Report from Jackson Hole: Making wildlife work in a reality world

At the venerable Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival earlier this month, attendants and panelists debated the health of the genre in a reality-hungry marketplace, and exchanged ideas about how it should evolve. (Pictured: Discovery Channel's Clark Bunting receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award)
October 19, 2011

(Pictured: Discovery Channel president and GM Clark Bunting receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Photo: Adam Spencer)

At the venerable Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival earlier this month, attendants and panelists debated the health of the genre in a reality-hungry marketplace, and exchanged ideas about how it should evolve.

On one hand, the film competition component of the fest seemed to point towards a robust, healthy industry. More than 500 films vied for nearly two dozen awards, with organizers quite pleased about the variety, quality and quantity of films entered this year.

“Overall, we had over 800 entries, as many films were entered in multiple categories, from more countries and continents than ever,” said the festival’s executive director, Lisa Samford. “This made judging more challenging than ever for our judges this year.”

Fred Kaufman, E.P. of PBS’s ‘Nature’ concurred, and then some, during “The Unnatural History of Nature Films,” the festival’s town hall session. “The quality of the films now is much better than ever,” he enthused. “In some cases, it is hard to imagine improving them. In that sense, natural history films may be peaking now.”

However, other members of the industry sang a different tune during the plenary session, with some reflecting the view that the genre may be experiencing a decline in terms of its TV footprint.

“There is no question that despite the increase in channels, the number of [one] hour slots for natural history, particularly blue chip, is declining,” said Neil Harraway, EVP development and marketing at NHNZ. “We’re finding this around the globe. However, there is still a strong appetite for limited and full series which is what we’re focusing on because it offers a much better return on our efforts.”

Representatives from smaller independents expressed frustration with the changing marketplace. “These have been humbling times,” said veteran producer Allison Argo of Argo Films. “As an independent U.S. producer I spend most of my time fundraising, and drooling over the budgets that the BBC enjoys for its blockbuster series. But, rather than sitting at home unemployed, I spend my days raising funds.”

Mark Dodd, 1080 Film & TV Ltd (The Man Who Stopped the Desert) also lamented the continuing closed door policy towards programs with strong conservation themes. “I’ve already been told by more than one channel that they’re not interested in conservation stories,” he said.

Some producers blamed the U.S. market’s obsession with broadening the natural history audience with the decline of classic natural history programming. “In my earlier life as a producer in BBC’s natural history unit, we respected the integrity of the producer’s vision, but today the emphasis appears to be on programs that will draw a broad audience,” said Bernard Walton, owner, Aqua Vita Films (Braving Iraq).

Walter Koehler, CEO of Terra Mater Factual, had an even grimmer assessment, “In the U.S. the trend is towards even more reality shows. For reality shows, it helps if your main characters are pudgy, white hillbillies,” he opined.

This poses a dilemma for blue chip oriented indie producers, especially those needing coproduction partners. Bertrand Loyer, director of St. Thomas Productions, articulated an alternative to co-financing with a U.S. broadcaster, “The [programming] gulf across the Atlantic is so wide now that it is easier to obtain French and European production tax credits than to try to coproduce a program that works in the U.S. and in Europe, where we still love blue chip, ” he said.

However, the view from the executive suites seemed a bit rosier, as seen in the Face to Face to Face session featuring Keith Scholey, director of prodco Wild Horizons Ltd.; National Geographic president, Tim Kelly, and Clark Bunting, president and general manager of Discovery Channel.

According to Bunting, big event blue chip, especially BBC series like Planet Earth, Life and Blue Planet consistently draw large audiences, in the U.S. and abroad.

Bunting also articulated the need for “agenda-setting TV,” prompting Scholey to cite a forthcoming special, Life in the Freezer, about global climate change and its impact on wildlife and oceans at the Poles. “We hope to focus millions of people on the Poles now, because in 10-15 years it may be too late to turn things around,” he said. “Broadcasters need to pull in good ratings with specials to offset promotion costs and if they do well the channels will be willing to do more like it.”

Kelly cited the recent Nat Geo series Great Migrations as an example of big event blue chip programming that can draw mass audiences, and pointed to its Big Cat Night and theatrical releases like Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s triple award winner, Last of the Lions, as examples of blue chip productions with broad appeal.

“For now, the U.S. market is our main focus, but China, Russia and India are huge new markets for our content including the new wildlife shows we’re making with our vast footage library,” he said. “However, the future of our channels and our magazine is all about interactivity. Soon both will be available on new platforms like iPads.”

Bunting concurred that the future of natural history and all non-fiction programming will be multi-platform. “As executives we need to anticipate viewer appetites three to four years ahead of time and to deliver that content in a way that works across multiple platforms, in the U.S. and globally. That’s our challenge,” he said.

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.