority of the loss alone. Let’s be honest, it’s not for the faint-hearted. But, armed with an awareness of the pros and cons, several companies are proving that investment in research expeditions can be rewarding.

Taking the reins

When Dr. Elliott Haimoff of Beverly Hills, U.S.-based Global Science Productions first began work on a doc about the rise and fall of the Soviet space program, he had no idea his research would belie the existing historical record. ‘We came across various documents that dealt with the launch of a manned space flight before Yuri Gagarin,’ he explains.

Global Science spent five years and US$500,000 verifying the accuracy of these documents. Haimoff, who has a PhD in biology and worked as a research professor at ucla for five years, managed to track down the astronaut, Vladimir Ilyushin, in Russia. He also learned that the U.S. government had recorded evidence of the flight, which was never released. Haimoff confronted the U.S. National Security Agency, but it claimed the documents were still too sensitive and refused to hand them over. Undeterred, Haimoff challenged the government in court and eventually brought to light strong evidence that Gagarin was not the first man in space.

‘This is going above and beyond being a documentary production company,’ notes Haimoff. The resulting one-hour film, The Cosmonaut Cover-up, aired on public television in the U.S. in 2000, though some stations shied away from the controversial content. Later, Virginia-based distrib Adler Media secured several international sales to territories including Japan, the U.K., Hungary and the Middle East.

Haimoff says Cosmonaut was exceptionally costly, relative to his other projects, which tend to come in closer to $100,000 per hour. He rarely seeks up-front financing from broadcasters, partly because it’s difficult to find and partly because he relishes his independence. Instead, he looks to foundations, corporate financing, personal investors and the prodco’s own ‘war-chest’. Says Haimoff, ‘Each avenue has [benefits and drawbacks]. It’s a trade-off.’

Though Haimoff is willing to take risks on research projects, he is pragmatic in his approach. ‘Doing documentaries is a business. You’re supposed to make a documentary for only one person and that is the TV executive with the checkbook,’ he asserts. ‘I don’t prostitute myself and do propaganda, but there’s a balance. I can’t make How Grass Grows. [I have to choose topics] that are going to appeal to an audience. That’s just the way a business is run.’

A symbiotic relationship

Production companies that lack an in-house scientist are not necessarily at a disadvantage, if their contacts are good. Gioia Avvantaggiato, president of Rome-based prodco GA&A, says most of the projects she currently has in development are research expeditions. She names three off the top: one that involves the discovery of a new species of dolphin; one about a long-lost ship from WWII, the Viminale; and one about a top-secret find that promises fresh insight into life in ancient Rome.

From Avvantaggiato’s perspective, she’s simply doing what she must to remain competitive in the international market. Her distributor, Eve Joffee, concurs. ‘One would love to say it’s passion, but it comes down to money. The market is too fractured. So, [you invest in research expeditions] to attract the broadcasters who can pay license fees that allow you to make a profit.’

For the Viminale project, Avvantaggiato had to come up with 10% to 15% of the total budget up front. For the other two projects, she says she will likely need closer to 30%. But, Avvantaggiato contends the overall costs are not much higher than other docs GA&A undertakes. ‘It’s the margin of risk that is higher,’ she observes. ‘There are fashions and trends, and by the time we’re ready with the film, [the subject matter] may no longer be in fashion. The other risk is, because most of these projects are capital-led, you have to be damn sure your character is going to live in front of the camera.’

Investment, however, doesn’t always have to take the form of cash. To secure access for the Rome project, GA&A offered its production services. Notes Joffee, ‘[GA&A] is the documentarian, regardless of whether it uses that footage in any doc it produces. It had to make a commitment to be the camera eye for everything that is being done and document everything for historical purposes.’ Adds Avvantaggiato, ‘You find yourself having to do certain things if you want to be a successful producer.’

Helping the cause

Rich Blundell, president of New Hampshire, U.S.-based prodco Omniscopic, openly admits he is less motivated by profit than the desire to educate and inform. With that in mind, he finds the risk of investing in research expeditions less daunting. ‘Omniscopic is a very vision-driven company. We maintain this vision that science is going to save the world, and so everything we do – and I know that’s not necessarily the most profitable way of looking at things – has to somehow promote that vision.’

Blundell, who ran an eco-tourism company called Research Expeditions before founding Omniscopic in 1999, uses his own knowledge base (he has a background in biology and geology) and his science contacts to come up with project ideas. He also relies on good, old-fashioned media. ‘Finding topics is as easy as picking up the latest issue of Nature magazine,’ he says.

Like GA&A, Omniscopic has turned to creative forms of investment. In particular, Blundell says he’s interested in producing development tools that researchers can use in fundraising, public awareness, outreach and even publication of their findings. One such successful partnership was with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont. Omniscopic produced an exhibit piece about the museum’s efforts to build an authentic replica of a canal sailing schooner. The only two known originals of this short-lived sailing vessel, which were discovered by divers in 1982, currently lie at the bottom of Lake Champlain. In exchange for the piece, Blundell has first dibs on the story, which he plans to develop into a feature-length doc.

While Blundell’s research has taken him on such excursions as an elephant behavior study in Kenya and fossil excavations in Tanzania, he has yet to make his first sale. But, he has no intention of giving up. ‘In science we find the stories of human experience, answers, adventures, wisdom and hope. That’s the kind of thing we focus on.’

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