On the Slate

Global Production
September 1, 2003


Braving Baghdad

The introduction of embedded journalists during the recent war in Iraq allowed up-close-and-personal images of war to fill TV screens around the world. Yet, those images often lacked context or explanation, and proved more confusing than moving. Long-form treatments of events are, therefore, eagerly anticipated. And, viewers won’t have to wait much longer.

Darlinghurst, Australia-based Ipso-facto Productions is preparing the final shoot for In the Shadows of the Palms, which will show the reality of life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime, during the Coalition War and after, when U.S. troops controlled the country. Producer Wayne Coles-Janess traveled to Iraq as an independent doc-maker in early 2003 and continued to film Iraqi society while the bombs dropped. The final shoot will catch up with the film’s characters nine months later.

Backed by Australian pubcaster ABC, Ipso-facto plans to produce both a one-hour and a feature-length version of the doc, which is set to deliver in January 2004. The budget is approximately US$350,000. KB


The Odyssey continues

Earlier this year, French broadcaster France 3 achieved unprecedented success with the documentary A Species Odyssey. Now, a follow-up program is in the works: Sapiens Odyssey.

This 90-minute special begins 250,000 years ago, with the first appearance of modern-day humans’ direct ancestors. Homo sapiens gradually replaced all other homonids and spread out across the globe, where they began to develop concepts of art, property, family, work and agriculture. Later, to separate themselves further from wild creatures, humans discovered (or created) gods and religion. To address these developments, the program will follow several parallel threads: evolution of the planet, evolution of the human body, great inventions, great migrations, and Homo sapiens’ behavioral evolution.

France 3 has enlisted Paris-based Boréales and Montreal-based Pixcom as copro partners for the doc. Budgeted at about †3.6 million (US$4.1 million), the film is slated for delivery in December 2004. A 2 x 52-minute version will be made available, as will a ‘making of’ program. SZ

MER months away

Maybe it’s the boldness of its glowing red surface. Or maybe it’s the countless tales of Martians in science fiction books and films. Whatever the reason, Mars has fascinated Earth’s human population far more than any other planet in the solar system. Millions of Internet surfers were glued to their screens to see images of Mars beamed back by the Sojourner robot on the Pathfinder mission in 1997. Next year, they may have the chance to learn even more.

In June 2003, the first of two Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) was launched into space, followed by the second in July. If all goes well, they’ll land on the red planet in January and send back more detailed and sophisticated information than even the Sojourner provided.

To commemorate the event, Boston-based pubcaster WGBH and MDTV Productions in Newburyport, U.S., are making Mars: Mission Critical, which will air on PBS’s ‘Nova’ on January 4. The 90-minute doc will show the high-pressure environment at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, U.S., during the building of the mer spacecraft and robots. The film will also address the question of whether life could or ever has existed on Mars.

Budgeted at about US$600,000, Mars: Mission Critical is being distributed by the pubcaster’s sales arm, WGBH International. SZ


Ready, set, holiday!

When the drudgery of the daily grind becomes too much for the work-weary masses, the oft-prescribed treatment is a holiday. Whether one’s passion is sunning on the beach or trekking through the Amazon, these short breaks from routine somehow make it bearable to continue on with the humdrum business of everyday life.

Now, imagine giving up half of that precious vacation time to take part in a getaway planned by your holidaying opposite – and sharing it with them. That’s the concept behind Holiday Showdown, an 8 x 60-minute format.

Each episode follows two families with vastly differing vacation tastes – picture culture seekers paired with couch potatoes – who agree to spend two weeks together, one week each at the destination of the other’s choosing. At the end of the two weeks, the families sit down together for a ‘last supper’ face-off to really say what they thought of one another – if they haven’t already.

Produced by London-based RDF Media (the company behind format hits Wife Swap and Faking It), Holiday Showdown is slated to air this fall on commercial broadcaster ITV1 in the U.K. The approximate production budget for the series is £1.5 million (US$2.4 million). RDF International is handling worldwide distribution (excluding the U.K.) for both the format and the original program. SZ


Babes in no-man’s-land

One doesn’t generally associate women soldiers with America’s Civil War. But, hundreds of women took up arms from 1861 to 1865 and hid their sexual identity to stay close to loved ones, or to escape the strictures of Victorian-era society. In Brave Impostors: Women Soldiers of the Civil War – a US$137,000 one-hour one-off from Los Angeles-based Global Science Productions – their secretive, perilous adventures are brought to life by a series of authors, forensic anthropologists and historians.

Transformations of a different sort are at the heart of Jackie Cochran: First Lady of Flight, another 60-minute special from Global Science. This doc tells the tale of how an impoverished orphan girl from Florida became a Type A personality to end all Type A’s. It wasn’t enough that Cochran launched a successful cosmetics company, married a millionaire, founded the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots group and helped convince General Dwight Eisenhower to run for U.S. president. She also became the first female pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound, in 1953. Suzy Amis has signed on to coproduce and host Jackie Cochran, which carries a budget of US$69,000.

Shot on DigiBeta, both projects are slated to wrap by the end of the year. McLean, U.S.-based Adler Media is distributing the films. Janet Stilson


In the criminal justice system…

The classic film 12 Angry Men is a courtroom drama with a twist – it sets aside the courtroom and focuses entirely on the jury. Henry Fonda’s character, juror number eight, stands firm against his fellow jurors, who are poised to send the defendant to the gallows without a moment’s deliberation. Number Eight, unwilling to decide the fate of a potentially innocent man in five minutes, forces each juror to examine his individual prejudices. The film brings to light how easily a jury can be influenced by factors completely unrelated to the case (e.g., one of the jurors has tickets to a baseball game and is in a rush to leave).

Without Prejudice, a 52-minute one-off from Sydney, Australia-based 220 Productions, considers this and puts the entire jury system on trial. It follows the deliberations of two separate juries on the same fictional case – an assisted suicide – to show how difficult the jury’s task is.

Set to wrap in March 2004, Without Prejudice has been pre-sold to Aussie broadcaster SBS Independent. The film’s budget is about AUS$300,000 (US$197,000). DW

The most dangerous job in the world

In the developed world, people’s job complaints are often trivial – annoying coworkers, bad coffee, not enough holidays. Trivial, indeed, when one considers the plight of 40,000 workers who labor in the scrap yards of Alang, India, ‘where ocean-going ships come to die.’ Their job is to take apart 30,000-tonne vessels using little more than blowtorches and their own two hands.

Shipbreakers follows the day-to-day lives of some of these men for two months. They have come from all over India for this dangerous job, where the risks seem endless – with no protection, they handle heavy, sharp and toxic pieces of metal and flammable gas. According to Greenpeace, one in four of the survivors will die of cancer from exposure to asbestos and PCPs – all this in exchange for a meager wage.

Toronto’s Storyline Entertainment and Canada’s National Film Board are coproducing this one-hour CDN$735,000 (US$527,000) doc, with the support of National Geographic Channel (Canada), Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic International, Toronto-based pubcaster CBC (where it will air on ‘The Nature of Things’) and the Knowledge Network in Burnaby, Canada. Delivery is scheduled for January 2004. DW

Have you seen this child?

The sad truth about missing children is that many of them have been spirited away by one of their own parents. Australia has one of the highest rates of parental child abductions in the world, and recent studies have shown that such kidnappings have tripled in the past decade.

In Tug of Love, Perth, Australia-based Electric Pictures follows the ‘left-behind’ parents of abducted children as they attempt to secure help in finding their kids. The film uses dramatic re-creation to depict the circumstances of each abduction, and shows the lengths to which parents sometimes go to get their children back. It also touches on the controversial claim that many of these kidnappings occur as a result of failed intercultural marriages.

The 52-minute doc has been pre-sold to Aussie broadcaster SBS . Budgeted at about AUS$313,000 (US$206,000), Tug is scheduled for delivery in June 2004. DW


Lordy, lordy

Conrad Black spent years building a publishing empire that includes The Jerusalem Post and the U.K.’s The Daily Telegraph. This endeavor culminated in the 1999 launch

of the National Post in his native Canada, a rival to the country’s only national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. But, it seems what he really wanted was to be a peer in the U.K.’s House of Lords.

Black’s publicized quest for a title was blocked by no less a figure than Canada’s prime minister, Jean Chrétien. As a result, Black renounced his Canadian citizenship and gave up his beloved Post to become Lord Black (Conrad Moffat) of Crossharbour. At age 48, Lord Black felt his life story was interesting enough to warrant an autobiography. Now, he is the subject of a 75-minute doc: Citizen Black (w/t).

Toronto-based Persistence of Vision Productions followed his lordship into board meetings, parties and residences over three years, capturing run-ins with labor unions, shareholders and politicians to reveal the man behind the headlines.

Broadcasters on board include the bbc, Toronto-based TVOntario and SBS in Australia. The film budget is about CDN$325,000 (US$235,000). Citizen Black is slated for delivery in May 2004. DW


Getting wild in Cuba

Fiery-plumed hummingbirds, poisonous nocturnal predators and pea-sized frogs are among the bizarre wildlife and undersea creatures explored in Cuba: Wild Island, a 60-minute special coproduced by Washington, D.C.-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises (DDE), Austrian pubcaster ORF and Thirteen/WNET New York, in association with the BBC in the U.K.

The film examines some familiar life-forms, such as alligators, but also includes fascinating footage of lesser-known creatures, such as a spider that weaves a web large enough to capture small birds. Wild Island will also highlight the work of Cuban scientists and explorers. Currently in pre-production, the US$500,000 doc is slated for delivery in fall 2004.

dde recently completed production of The Zambezi Troop, a 60-minute special that follows a troop of baboons along the Zambezi River in northern Zimbabwe. Budgeted at approximately $500,000, this project is a coproduction with Cape Town, South Africa-based Africa Wildlife Films. No broadcasters were on board at press time. Simon Bacal

Animal ingenuity

In 2001, Saint Thomas Productions of Marseille, France, came out with the controversially themed one-hour special Animal Homosexuality. Inspired by the program’s success, Saint Thomas is now producing five new shows about animal behavior that – together with Animal Homosexuality – will form a 6 x 1-hour series, called Animals Like Us.

Of the new episodes, ‘Animal Politics’ considers the theory that several sociable species (from rats to chimps) have some level of political structure, and that the more psychologically evolved the species, the closer its social organization is to that of human society. ‘Animal Medicine’ hypothesizes that when some wild creatures deviate from their regular diet, they are conscious of the benefits the change can provide. ‘Animal Adoption’ questions why the care of another’s offspring – a flaw in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – persists as a common behavior among wildlife. ‘Animal Language’ looks at the methods of communication used by various species. And, ‘Animal Tool Use’ challenges conventional thinking about an animal’s ability to learn to use tools and pass along that knowledge.

Animals Like Us is budgeted at US$550,000 per episode and is slated for delivery in January 2005. Partners on board are Nat Geo Channels International, broadcasters France 3 and France 5, and London-based distrib Explore International. SZ

…and then there were none

Call it the yin and yang of the wild kingdom: for every vicious predator born, an equally ferocious challenger (often more than one) exists to keep it in check. In The Viper and the Cat: Enemies for Life, Israeli prodco Afikim Productions takes a close-up look at this balance of nature, following two instinctive enemies from their birth on the same day through to their final confrontation two years later.

The story begins on Israel’s Mount Tabor, when nine asp eggs hatch and a baby jungle cat is born. The snakes confront the world around them with the advantage of fully developed poison glands, but at only a few inches long, they remain vulnerable. The kitten must rely on the protection of both her mother and father until she is big enough to fend for herself.

Two years later, the asps are faring less well than their feline adversary. One is washed out of its hibernation den during a torrential storm and is carried away downstream. Another falls prey to a mongoose. A third meets its end after venturing onto the turf of a vigilant farmer. By the time the last surviving snake of the original nine meets the cat that shared its birthday, it is outnumbered – the cat is the mother of three. The ensuing battle ultimately brings losses on both sides: the asp dies, as does one of the kittens.

The Viper and the Cat, a 180,000 euro (US$203,000) one-hour one-off, is a copro with Dutch broadcaster E.O. Netherlands. It is scheduled to wrap by April 2004. SZ

Save the apes

Three years ago, several of the world’s great ape experts – including Dr. Jane Goodall – gathered in London to discuss the likely fate of the gorilla, bonobo, chimpanzee and orangutan. Their prediction was grim: all four species would be extinct in the wild within 20 years, given the current rate of decline. Some conservationists despaired at the news, but others refused to give up and decided to work harder than ever to reverse the trend, Goodall among them.

In State of the Great Ape, London-based Tigress Productions tracks the efforts being made to better understand and protect these primates. The journey extends from Indonesia, where researchers train orphaned orangutans and return them to their natural habitat, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where even civil war has not stopped attempts to save the bonobos. Also included is Goodall’s assessment of the similarities between humans and chimps, based on dna testing she and her favorite chimp, Gremlin, underwent.

State of the Great Ape is a 120-minute special for cablecasters Animal Planet U.S. and AP International. Set to air next year, the doc has a budget of about £400,000 (US$640,000).

Also for Animal Planet, Tigress is in production on Return to Gombe (w/t), a one-hour one-off that follows Goodall’s week-long visit to Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where she has studied chimps for 43 years. This doc will air in March 2004. SZ

Fly like an eagle

At 8,864 meters, the peak of Mount Everest sits at approximately the same altitude as a cruising passenger jet. Few birds fly that high, and no human hang glider has ever risen to that level. But, Italian adventurer Angelo d’Arrigo is betting he can be the first. While he’s at it, d’Arrigo plans to reintroduce a bird of prey to its natural habitat.

In Over Everest, Rome-based prodco SD Cinematografica will follow d’Arrigo’s bid this month to set a hang-gliding altitude record and lead two steppe eagles to their new home (d’Arrigo calculates he can ride a draft of sun-heated air up the mountain’s north face and over the summit). The 300,000 euro (US$338,000) film, which is due to wrap in December, includes his preparations for the dangerous stunt at his training facility on Sicily’s Mount Etna, and the adventurer’s rearing and ‘imprinting’ of the two birds to fly along with him.

The finished doc will be available in two lengths: a 52-minute one-off and a 2 x 45-minute series for the German market. The one-off is in Italian; an international version will be available in English. At press time, the prodco maintained international distribution rights to the film. Broadcasters ARD/BR in Germany and German/French channel arte are onboard. MS

Fear of the known

In most regions of the natural world, an attack by a wild animal is an extremely rare occurrence; a shark killing or bear mauling is a fluke of bad luck that carries the same statistical probability as being struck by lightning. In the Sunderbans region of northeast India, however, villagers can’t sooth their fears by pondering when lightning may strike; they live daily with the knowledge that the mangrove forests of the Ganges River delta is home to tigers that kill approximately 80 people a year.

Man-eaters: Tigers of the Sunderbans (w/t), a copro of Toronto’s Exploration Production (a unit of Discovery Channel Canada) and Paris’s Tele Images Nature, details what it is like to live with such an ominous threat. It documents how local villagers such as Niranjan Raptan make offerings of rice and flowers to the forest goddess Banobibi in the hope that they will return unharmed from collecting honey or tending their riverside fishing nets. Raptan knows the grizzly details: the tigers like fleshy human thighs. Perhaps even more unsettling is tiger researcher David Smith’s claim in the documentary that mother tigers in the Sunderbans clearly teach their cubs to hunt humans.

The 52-minute one-off’s budget is CDN$400,000 (US$289,000); it will be completed in December. French broadcaster France 5 is also onboard. CTV Worldwide Sales and Tele Images International are distributing. MS

Nature’s creeps

Dunedin, New Zealand-based prodco NHNZ is busy as ever, and has three projects that will be completed over the next nine months. First up is Mutants (w/t), a 50-minute coproduction with National Geographic Channel U.S. that examines the causes and implications of drastic genetic change. Set for delivery in December, the program illustrates that what appear as bizarre accidents of nature in fact are examples of evolution at work. Mutants, budgeted at about US$220,000, profiles several strange-looking creatures, including an albino, two-headed rat snake discovered in the U.S. and man-made anomalies, such as Mexican hairless dogs.

Next, The World’s Biggest Baddest Bugs (w/t) follows Dutch-born entomologist Ruud Kleinpaste as he searches the planet for the most exemplary insects. Not surprisingly, the majority of Kleinpaste’s subjects are found in the tropics: Central and South America, for example, are home to the giant centipede, the goliath bird-eating spider and the army ant, just to name three outstanding creepers. Set for delivery in February, the 2 x 50-minute production

is budgeted in the $500,000 range, and is coproduced by Animal Planet and Discovery HD Theater.

Finally, the 50-minute one-off Spider Attack (w/t) shows how our arachnid neighbors are among the most sophisticated killers ever created, equipped with weapons that, for their prey, are nearly unbeatable. Coproduced with Nat Geo U.S. and Nat Geo International, Spider carries a budget of about $380,000 and will be delivered in May. MS

Primordial prequel

It’s hard to imagine that every living organism ever to inhabit Earth sprang from a random molecular event that occurred billions of years ago. Yet, from that tiny encounter came life in all its guises. Not that the process was easy. To travel back in time is to witness a turbulent cycle of creation and destruction more fantastical than anything Hollywood has produced. And through it all, life has persevered.

The BBC’s natural history unit is in production on a couple of programs that are almost as ambitious. Journey of Life, produced in partnership with Discovery, is a 5 x 1-hour series that looks at that first molecular happenstance and its domino effect. Carrying a budget of US$1 million per episode, the series will reveal the crucial moments and key breakthroughs in life’s journey to dominate Earth.

Meanwhile, Time Machine, a 3 x 1-hour series, uses CGI and other special effects to show how the forces of Earth, life and man have shaped the world – from past to present. Also produced with Discovery, the program carries a budget of $800,000 per episode.

Not to be outdone, the epic 6 x 60-minute Planet Earth rings in at $1.5 million per episode and ‘celebrates the Earth as never before.’

All three docs are scheduled to air on BBC1 throughout 2004 and 2005. BBC Worldwide will distribute. KB

Surf’s up

Laguna Beach, U.S.-based MacGillivray Freeman Films is in development on Ocean Planet, a 40-minute large format film that will examine the most important resource to both the planet and man: water. Budgeted for approximately US$5 million, the documentary will look at the power and vitality of this essential liquid, while also addressing its vulnerability to human population growth. Production is set to start at the end of 2003.

Ocean Planet follows a trio of films from the giant screen prodco that focus on Earth’s salty pools: 1995′s The Living Sea; 2000′s Dolphins; and, most recently, Coral Reef Adventure (2003). The latter has helped raised over $338,000 for coral reef conservation efforts, and is still playing in IMAX theaters worldwide. Ocean Planet is scheduled to wrap in December 2004.

MFF explores more solid terrain in a slate of films currently in production. Greece: Secrets of the Past takes viewers on an archaeological and cultural journey back to one of the birthplaces of civilization. Carrying a budget of $8 million, the 40-minute film is being made in association with the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, with funding from the National Science Foundation in Arlington, U.S. Production is set to wrap in June 2004.

Mystery of the Nile travels along the world’s longest river to reveal its environmental and cultural heritage. Footage was shot in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and shows the extreme landscapes of the region. Budgeted for about $5 million and coproduced with Barcelona-based Orbita Max, the 45-minute film will wrap in May 2004.

Finally, The Heart of India, a coproduction with Los Angeles-based TriColor Films, delves into India’s rich cultural history. Also 40 minutes, the film is budgeted for about $5 million and will wrap in February 2004. MFF will distribute all of the titles. KB

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.