(Pictured – Parthenon’s upcoming “Light the Ocean”)
If there’s one drawback to rising success in the television business for Parthenon Entertainment founder and veteran wildlife producer Carl Hall, it’s the decreasing amount of wildlife in his day-to-day life.
“If there’s anything annoying about the future, it’s that they don’t let me out these days,” he says, with a laugh.
Hall founded the London-based company in 2002 after working at the wildlife division of HIT Entertainment, where he served as a managing director and a director in the field, shooting programming for networks such as National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Prior to that, he was a technical director for the Jim Henson Company.
When HIT opted to focus on kids programs, he bought out the 250 hours of factual content he’d amassed to start Parthenon.
He chose to name the company after the ancient temple on the Athenian Acropolis because “it sounded established” and was a nod to the nascent company’s aspirations in the natural history space.
“Our first ever production was Stonehenge Rediscovered, which is one I actually directed,” Hall recalls. “Back in the day we did everything and most of my six staffers were in it wearing various ancient Briton outfits. We didn’t waste any resources.
“That was a really good series,” he adds, “but because of the economics, it was cheaper for me to build Stonehenge in South Africa than it was in the UK, so I made it there.”
Over the last 10 years, the staff of six has grown to 70 and Parthenon has evolved into a multimedia rights management company best known for developing, producing and distributing high end, blue-chip wildlife, natural history and science programming such as Wild Russia, Mystery Files, Ancient Megastructures and Winter in Yellowstone.
It has since opened sales offices in Canada, Germany and Singapore, and a second UK office in Bristol. The company will also expand into Australia and is establishing a presence in the United States through a partnership, not yet officially announced, with an American prodco. Hall says the company will soon reveal plans for its first pilot based on an American theme for a U.S. network.
PIONEERING IN COPRODUCTION
In addition to high-end specials, Parthenon is seeking to diversify its portfolio with more long-running programming in the lifestyle, specialist and factual entertainment space with a greater variety of networks and third-party producers. A pioneer in brokering international, multi-party coproduction deals, Hall also intends to explore new international funding models in the years ahead.
“When I first started, coproductions were fairly limited,” says Hall, adding most producers would stick to markets such as the U.S., UK, Germany and France and then look to smaller countries for secondary financing. Instead, he went straight to producers in markets such as South Korea and Italy and hired local camera operators, who in turn benefited from the international exposure.
“In the early days of Nat Geo, we helped them a lot as they broke into new countries and needed local production,” he says. “We went in on their behalf and worked with local producers to make programs that originated in the countries in which they were launching.”
This approach gave Parthenon access to locations and stories in markets that might not have had the production savvy a network such as Animal Planet or National Geographic would demand, but were home to locations little seen in U.S. wildlife TV at that point.
“He worked as the go-between with a slightly more green company by taking their project and making it more commercially oriented for the network,” offers Janet Han Vissering, SVP of development and production for Nat Geo Wild.
One of Parthenon’s most successful relationships has been with German pubcaster NDR, with which it partnered to produce a miniseries about Russian natural history in 2009 for NGCI called Wild Russia.
“It was an epic film that portrayed footage of animals and landscapes that quite frankly hadn’t been seen,” says Han Vissering about the six-part series.
The program was produced through an output deal Parthenon struck with NDR in which it took the broadcaster’s licensing fees and made international-quality versions of the programs. Up to that point, the shows coming out of the German market generally had a Eurocentric focus, and thus a limited shelf life.
“Their whole library has been seen by people around the world now,” says Hall.
Wild Russia aired in the United States on Discovery Communications-owned Animal Planet as part of the cable network’s “Wild” strand, which has also featured Parthenon-produced programs such as Wild Japan and Viking Wilderness – programming the network positions as event television.
The strand is part of Animal Planet’s shift toward fewer, more highly differentiated hours of natural history programming, partially a response to what the net’s VP of programming Rick Holzman calls “retinal burn.” With the advent of high-definition and access to less-expensive, higher-quality cameras, many wildlife series started looking the same. Thus Parthenon is one of the companies it continues to turn to for innovative, high-end programs.
“We’re looking for them to challenge us in new ways to reinvent the genre with unique access and technology,” he says. “Parthenon has great writers and story editors on their projects, and that has not always been the case in the natural history space.
“We’ve tended to pair natural history production companies with traditional production companies to invent new forms of storytelling,” he adds. “That’s not something we’ve been doing with Parthenon though.”
A highly localized approach has also been part of Parthenon’s sales strategy. It has an office in Munich that handles Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia, and one in Singapore that covers the Asian market. In the year ahead, Hall is also looking to open in Australia and synchronize with operations in Canada and the UK.
“We need that local knowledge,” he says. “We hardly use agents because we like to sell directly into the territories and that back flow of information helps our whole business.”
DIVERSITY AND FLEXIBILITY
This year, Leona Connell, Parthenon’s director of global sales and acquisitions for factual, is looking to diversify the company’s portfolio with more high-end, long-form factual entertainment, formats, observational documentary, and travel and lifestyle programming, with strong editorial angles and quality on par with its natural history content.
At MIPCOM, Parthenon launched Cooking Metropolis, a culinary travel show in which chefs in cities around the world give viewers a city tour and cook a local specialty.
“It’s generating interest even though it’s not done yet,” says Connell. “We thought, ‘Wow, this is definitely an area we should be growing into further because broadcasters seem to be crying out for it.’
“One of the things we’re looking to do is work more closely with producers to feed back market requirements so that they can develop content accordingly as well as adapt our existing content for the new digital landscape,” she says, citing deals with digital platforms such as Hulu and iTunes for which Parthenon is re-editing long-form programming to tailor for the growing number of tablet users.
Connell works closely with director of production Danny Tipping to ensure the programs she’s acquiring complement the company’s original content. In 2007, Tipping joined Parthenon to head up its production division after spending a decade on the network side at Discovery Channel in the UK.
“For commissions, they were flexible in how they worked with a number of broadcasters and how deals were done,” he says of Parthenon. “That was impressive to me and that isn’t always the case with distributors and producers. There was no one model that Parthenon subscribed to. Whatever gets the best shows made is the right way to go.”
A landmark for the division is the historical unsolved mystery series Mystery Files, produced for NGCI and Investigation Discovery in the United States. At 26 episodes, it’s the company’s largest series commission to date and has sold to more than 100 countries. Tipping says the success of the program has given the division the opportunity to segue into more series work.
The company also boosted its production infrastructure through acquisitions. In 2009 Parthenon established Parthenon Media Group and acquired a minority share in Halifax, Canada-based production company Arcadia Entertainment, giving it a Canadian partner for international production deals and a yearly addition of 50 hours of programming to its slate. Arcadia, in turn, received a first-look option for exclusive international distribution rights on all of its original productions.
A year later, Parthenon absorbed Bristol-based VFX and graphics shop 422 South, appointing co-founder Andy Davies-Coward as creative director and introducing the studio to its global copro network and commissions.
422 South has started specializing in emerging areas such as data mapping (Britain From Above, Germany From Above) and photo-realistic, data-based Earth science visualizations (Parthenon’s Drain the Ocean and forthcoming special Light the Ocean).
The affiliation gives Davies-Coward an ability to introduce clients to Parthenon, and its forays into these specialty techniques give him greater input in the development stages.
“I can help shape projects within a mix of other individuals and there’s a potential there to go from simply being reactive to sowing the seeds of future projects,” he says.
WHERE TO GROW NEXT?
In the year ahead, Hall hopes to raise the money to grow the Parthenon Media Group even further with more “populist” factual series and high-end docs “in the low-end of the movie business.”
“What we do now is almost like the American studio system,” he explains. “We put our resources into the ideas and ownership of the script and find the best filmmakers to make those films.”
His other main priority is to get a foothold in the United States, the source of 50% of his business. Depending on how the partnership with the East Coast-based production company plays out, he will either buy into that operation or create a new company.
“The only thing [factual] is going to be challenged by is drama being better funded in the future,” he says. “The programs we make are among the only ones that hit primetime for family viewing. It’s amazing that even exists anymore. [But] they’re not sitting down and watching dramas, they watch factual programs, and wildlife and history [programming] has an element of that.
“The whole world of factual,” he summarizes, “has grown up.”