On the Slate

A look at what's in production around the world.
July 1, 2003


A matter of taste

Minnetonka, U.S.-based Tremendous Entertainment has two productions in the works that promise to take viewers on a visually rich journey from the decadent to the disturbing.

First up is Top Ten Amazing Baths. Exotic oils and Epsom salts are too tame to make the cut in this one-hour one-off; think instead of a tub full of expensive Merlot or a whirlpool of whipped cocoa and milk. Sound far-fetched? The former is offered at Les Sources de Caudalie in Bordeaux, France, while the latter is a feature of the Hershey Hotel Spa in Hershey, U.S.

Though each bath reeks of celebrity status self-indulgence, both spas claim the treatments provide serious health benefits: grape seeds contain up to 50 times the antioxidant value of vitamin C, while cocoa is rich in vitamins A and E. Other sophisticated soaks featured in the program are the margarita bath at the Crescent Court Hotel in Dallas, U.S., and the hot sand bath in Ibusuki, Japan.

Next from Tremendous comes Bizarre Foods. Ironically, the selections in this one-hour one-off may seem less appetizing than the above-mentioned baths. Fortunately, host and chef Andrew Zimmern is not of the squeamish variety. With a focus on unusual gastronomic offerings in Asia, he journeys to Japan, where he downs a frog’s beating heart; Thailand, where he samples bird’s nest soup (made from a real bird’s nest); and Malaysia, where he savors fermented shrimp paste and stink beans.

Each program carries a budget in the US$250,000 to $275,000 range and is destined for Discovery’s Travel Channel. Baths is scheduled for delivery in the fall and Bizarre Foods by November.


Frosty findings

When looking for clues to unravel the story of the Earth’s ancient history, one’s thoughts generally turn to archaeological digs in hot, arid environments. But closer to the North Pole, secrets locked in layers of ice offer explanations all their own. Glaciologists taking part in the North Greenland Ice Core Project (North GRIP), a deep drilling expedition, are intent on discovering what those explanations are.

Started in 1996, North GRIP has attracted scientists from Denmark, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, the U.S. and elsewhere. Though the project has no shortage of eager participants, its pace is limited by the location; work on the Arctic ice can only proceed from mid-May to mid-August. During those short summer months, however, the team takes full advantage of the 24 hours of daylight and works around the clock. The results are fascinating: at 400 meters down, a few grains of ash mark the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79; five meters further reveals the first Christmas snow that fell between 1 B.C. and A.D. 1.

Ice Memory, a 55-minute documentary from Denmark’s DR TV, follows the progress of the North GRIP expedition through to the sixth drilling season, when the scientists reach bottom. The 133,000 euros (US$153,000) film will include footage at the universities where the research is analyzed, as well as archival material to depict the historical moments referenced through the ice. It is scheduled to wrap by the end of 2003.


Cultured criminals

Whether it’s a Pissarro or a Picasso, a Matisse or a Monet, a great work of art is a much-coveted treasure, but not only by those who wish to cover their walls. Art theft is the third largest illegal activity in the world, likely because of the high success rate – only 50% of all stolen pieces are ever found and returned – and potential profits in the thousands, and even millions, of dollars.

How does a thief pull off such a high-profile heist and how does he unload the goods? These are two of many questions explored in Hot Art, a 3 x 1-hour series by Kortenhoef, Netherlands-based Palazzina Productions. Shot in England, France, Iraq and the Netherlands, the program also looks at the other side of the canvas, quizzing police and museum staff on the strategies they employ to foil these criminals. Budgeted at about £100,000 (US$165,000) per episode, Hot Art is slated for delivery to Discovery Networks Europe by October.

Also from Palazzina is a 3 x 1-hour travel project, now in development, called Small World (w/t). This series aims to look at how people around the globe are linked by the exchange of products and services. The production company is currently seeking partners for this program.

Fiddle me this

In the tiny village of Old Crow in Canada’s Yukon territory – 128 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle – the elder residents hunt caribou, bead moccasins and tend huskies, while the youth opt for microwave dinners and Internet chat rooms. But, one passion shared across the generations of the 300-member native Gwich’in community is partying to ‘old-time Athabascan fiddle music’. Inspired by both traditional Gwich’in singing and mid-19th century European folk music (introduced by traders), this distinctive style of bluegrass fiddling often keeps Old Crow jigging and waltzing all night long.

One of the village’s most popular fiddlers is Allan, who taught himself to play when he was 14. He is also the local weatherman, airport control tower operator (plane and canoe are the only possible means to access Old Crow) and local prankster. One of Allan’s goals is to introduce Gwich’in fiddling to the rest of the world by performing on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Arctic Waltz (w/t) is the story of the music and culture of Old Crow, as seen through Allan’s eyes. New York-based Big Mouth Productions is producing this feature-length doc, which carries a budget of US$365,000. The majority of funding has been secured from the San Jose/Westwood, U.S.-based Lucius & Eva Eastman Fund, the Bayport, U.S.-based Unity Avenue Foundation and several private donors; the prodco is looking for about $120,000. Arctic Waltz is slated to wrap in spring 2004.


First comes love…

What does it take to pull off a wedding these days? For many anxious couples the answer is a wedding planner. Equal parts therapist, financial advisor and party coordinator, these masterminds of marital minutiae agree to help the betrothed achieve their vision of the perfect day – no easy task, given such challenges as controlling ballooning budgets and navigating meddlesome families.

To better understand the behind-the-scenes world of wedding planners, Montreal-based prodco Cineflix is making Get Me to the Wedding, an 8 x 30-minute series. Shot cinema verité style, the program will focus on a different planner per episode, taking a close-up look at each one’s individual style and strategies. One episode follows New York-based planner Leslie Gesser as she works to create a spooky wedding theme, inspired by the couple’s favorite movie director, Tim Burton. Another episode centers on Toronto-based duo Jennifer Pettigrew and Laura Nook, who are given the task of arranging a lavish Hindu ceremony and reception for 500 guests.

The series budget is CDN$1.2 million (US$865,000). Canada’s W Network is already on board, along with Discovery Health in the U.S. Get Me to the Wedding will be ready to air by January 2004.


Pity the children

U.S. prodco RCN Entertainment has teamed with the United Nations to produce What’s Going On?, a 10 x 26-minute series on a sadly underreported topic – the effects of global crises such as war, HIV/AIDS and famine on children.

Each episode is led by a celebrity host – Michael Douglas, Angelina Jolie, Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon are among those on board – who goes into the field with producers to get the story. For example, Douglas travels to Sierra Leone for the segment on recently freed child soldiers. The focus is the relationship he develops with one child, Abu. Like many kids who were abducted

by rebel troops and forced to kill, Abu is emotionally devastated. He has spent so much time away from his family and a normal life that he no longer knows where to go or what to do. Douglas stays with Abu as he gradually unlocks memories of his past and reunites with his family.

U.S broadcaster Showtime began airing the series in January (as episodes were completed) and will continue doing so into early 2004. Paris-based distrib Marathon International will have the complete series by the end of this year. The budget for What’s Going On? is about US$200,000 per episode.


My home is your home

No matter where in the world one lives, the travel destinations closest to home are often the last to be explored. However, that isn’t to say that people aren’t curious about their respective native lands. Following through on that thought, Vienna-based format developer and distrib OHM: TV has come up with Let Me Stay For A Day, a formatted series that promises to combine travel, adventure and competition.

The basic idea is derived from an existing, and successful, Internet format of the same name. In the Internet version, 25-year-old journalism student Ramon moves daily to a new location, always relying on the generosity of a complete stranger to house and feed him. What he offers in return is coverage of his hosts and their environs on his website. The trade-off works – Ramon has so far traveled through 13 countries over eight months, receiving more than 2,700 invites from 67 countries.

In the TV version, the broadcasting channel asks for applications for both travelers and hosts within the same country. Viewers get to vote for the traveler of their choice on the opening show; the hosts can either be selected by viewers each week, or the channel can have the production team decide. From there, each episode consists of highlights from the traveler’s experiences over the course of a week, comprised of footage shot by a small crew and the traveler. Daily updates will also be available on a companion website.

Let Me Stay For A Day has so far been optioned by Madrid-based prodco BocaBoca, though a broadcaster has not yet signed on. The estimated production budget is US$10,000 to $40,000 per episode, plus $100,000 for the opening show and casting. OHM estimates two months is needed to set up the program for a committed channel.


Old stories, new horrors

Every war eventually yields its share of dirty secrets, though some take longer to surface than others. In Kízu: the Wound, Paris-based Marathon Productions explores one tale from World War II that had been left untold.

In 1932, the Japanese army occupied Manchuria and set up a top-secret operation – Unit 731 – in the Chinese region. Headed by Dr. Shiro Ishii, a doctor and army officer fascinated by germ warfare, the unit’s mission was to test the spread of contagions such as bubonic plague and cholera on unwitting victims – primarily Chinese, Korean and Russian prisoners of war, and Chinese civilians – with the ultimate goal of mass producing biological weapons. The experiments continued until the end of the war, at which point the U.S. military discovered the project. As Cold War paranoia set in, however, American authorities decided it would be prudent to keep the discovery quiet in exchange for details of the experiments and the results.

Only recently have those who know the secret of Unit 731 decided to open up. Kízu includes interviews of their confessions, as well as footage of the biological weapons being dug up in China. France 2 has signed on as a partner for the doc, which carries a budget of about 300,000 euros (US$335,000). It is slated to wrap by January 2004.

Marathon is also working on Destination: World, a 52 x 52-minute travel series set to deliver by the end of the year. It has a total budget of 1.6 million euros ($1.8 million). French channels Voyage and TMC are on board.


The Life and Times of Latino Americans

Within the multicultural melting pot of the United States, Latino Americans have a long history and, consequently, many stories to tell. Since 1998, Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB) – a Los Angeles-based organization that develops, produces, acquires and distributes non-commercial, educational and cultural TV for and about Latino Americans – has been helping to bring some of these stories to light through film.

Among the LPB-supported docs now in production is The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo. The flamboyant Mexican painter is arguably one of the most intriguing artists of the 20th century, in some ways as much for her life as her art. At 18, Kahlo was in a bus accident that left her with life-long debilitating pain. Four years later, she embarked on a tumultuous marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. In the U.S., her social circle at one time included Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Ford. Later, in Mexico, she opened her home to an exiled Leon Trotsky, with whom she had an affair. Throughout, she continued to paint, becoming the first modern Mexican artist to hang her work in the Louvre.

Frida Kahlo tells the artist’s story, but also that of the era and country in which she lived. New York-based Daylight Films is producing the 90-minute doc for about US$1 million, with support from Washington, D.C.’s public channel, WETA. The film will air nationally on PBS in 2004.

Also scheduled to wrap next year (in August) is The Last Conquistador, a one-hour one-off about the construction of a controversial statue in El Paso, U.S., of Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate. As the first governor of New Mexico and Santa Fe’s founder, Oñate is considered by many Americans as worthy of a five-story-high bronze monument. But to Native and Mexican Americans, he was a despot who ruined the lives of indigenous people in the 1600s. The doc tracks the statue’s progress and the protests it gave rise to, intercut with Oñate’s biography. Cristina Ibarra and John Valadez are making Conquistador for $375,000. LPB and PBS are the confirmed funders.

Finally, one project wrapping at the end of this year is Bragging Rights, a one-hour film about the U.S. game of stickball. The popular street sport is akin to America’s national pastime, except that a broom handle subs in for a bat, the ball is rubber, and manhole covers, cars and walls serve as foul lines and bases. In Bragging Rights, producer Sonia Gonzalez (of New York-based Chica Luna Productions) focuses on a New York City league and its struggle to keep going after one of its leaders is killed on September 11, 2001. Budgeted at $186,000, the film is backed in part by LPB. PBS will air it, though no date has been set.

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