Not since Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film have birds made such a mark on the cinematic landscape. And the incredible box office success of natural history films March of the Penguins (US$72.5 million internationally) and Winged Migration ($32.2 million) – the second- and fourth-highest grossing feature docs released in the U.S. since 1982, beating out such titles as Hoop Dreams, Spellbound and Super Size Me – was just as unexpected an avian revolution as the one Tippi Hedren faced.
But does their high flight presage an audience migration to natural history docs? And are distributors out there scanning the horizon for the next flock of NH and wildlife pics with box office potential?
Adam Leipzig sees a lot of possibility. As the president of National Geographic Feature Films, which, along with Warner Independent Pictures, snapped up Penguins for North America, Leipzig thinks the draw of Migration and Penguins was more than just a fluke. ‘This kind of movie is a tremendous breath of fresh air – it hasn’t been on screen in a couple of generations,’ he says. ‘In a time when everything can be fabricated, wrangled, managed and devised, it’s stunningly refreshing to see the truth of nature as it actually is.
‘There’s a huge audience for these films,’ adds Leipzig, ‘and the audience is everybody. It plays to five-year-olds, teens, parents, and grandparents.’
Filmmaker Ellen Windemuth, founder and managing director of Amsterdam-based distributor Off the Fence, doesn’t see the general movie-going audience flocking to wildlife pics, however. ‘I definitely would not advocate joining the bandwagon and saying we natural history filmmakers are saved – that our fate is now safely in the hands of giant box office hits,’ she cautions. ‘It’s not going to happen. March of the Penguins was a very encouraging development in the market, but the mass audience is not interested in the kinds of stories and issues that a natural history audience is interested in.’
Despite her warning, Windemuth does see an ‘overlap’ between these two audiences, and Off the Fence is targeting this crossover with a couple of new natural history docs, one of which, called Little Voyager, follows the year-long journey of a young humpback whale. She says the narrative quality of the doc – which is being produced with Pennsylvania-based Feodor Pitcairn Productions, and was originally conceived to be aired by its European broadcast partners – gives it a chance to be the next Penguins.
‘It’s the story of a very endearing animal and what is in store for him in his future, so it’s very much the way we look at our children,’ Windemuth explains. ‘It has a very strong family appeal, it has a very intimate portrait of an animal character, and it is an artistically astute film – it’s beautifully shot and edited; it has the right ingredients.’
It is this narrative anthropomorphism that Ann Julienne, head of acquisitions and international copros at France 5, sees as the key to making hits out of theatrically released nh docs. She also thinks it’s what’s making the programming choices at the Paris-based pubcaster successful. ‘I don’t want to say the same old tired thing – ‘It’s got a story!’ – but it’s true, and this is certainly something we’ve noticed,’ Julienne maintains. ‘The traditional scientific explanation of species doesn’t work anymore. A few years ago it was new technology that was making the difference, but the trend now is that there is drama and suspense and emotion, and that’s affecting the way wildlife programs are being made.’ Leipzig agrees. ‘The movies we’re pursuing now [at NGFF] are strongly narrative,’ he says.
While Julienne doesn’t foresee a big swing towards NH programming at France 5 – pointing out that the broadcaster already produces and airs approximately six hours per week of natural history and wildlife shows – she says the success of these films justifies the pubcaster’s commitment to the genre, and concedes that the channel’s growing audience for natural history specials may be due, in part, to the success of Migration and Penguins.
At Canal+, head of documentaries Christine Cauquelin expresses a similar sentiment. The French paynet – the movie division of which had a hand in both films, and which was the original broadcaster for the five-part television version of Migration and the companion doc to Penguins – opened the first slot for TV wildlife programming in France shortly after its inception in 1984. Cauquelin doesn’t think Canal+ can do much more NH than it’s already doing. Where she does see a change, though, is the primary target audience for filmmakers.
‘Some people who used to come to me, as a broadcaster, are approaching the movie department [at Canal+] to have a chance to find more money and release their documentary theatrically, rather than doing a doc only for TV,’ she explains. Two of these films – one about termites, and the other about the love lives of animals – have already been snapped up.
OTF’s Windemuth thinks this kind of support is necessary before a filmmaker considers taking a doc to theaters rather than a broadcaster. ‘The real issue with trying to do a theatrical release is that distributors won’t look at anything unless it’s finished,’ she warns. ‘I have to finish the theatrical version, attach a celebrity voice-over, cut a trailer, approach distributors, then sponsors, then coordinate the release pattern with my broadcast partners. It’s a big pain in the neck.’
And it’s a major risk for doc producers to throw big-time money behind a movie that might not get picked up. Windemuth says the whale doc Voyager wouldn’t have had a chance without the partnership of Animal Planet International and the enthusiasm of commissioning editor Mark Wild, who championed the film. ‘He got behind it and said, ‘I think this is big. You should take this theatrical, and we’re going to come in as a partner to help you do it,” explains Windemuth.
Despite the difficulties, she thinks distribs will be besieged by hopeful filmmakers. ‘Everybody working on any kind of natural history film at the moment is asking themselves ‘Which distributor could I approach?” she says. ‘I’m very realistic about that. We have a fantastic film, we’ve been given the money, but whether I can pull off a full-fledged North American theatrical release remains to be seen.’
NGFF’s Leipzig concurs. ‘Whenever there is a successful movie, there are copiers and followers-on,’ he says. ‘But in this arena, competition is healthy. If the audience is there to support the work of the documentarians, it’s good for the art. The people who make these movies don’t do it for a lot of money, they don’t do it for fame or glory. They do it because it is a passion, and most of the time their work is seen by a very, very tiny group of people. If this helps more of their work get seen by more people, it’s a good thing.’