In the current harsh climate for conservation filmmaking, Jean Lemire of Grand-Entrée, Canada’s Glacialis Productions should not be able to make five hours of film on global warming. And, he certainly shouldn’t be doing it with a CDN$5.9 million (US$3.8 million) budget. Lemire also shouldn’t be able to sail across the top of the world through the famous Northwest Passage, where countless men on the Franklin Expedition and other ill-fated trips met their end. So, how is it that he can?
Our changing climate makes it possible to sail what was once a year-round ice rink, but the rest is the result of Lemire’s ability to capture the imagination of funders and viewers alike.
‘If you want to make a conservation film now, there is no way broadcasters will be part of it unless you have something special – an adventure,’ says Lemire.
The Québecois filmmaker has created just that. In July, he set sail aboard the modern tall ship Sedna, which is currently travelling through the Arctic Ocean carrying a crew of filmmakers, divers and Internet experts. The ship serves as a floating studio for the production of Arctic Mission, a 5 x 1-hour series that will take viewers north of the 60th parallel to witness the effects of global warming on both the landscape and the region’s indigenous peoples. On the ship, footage can be edited and broadcast to classes, museums and computers around the world.
Lemire describes the project as the realization of a 12-year dream, but getting investors to buy into his ambitious vision was not easy. Initially, he notes, people balked at the series’ price tag. To soften the financial risk, he took on many partners. Canada’s National Film Board and Gedeon Programmes in France are coproducing. Other partners include the Canadian pubcaster CBC, Tele-Quebec, France 2 and France 5. Says Lemire, ‘In the end, every broadcaster only paid the amount of money it would for a normal, one-hour doc.’
The winds seem favorable for Arctic Mission, but Lemire knows his crew needs to bring home results. ‘We have scientists who are good in terms of knowledge, but if they’re not good on TV, too bad. If you interview people who aren’t compelling, viewers will zap to something else. We have to get them in action.’
Lemire is also getting the public involved. He knows the film alone cannot reach a wide enough audience to win ratings wars for broadcasters or encourage eco-friendly responses on a wide scale, so he’s using other media – such as the press and the Internet – as parts of the voyage.
‘We went to every city we could with the boat and the public was invited to visit,’ says Lemire. ‘We attracted newspapers, radio and TV stations.’
Additionally, the prodco distributed 12,000 postcards printed with the Internet address of the project. Through the website, viewers can track the mission, view film clips, and generally stay involved. ‘We’ll have [viewers] through the editing stage and through the year and a half until we broadcast the five films,’ says Lemire.
Broadcasters are thrilled with the buzz and the fact that a few thousand people are already on the mailing list – and that was the count before the September school rush. Lemire has proven he can attract an audience. But, will he be able to maintain it?
‘The biggest problem we have is keeping our public in front of the TV for the first 10 minutes. If we can do that, we’ll be okay,’ he says. ‘I always try to put spectacular stories and images up front, and we’re shooting for 25 weeks. If we don’t have great footage in that time, I should think of doing something else with my life.’