MIPCOM Diary 1: Dr. Strange Love

Project: Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation
October 1, 2004

Project: Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation

Description: A 3 x 1-hour series adapted from biologist Olivia Judson’s best-selling book of the same name. Part science, part natural history, part musical, the series presents the evolutionary biology of sex through the advice dispensed by Dr. Tatiana, whose patients are worried about the peculiar things their lovers do.

Exec producer: Andrew Burstein, Exploration Production Inc. (Canada)

Producer: Steven Green, Wag TV (U.K.)

Director: Martin Durkin, Wag TV

Copro partners: Wag TV; EPI; Discovery Canada; Channel 4 (U.K.)

Distributor/co-financier: Channel 4 International (U.K.)

Pre-sale: Discovery Health (U.S.)

Budget: £900,000 (US$1.6 million)

Before a male mite has even left his mother’s womb, he squirms around and shags all of his sisters. One distinctly non-maternal beetle likes to have sex with her son, and then eat him. Shocking, yes. But in the boudoirs of creatures large and small, incest is hardly the strangest sexual act. Meet the slug that switches sexes by eating its own penis. Observe the male stick insect that makes a bid for monogamy by having sex with its female mate for two weeks straight. How curious the chain of evolutionary events that would lead a spider to develop two penises, one of which he eats before being eaten by his lover. How confused that male spider must be when his girlfriend first begins to consume him.

This seemingly unexplainable behavior forms the premise of biologist Olivia Judson’s book, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, which sees Judson assume the persona of Dr. Tatiana, a witty sex advice columnist. Her loyal readers span the spectrum of species – from manatees and honeybees to hyenas and spoon worms – all of whom are struggling to understand the strange sexual practices of their mates. Why, wonders a female honeybee, must her partner’s penis detach and then explode?

Two years ago, Judson’s clever approach to explaining the natural history of sex caught the eye of Jill Offman, Discovery Canada’s VP of programming, who immediately secured the rights to Judson’s book and began the process of turning it into a 3 x 1-hour series.

August 2002: Offman reads a review of Judson’s book in Nature magazine. Offman is perpetually on the prowl for innovative yet accessible approaches to hard science, and is immediately taken with the book’s witty approach to the evolutionary biology of sex. Offman discovers that the television rights to the book are still available and haggles nine copies of the hardcover.

October 2002: Offman’s staff agrees that Dr. Tatiana‘s titillating tidbits about one moth’s musical genitals and the green spoon worm’s issues with size would make great television, so Offman flies to New York to meet Judson at her agent’s office. She is immediately impressed not only with the author’s enthusiasm and knowledge, but her charisma and suitability for TV.

Although Judson has other suitors, she decides to sell the TV and theatrical rights to Discovery Canada – or more accurately, to Exploration Production Inc. EPI is owned by Discovery, but operates as an indie. Offman approaches them about producing the program, they leap at the opportunity, and the rights are optioned through EPI.

November 2002: Offman begins to pursue Simon Andreae, Channel 4′s head of science, about joining the project as a copro partner. ‘We knew this was going to be too financially onerous for Discovery Canada to carry on its own,’ says Offman, ‘but we knew it would be a property other people would like.’

Despite the project’s perceived appeal, Offman only has eyes for Andreae. ‘We needed to push this as far as it could go, so we needed someone who wasn’t going to be safe,’ she says.

Winter 2002/2003: Offman relentlessly woos Andreae, who peppers her with questions: How do we do it? Will it be good? Who are you?

April/May 2003:Andreae finally falls for Dr. Tatiana. OFCOM hasn’t yet changed the rules of play in the U.K., so with C4 comes Channel 4 International as distributor. Andreae also has a director in mind and insists Offman at least consider his choice – Martin Durkin of London-based indie Wag TV. Says Offman, ‘It was a big decision; this is the highest-profile property we had gotten hold of.’ Fortuitously, she agrees Durkin’s wacky sensibility perfectly suits the project.

July 2003: Having agreed to join the project, Wag TV’s Durkin and producer Steven Green shoot a demo tape that conceptualizes their vision. The teaser helps secure financing from Discovery Health in the U.S. ‘When we realized the ambition of the project, we knew our license fees weren’t going to cover it, and we needed another partner,’ says Offman.

Since Andreae had already worked successfully with Toni Egger, VP of program development for Discovery Health, he approaches her with the project. Discovery Health comes aboard through C4I via a distribution pre-purchase.

August 2003: All of the partners, their business affairs folks in tow, meet at C4 to begin establishing the structure of the copro, a timeline for the contracts, the budget, and who will contribute what percentage. ‘It was like a meeting of an Italian mafia clan that has come together to talk about their territories,’ says Green.

Although EPI is a vet of international copros, this is Wag’s first of this scale, and the rules and regulations seem daunting. ‘Spying the confusion in our eyes, the business affairs people offered us a look of sympathy,’ says Green. ‘Then they lied to us, saying that coproductions aren’t difficult and the rules aren’t too restrictive.’

Fall 2003: Durkin hits on the idea of turning the series into a musical. ‘They were interested in us doing the project, because we’ve done silly things in the past,’ says Durkin. ‘We wanted to keep up the reputation of silliness.’

The idea also solves a financial hurdle. Licensing commercial music for the 3 x 1-hour series is beyond the budget [which is set for £900,000 (US$1.6 million)], especially since the rights need to be cleared worldwide for all media for 10 years in order for international sales to be viable. ‘It was about £2,500 ($5,000) for 30 seconds,’ says Green. Which meant the soundtrack would have to be commissioned. ‘But most people who do telly music are just dreadful,’ says Durkin. ‘I thought, ‘If we’re using composers and we have lots of people dressing up and dancing, why not turn it into a musical?”

Still, Durkin is surprised when the broadcasters approve the approach. ‘I think they all wanted to go to the bar, so they were going to say anything to get there,’ he muses. ‘That’s the trick to handling commissioning editors – have a cocktail just out of reach.’

It’s decided there will be five musical numbers per episode. Durkin writes most of the lyrics, with Green and Wag staffers also contributing. C4′s Andreae pens ‘The Hermaphrodite Song.’ Others include ‘Pocket Rocket,’ about penises.

Natasha Lawes is brought on to design costumes and make-up for 40 species. Choreographer Fleur Darkin is also hired and immediately put to work. Green estimates they spend about five percent of what they would have on commercial music.

December 2003: Wag and EPI scramble to hammer out their contract, a period Green describes as the most difficult. This will be an international treaty copro, so their applications to Telefilm Canada and the U.K.’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport must be submitted before Christmas, as the agencies’ advanced rulings are needed before the first shoot, which is scheduled for early February. Recognition as a treaty copro means the series will count as Canadian content for Discovery Canada, which justifies a larger license fee. Also, EPI can apply for a federal tax credit of eight to 12% of the Canadian spend.

Under the treaty, Telefilm demands that 20% of the budget be spent in Canada and DCMS requires a 40% spend in the U.K. EPI and Wag decide to shoulder 30% and 70% of the budget respectively. Usually this means EPI handles post-production, but Durkin will be cutting all three episodes. With four kids at home, a prolonged stint in Toronto isn’t feasible. Instead, epi agrees to supply a Canadian cameraman, a sound recordist, a production designer and an editor. The rest of their budget will be spent on the full post-edit and numerous expenses, including flights and hotels. This split creates an accounting nightmare (‘When you go out for dinner, who pays?’ says Green), but ultimately works for the project.

The applications are submitted on Christmas Eve and everyone does their holiday shopping at the last minute.

January 2004: DCMS gives their advanced approval, but as late as September, 2004 Telefilm hasn’t given theirs. ‘Telefilm is much more onerous in their review at the advanced ruling stage – it wants to see all of the agreement,’ says Debrah James, EPI’s business affairs manager. Because of her experience with treaty copros, James is coordinating the contracts for the entire project.

James is confident of approval, however, and production moves forward. Still, it’s a risky move. ‘You’re under contractual obligation to provide Canadian content certification at the end of production. If you don’t, the [Canadian] licensor can demand their license fee back,’ she explains. ‘International treaty coproductions are very tricky because you’re not 100% in control of ensuring you get Canadian content certification, so you put a lot of trust in your partner that they uphold their end of the bargain.’

Meanwhile, the broadcasters are still fine tuning drafts of their contracts. Since nothing is signed, they are prevented from releasing money. But, in an effort to balance the needs of business affairs with the commissioning process, Wag wins some cash advances and production proceeds.

February 2004: Filming is scheduled to start in Toronto, but bad weather forces the crew to head straight to the U.S., which means extra flights. For two weeks, the production films up the West Coast, stopping at ucla and various research centers. ‘We made sure not to employ any Americans so that we didn’t have any third-country spend that people might frown at later on,’ notes Green.

March 2004: For the studio shoot, Wag pays about £2,000 ($3,600) for a large space at 3 Mills Studio in London. To save money, they’ve taken a studio BMW was using to park cars. ‘There was no heating, the roof wasn’t entirely on and it was the middle of winter,’ says Durkin. ‘It was utterly freezing.’ Adds Green, ‘The roof wasn’t sound, we had to repaint, and we added a floor in the green room. But, it was about £10,000 ($18,000) less then renting a proper studio.’

There are about 40 people on set, including a 30-person studio audience for one of the scenes, all of whom are costumed as creatures. Since the series’ budget couldn’t accommodate rehearsal time, the dancers are being shown their steps and the actors fed their lines minutes before they’re filmed.

As well, the costumes end up being quite skimpy. ‘Most weren’t costumes, they were strips of material,’ says Durkin. ‘The actors are coming [into the studio] and we’re saying, ‘Right, get your top off and strap this penis to your forehead.’ Luckily, most of the dancers didn’t care.’

But some did. ‘One actress dressed up as a female spider refused to have her screen mate bash her around the head with a huge prosthetic penis,’ remembers Green. ‘She was also unhappy about being topless and painted black. So, we replaced her with someone more willing.’

This goes on for about two weeks.

April/May 2004: Weather in Toronto improves, and the team heads back across the pond for a three-week shoot. Locations include the Toronto Zoo and the University of Toronto.

Once editing begins, Durkin realizes a few things still need to be shot. A two-day pick-up shoot is scheduled for May.

June/July 2004: All of the various contracts are signed. In the end, there’s an international treaty coproduction agreement, a distribution agreement that includes C4I and Discovery U.S., an assignment agreement that sees EPI share the copyright for the book option with Wag, a Discovery Canada license agreement, and a C4 license agreement.

‘The problem was, there is various regulatory language that Telefilm and DCMS want to see in these agreements to make sure they’re in compliance with the treaty. That isn’t something you normally have to do for a regular coproduction,’ says EPI’s James. ‘It was an exercise in international diplomacy at best.’

July/August 2004: Rough cuts are sent to the broadcasters. Also, James notices that the Canadian expenses are falling dangerously close to the minimum 20% spend required by Telefilm. ‘We were at about 22%, but I like at least a 5% pad,’ she explains. U.K. copro regs restrict archive material to 10% of a program’s running time, but since archive had always been in the budget, the prodcos decide EPI should assume this cost – about CDN$20,000 ($15,000) – to increase their spend. A flurry of cross-Atlantic communication begins about exactly which archive images Durkin wants for the piece.

October 2004: Dr. Tatiana heads to MIPCOM. In the end, there will be versions for C4, Discovery Canada and C4I, the latter two with certain Britishisms removed. ‘You’d be surprised how particular the British sexual vocabulary is,’ says Offman. She plans to air the series in a primetime slot in spring 2005. And, she says, there are plans to reunite the partners – Judson included – for another program, though it might not center around Dr. Tatiana.

James predicts she will submit the final audited cost report to Telefilm in early 2005, with a final ruling expected two to six months later. But nobody is holding their breath.

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.