On the Slate

April 1, 2002


Big bang brouhaha

If you’re going to tackle a new production, it’s best to start at the beginning. And if you’re Munich’s True Stories, the beginning is a long time ago. Deep Sky is a 3 x 52-minute series about the past and the future of our universe. In ‘Part I: The Origin of the Universe’, theories concerning the creation of the universe will be explored, including new ideas about so-called ‘dark energy’ of which little is known. In ‘Part II: The Origin of Our Solar System and the Earth’, the producers will look to both the creation of the Earth and the origin of other stars in the universe. In the last segment, ‘Part III: The Future of the Cosmos’, the death of our sun will be considered – in five or six billion years, so don’t sell your Microsoft stock yet. Not that it matters, because scientists predict that the Earth will be uninhabitable in a billion years or so. (Time to up the NASA budget…) Ready for 2003, this series carries a budget of about US$400,000 per hour.

On the Earth and more contemporary, Desert Gallery is another project from True Stories. Billed as a ‘journey to the hidden treasures in the heart of Saudi Arabia’, this hour enters the largest and, perhaps, least understood of the Arabic countries. Beyond its social mysteries, the landscape itself is a riddle, with once fertile savanna now an endlessexpanse of desert. There may be some clues to the reason for the change in the ancient rock art scattered in the sand. True Stories will accompany Robert Bednarik, a leading rock art expert, into the Saudi desert to explore thousands of years of such images. Desert Gallery, which is currently in pre-production for a 2003 wrap date, is hoped to be just the pilot of an ongoing series, and will be completed for about $240,000.

True Stories will also be distributing Brave New Men, a 90-minute one-off (or 2 x 52-minute series) being produced by Leipzig-based L.E. Vision for MDR and ARTE. This series will profile the work of top geneticists in three very different cultures: European, American and Asian.

Kári Stefansson left Harvard for his native Iceland to the great surprise of many of his colleagues. He propelled his country to the forefront of international genetics, but not without great opposition from those who fear his work will transform Europe into Huxley’s Brave New World.

W. French Anderson is an American geneticist with 10 patents to his name, but he puts his family first, and prefers to cultivate a culture of doubt with his research rather than look for scientific quick fixes – a fact which makes his colleagues think he might be standing in the way of progress. Yang Huanming, director of China’s Human Genome Project, has a somewhat similar problem. He feels immense pressure from Chinese politicians who dream of improving China’s lot through genetics. Huanming struggles to establish a code of ethics, even in the face of continued pressure to achieve.

The budget for Brave New Men is in the $450,000 range, and the film is scheduled to be delivered this autumn.


Building the mystery

Fresh from an announcement that they have bought themselves from U.S. network ABC, Devillier Donegan Enterprises of Washington D.C. intends to move forward with its production and development slate. The change promises similar levels of production and faster turn-arounds on decisions. Look for DDE to possibly return to its roots, with the chance of more fiction on the horizon.

One of the newest doc projects in production is Salt Lake City 2002. Produced by Cappy Productions in New York, this 120-minute film will follow the tradition of other Bud Greenspan Olympic films, capturing the busy two-week affair through the drama of such medal events as men’s and women’s skeleton, women’s bobsleigh, and the men’s Nordic combined sprint. Ready for late this year, the doc has been named the official film of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and is being distributed by DDE.

If you’re more concerned with history on the everlasting scale, Peter and Paul is a 2 x 60-minute copro between DDE, Koval Films in London and PBS. Ready for November and part of the ever-expanding ‘Empires’ strand, the series examines two of the prime movers who helped take Christianity from relative obscurity and turn it into one of history’s most significant religious movements.

Reenactments, contemporary interviews and modern archeology will be used to tell this story of conflict, persecution and dedication. The budget for this ‘Empires’ installment will be similar to the others, which ran about US$600,000 per hour.

Contemporary Culture

Mediterranean blues

‘Ariel Odyssey, The Mediterranean from Above’ is a continuing series which began with Israel Ariel Odyssey. The follow-up will be called Greece from Above, and is being produced by Albatross Productions of Tel Aviv and distributed by Cinephil (also of Tel Aviv). Greece is destined for PBS (50 minutes) and Nat Geo (30 minutes). Like the first segment, this installment will focus on both famous natural landmarks and man-made marvels, all shot from the peaceful silence of the heavens. Ready for spring, this HD special comes in at about US$200,000.

While it might be quiet from a few hundred feet in the air, Greece is anything but silent on the ground. The Mediterranean Channel (which launched on the yes satellite platform only 18 months ago) has commissioned Tel Aviv-based Sirocco Productions and Cinephil to produce 50 minutes on Greek blues called Athens Nights – Rembetiko Breeza. This special will be shot in the nightclubs and bars of Athens beginning this spring.

With the success of the Buena Vista Social Club in mind, the producers and broadcaster are confident this relatively obscure patch of musical culture will find its audience. One thing is certain, there should be no problem finding an audience in Greece, where clubs don’t open their doors until 11:00 p.m. and musicians consistently play to packed houses. Ready for spring, the series is being produced for about $200,000 per special.

Home James

Hollywood’s Original Productions is taking to the road with The Greatest Motorcycles Ever Made. This hour-long special, being produced for TLC in the U.S., uses 3-D graphics to explore advances in motorcycle development, and will also try to explain the odd bond that motorcycle riders have with their machines. Ready for the third quarter of this year, this hour has a budget in the range of US$350,000.

For those who like to travel in style but prefer the comfort of four doors and a roof, Original Productions is also producing The Life and Times of Limousines. This one-hour special for Discovery concentrates on the one machine that may best represent wealth and prosperity in the Western world. Catch a ride to the Oscars, and on the way learn how these vehicles perform, what security measures they offer and everything about their history. Limousines is currently in pre-production and shares a similar budget to its hog cousin.

Technology marches on

Where do planes go when they die? What has become of the hundreds of B-52s scrapped since the Cold War ended, or the countless commercial jets that outlived their usefulness and were retired? Just like old writers, they all eventually end up on the scrap heap.

Scrapping Aircraft Giants tells the story of what happens to these behemoths once they’ve flown their last leg. Some wrecks get sold to Hollywood for use in movies. Some are stripped, and the parts are sold back to the manufacturers. Many just end up in tiny pieces. Produced by Brentwood Communications in L.A., Scrapping is being distributed by Solid Entertainment of Santa Monica, and will wrap in the fall at a budget of about US$250,000.

Anyone who saw the Hollywood feature Oceans Eleven will know that Las Vegas isn’t just some backwater desert stop. Vegas was created from the sand by technology, and its glitzy theme park atmosphere is a product of those same advances. High Tech Vegas looks at how technology can create entertainment magic, whether it is the electronics and pneumatics required to make dragons disappear during a stage show at the MGM Grand, or the animatronics that spring to life from fountains at Caesar’s.

Ready for spring, this one-hour special is being produced by RAK Productions in Los Angeles, and is distributed by Solid. Vegas carries a bankroll of about $200,000. (Batteries not included.)

Solid will also be repping a new production from Pacific Coast Video of Santa Barbara (coproduced with Discovery in the U.S.) – the newest installment in a continuing series called U.S. Navy Seals. Following up the success of the other four episodes, this as yet unnamed episode will focus on the Seal response to terrorism, highlighting the required training, the weapons, and all the mission coverage audiences can’t seem to get enough of. Expected to be completed by this winter, the hour has a budget of about $275,000. Previous episodes of Seals found homes on TF1 (France), Spiegel TV (Germany), Nippon TV (Japan), Discovery Europe and RAI (Italy), among others.

In Fast Talk, producers Deauxboy Productions of Pennsylvania go inside the lives of five screenwriters trying to make it in Hollywood: a puppeteer, a cult film star, a fallen starlet, a former stockbroker and a new mother. The special will follow each novice for one week as they prepare for ‘Pitch Mart’, an event that gives screenwriters a chance to make a two-minute pitch to studio executives.

Ready for this summer, the project is being distributed by Solid and has a budget of about $325,000.

The secret life of Tintin

Perhaps more than any other cartoon character, Tintin reflects the social and technological evolution that took place during the 20th century. What is only just beginning to be understood is how much this fictional character reflected the life and internal struggles of his creator, Belgian artist Hergé.

In 1971, Hergé gave a 14-hour interview on that subject, straining to explain how the psychological undertones of the world of Tintin were connected to his own. Fearing the interview would be misunderstood once it was printed, however, Hergé insisted on editing it before it was released, and in some cases completely changed his responses.

Just recently, the Foundation Hergé offered these unique recordings to a documentary team so they could revisit the original interview, bring it alive for contemporary viewers, and create a dialog between the late artist and his worldwide fans. The production team consists of Angel Films of Copenhagen, Dune Productions in Paris and Periscope Productions of Belgium. They plan to combine contemporary interviews, documents and music with the original 1971 interview to tell the tale of an internationally renowned, but perhaps little understood, artist.

The 70-minute (or 52-minute) project Hergé – The Documentary has attracted the support of DR TV, SVT, VRT, the Danish Film Institute, Eurimages and the Flemish Film Fund. Beginning production in April, Hergé carries a budget of about (euro)900,000 (US$800,000).

Hell on wheels

This Is Nowhere, is a 90-minute epic about a subculture of RV-ing Americans with a pronounced Wal-Mart fixation. Not only do they shop at Wal-Mart wherever they happen to travel, but they also socialize and park their recreation vehicles in its sprawling parking lots. Producer/director Doug Hawes Davis aims to shed light on urban sprawl while entertaining us with offbeat stories of the road told by unlikely road warriors – Walmartians – as he documents their lives, subculture and broader impacts in Missoula, Montana, and around the U.S. This is Nowhere is full of irony and captures the American ambivalence towards nature, technology, adventure and security. It has travelog elements, while featuring travelers who hate to leave home.

The film is being shot on a shoestring budget that would be the envy of Wal-Mart shoppers – a mere US$40,000, thanks to the miracle of DV-CAM. Hawes Davis and co-director John Liburn received backing from the Wild Nature Fund, but still need about $20,000 to complete the project. This is Nowhere is slated to premiere on Montana Public Television this summer, and is a production of High Plains Films in Missoula.

Carl Mrozek

The Animals are in the Zoo?

The first offering from Tigress and Tiger Aspect Productions’ (TTP) U.S. office will be called Kabul Zoo Rescue. As the name suggests, it follows the work of rescue teams as they try to save the animals held in captivity at the Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan.

Interestingly, the coproducers will be making two versions of the show, a 48-minute version for National Geographic Channels International, which will be hosted by Hayden Turner, and a 30-minute version for the BBC, which will be presented by Jamie Darling. A third international version has also been discussed.

One of the main characters in the production will be Marjan the lion. Marjan recently gained international attention when a western journalist found the beast, blinded by a grenade, barely clinging to life in his cage. While efforts to save Marjan were in vain, there are numerous success stories that have yet to be told. (Interestingly, the Taliban tried to close the zoo, but reconsidered when they found references to the Prophet keeping a menagerie in the Koran.) The filmmakers will also venture outside the zoo to follow the work of local vets. Ready for early spring, the project comes from a partnership between TTP, the BBC, Nat Geo U.S. and NGCI. The budget for both films is about £200,000 (US$285,000).

Natural History

Snake in the grass

Fear at First Bite (w/t) is the newest offering from California-based Tomwil. Coproduced with Discovery U.S., this hour uncovers the disturbing results that occur when humans move into the traditional habitat of snakes, lizards, spiders or scorpions. Armed with venom which can be deadly to humans, each of these creatures will defend themselves ferociously if threatened.

Principal photography will begin in Arizona in mid-July and although filming should take six weeks, Wilda Rokos, executive VP of Tomwil, says it depends on ‘the animals’ cooperation’. (Every natural history filmmaker knows what she means.) Unlike some other films Tomwil has tackled, this special will use CGI – following the venom as it enters the body and tracing the path of its damage. The hour has a budget in the mid-six figures and will be delivered to Discovery in December.

Hired Guns

Not many people would suspect that the hardest thing about saving endangered animals is not getting yourself shot. Just ask Patty Wagstaff and Dale Snodgrass, two expert pilots who are teaching the Kenyan Wildlife Service evasive flying. Poaching can be a deadly occupation, as kws policy is to shoot to kill once they have been fired upon. The poachers try to make their first shots count, and since they’re armed with guns powerful enough to (literally) stop a rhinoceros in its tracks, they can do serious damage to the aluminum KWS planes on patrol for illegal hunters. Operation Animal Shield is an hour being produced by White Paper Productions of Washington D.C. with Animal Planet. Ready for July, this doc will include footage taken during the pilots’ photo safari. Distributed by Virginia’s Adler Media, it has a budget in the US$350,000 range.

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.