The Healing Power of War

For as long as there have been wars, there have been medical procedures to treat the wounded. With each new injury, from cuts caused by the blade of a spear to burns suffered from exposure to radioactive material, doctors have developed treatments that often represent medical breakthroughs. But, the reverse also applies.
October 1, 2002

Project: War Surgeons

Description: A 3 x 60-minute series that explores how violent human conflicts have stimulated both modern and ancient medical breakthroughs.

Executive producer: John Gwyn Jones, John Gwyn Productions (U.K.)

Director: Amanda Rees

Coproduction partners: AAC Fact (Canada), Great North Productions (Canada), S4C International (U.K.), John Gwyn Productions

Budget: US$900,000

For as long as there have been wars, there have been medical procedures to treat the wounded. With each new injury, from cuts caused by the blade of a spear to burns suffered from exposure to radioactive material, doctors have developed treatments that often represent medical breakthroughs. But, the reverse also applies. The knowledge gained from treating war wounds has been used to invent increasingly lethal weapons.

Welsh producer John Gwyn Jones explores the ironic relationship between human conflicts and surgical advances in War Surgeons, a 3 x 60-minute series. The topic is a good fit for Jones. Before switching careers in the mid-1980s to become a documentary producer, Jones worked as a cancer researcher in the pathology department of the Welsh School of Medicine. He also has a PhD in zoology. So, when S4C International, the commercial arm of Welsh public broadcaster S4C, approached him in 1999 about ideas for a future documentary series, Jones proposed an investigation into the history of medicine.

After researching a wide-ranging treatment on the subject, it was clear the topic was too vast to cover, even in a six-part series. However, the stories that revealed the close relationship between medicine and warfare and, more specifically, how medical techniques evolved in the battlefield, were both intriguing and manageable.

The program is divided into three episodes. It tells how combat surgeons organized themselves into efficient medical teams during times of war and investigates the landmark surgical treatments performed by key surgeons in history. The series also reveals how advances in war surgery are linked to weapon development. Says Huw Walters, head of coproductions at S4CI, ‘The series has a rare combination of popular science and history, which remains in high demand across the world.’

September 1999: S4C International approaches Welsh producer John Gwyn Jones to discuss program ideas that have potential as international coproductions. Jones’ Northumberland, U.K.-based prodco John Gwyn Productions has recently wrapped the 5 x 60-minute series Egypt – a coproduction between S4CI, Discovery Channels U.S. and French educational pubcaster La Cinquième (now France 5). ‘We don’t have any production capacity in-house, so we’re heavily reliant on independent producers to develop and bring us new ideas,’ explains Walters. ‘John had just come off a very successful project for us, so it made sense

for us to go back to him for something else that might work.’

Jones proposes a series on the history of medicine. S4CI is interested and asks Jones to research a treatment. It quickly becomes apparent that the topic is too broad, but Jones uncovers interesting tales about the relationship between war and surgical advances. S4CI decides to pursue a series that explores the entangled history of violent conflict and medicine.

Late 1999: A development treatment is required to firm up S4C’s interest in the project, and to pitch the idea to prospective copro partners. La Cinq and S4CI had signed a development deal a few months earlier, so they invest a combined total of £10,000 (US$15,000) for Jones to create a detailed treatment and brochure for the series. The treatment falls short of being a script, but it outlines what the program will look like, and who the key contributors and consultants will be. ‘In this type of program, it’s crucial to have access to the top medics – people who have actually worked in the battlefield,’ says Walters. ‘John had to go out and make contact with these people, and ask them if they would like to participate in the series, which, happily, they did.

It was very fortuitous for us that he had worked in the university research hospital, but was also an experienced TV producer.’

May 2000: S4CI and John Gwyn Productions pitch War Surgeons at the inaugural Toronto Documentary Forum. The series’ budget is $940,500 (approximately $300,000 per episode). S4C and S4CI each pledges about $190,500 to the project.

The pitch is well received. Sydney Suissa of History Television in Canada (now with Barna-Alper Productions in Toronto, Canada) notes that the series delves into a little-known story.

Still, no firm commitments are forthcoming. ‘We were looking for one partner to come in with a decent chunk of the budget, otherwise the economics of the thing didn’t add up,’ recalls Walters. ‘The model that has been most successful for us in the past is getting a North American partner in for anything between one third and half of the budget. S4C and S4C International come in with 30% to 40% of the financing, and then we find a European partner.’

Walters reveals that a number of smaller broadcasters were interested in joining the project, but S4CI needed to sew up a major territory before committing to smaller contracts.

Summer 2000: After the pitch in Toronto, the program adopts a more contemporary approach. ‘John took on board a lot of the feedback,’ explains Walters. ‘We initially saw this as a traditional, historical documentary series. After, there was a harder scientific edge and a more contemporary edge to it. John has fantastic access to field operations and medics in the field today, to a much greater extent than was envisaged in the earlier treatment.’

October 2000: At MIPCOM, S4C’s commissioning editor of factual programs, Cenwyn Edwards, meets with Andy Thomson, executive VP of Toronto, Canada-based Alliance Atlantis Communications and head of the company’s non-fiction division (AAC Fact), about coproducing War Surgeons. The meeting is a result of Suissa’s early enthusiasm for the program. After the Toronto Forum, Suissa approached Thomson and told him he was interested in the series for History Television. The channel is owned by AAC, so Suissa wondered if AAC Fact was willing to coproduce the project.

February 2001: At the RealScreen Summit in Washington, D.C., Thomson and Walters shake hands on a deal to coproduce War Surgeons. The series will be made under the official coproduction agreement between Canada and the U.K., which allows History Television to claim the program as Canadian content. Says Thomson, ‘Canadian content rules require that a minimum of six out of eight of the key creative people be Canadian and 75% of the budget be spent on Canadian elements. That would have been impossible to do on this show if it wasn’t produced under the treaty, because so many Welsh and British people are involved in creative roles, and much of the money is being spent on non-Canadian elements. So, not only would we not get the tax cuts, we wouldn’t get the license fee from the Canadian broadcaster.’

March 2001: AAC Fact and S4CI start negotiating the terms of the coproduction. The Canadian funding amounts to about US$275,000, or approximately 30% of the budget. It includes a broadcast fee from History Television and an investment against U.S. rights, as well as assorted tax breaks and grants. Funding from the U.K. is comprised of a license fee and equity investment from S4C, as well as a distribution advance from S4CI.

Decisions include how the work will be allocated and how the budget will be spent by the two countries. The nationalities of the creative team also have to be identified.

The process takes about nine months, but it’s agreed early on that Great North Productions in Edmonton, Canada, will coproduce the series with John Gwyn Productions. So, while negotiations continue, Great North and John Gwyn Productions begin to mold a production team. ‘Whatever else we did in terms of the deal or the treaty, if that relationship didn’t work, the series wasn’t going to happen,’ says Walters.

April 2002: The British government exempts television programmers in the U.K. from the sales and leaseback tax relief scheme. S4CI is suddenly out about 10% of the budget. However, the setback appears temporary as transitional agreements made by the government will allow the distrib to apply anyway.

May 2002: Filming begins. Shooting takes the crew to Africa, Kosovo, the U.K. and Canada. Welsh director Amanda Rees is hired – she has worked with S4C in the past and is familiar with the versioning requirements.

October 2002: S4CI presents War Surgeons at mipcom. The program is among those selected to screen during S4C’s 20th birthday celebration at the market.


Canada/U.K. Coproduction Agreement

Canada has coproduction agreements with 61 countries around the world. The treaties help producers finance projects and also allow them to access new territories – a perk that’s increasingly important in today’s market. Telefilm Canada, a government body charged with developing and promoting the Canadian film industry, handles all applications for official coproduction status. In 2001, a total of 107 coproduction requests were filed across all film genres, representing a cumulative production budget of about CDN$7.9 million (US$5 million). Just under half of those were for projects produced with the U.K.

The official films coproduction agreement between the government of Canada and the government of the U.K. and Northern Ireland was originally signed on September 12, 1975, and was later revised and signed on July 5, 1991. The treaty was drafted with the hope that the film industry in both countries would benefit from ‘closer mutual cooperation in the production of films.’

To qualify for the benefits afforded by the agreement, a film must have one national or resident Canadian producer and one U.K. producer. Outside the making of the film in question, the coproduction partners cannot share or be controlled by the same management.

Other stipulations worth noting are:

* Applications for approval of a coproduction must be made in both countries at least six weeks before shooting is to begin

* Each coproducer must contribute at least 20% of the total budget

* The investments by the coproducers should be completed no later than the date of delivery of the film

* Both the Canadian and the U.K. coproducer must contribute to the film technically and creatively in proportion to their financial commitment. This also applies to a third party coproducer

* At least 90% of the film included in the coproduction must be shot for that project

* Music specially composed for the coproduction should be written, directed and performed by citizens or residents of the participating countries

* The finished film must include a separate credit title indicating that it is a coproduction between Canada and the U.K.

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