Science meets Hollywood in Nat Geo’s “Breakthrough”

Ahead of its November 1 premiere, Nat Geo's Courteney Monroe, super-producer Brian Grazer and General Electric's Beth Comstock tell realscreen about turning a six-part science series into a cinematic event with Hollywood's best and brightest. (Pictured, right: actor and Breakthrough director Paul Giamatti)
October 30, 2015

Paul Giamatti (pictured, right) has his finger on the pulse of just about every compelling project in Hollywood, whether that’s voicing a character in The Little Prince or playing N.W.A.’s manager in Straight Outta Compton. Things are no different in a Giamatti-directed episode of the six-part National Geographic Channel (NGC) series Breakthrough, where the Academy Award-winning actor, quite literally, has his finger on the latest advances in cyborg technology as he conducts brain-body experiments to understand the use of prosthetic limbs.

His directing role in the big-budget partnership between NGC and General Electric (GE) saw Giamatti traveling from Houston to Stockholm to Toronto over the course of a month to investigate breakthroughs in biotechnology. The resulting doc, More Than Human, is among six films directed by Hollywood visionaries that blend cinematic storytelling with scientific cases – a programming strategy National Geographic CEO Courteney Monroe calls “emblematic” of where the company is headed almost two years after the premiere of blockbuster 13-part miniseries Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey.

“In the same way that Cosmos did, we want to make science programming that is entertaining and acceptable for global audiences, and one of the best ways to do that is to team up with the very best storytellers and marry them with the very best scientists.”
- Courteney Monroe, National Geographic Channel CEO

Cosmos for us was a real inflection point. It really confirmed for us that there was a real interest in high-quality, genuine science programming,” the exec tells realscreen. “In the same way that Cosmos did, we want to make science programming that is entertaining and acceptable for global audiences, and one of the best ways to do that is to team up with the very best storytellers and marry them with the very best scientists.”

Alongside Giamatti’s doc, the hour-long films include Peter Berg’s Fighting Pandemics, focusing on the recent Ebola outbreak; Akiva Goldsman’s Energy from the Edge, about innovative alternative energy projects; Brett Ratner’s Decoding the Brain, on research helping those living with epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease; Ron Howard’s The Age of Aging, on advances in extending the human health span; and Angela Bassett’s Water Apocalypse, on water conservation projects around the world. All feature scientists and explorers from leading universities and institutions who take viewers through the course of their research – work that could drastically impact their respective fields.

Linking up with General Electric

To bring the science to life, NGC linked up with another global and like-minded brand for what was, Monroe says, a “very symbiotic” partnership. Indeed, viewers might notice that in the title credits to each film, both Nat Geo and GE logos sit side by side – representative of a copro deal that saw production costs split between the companies. And while such a partnership might suggest a blatant branded content opportunity for the latter corporation, both parties ensure the project’s legitimacy as science content.

Executive producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, whose company Imagine Entertainment co-produced Breakthrough

Executive producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, whose company Imagine Entertainment co-produced Breakthrough

“This is not an ad sale buy. [GE] aren’t just producers of the series from a financial standpoint, but also from a creative standpoint,” says Monroe, adding that viewers won’t see any GE commercials during the show or elsewhere on the network.

Similarly, Beth Comstock, vice chair of GE, who originally brainstormed the concept for the program with executive producer Brian Grazer back in 2013 before approaching NGC, says only three GE scientists are featured across the six episodes.

“GE worked hand-in-hand with [Grazer and Ron Howard's] Imagine Entertainment, Asylum Entertainment and NGC to develop the themes, craft the stories and crystallize the intersection between science, tech and the impact it has on the human race,” Comstock told realscreen over email. “Both NGC and GE approve the topics and directors, will review cuts and provide notes, as is typical with any producing partnership.”

Breakthrough isn’t the first documentary project for GE. The company in 2013 launched the doc shorts series “Focus Forward” featuring 30 three-minute films about innovators and helmed by the likes of Albert Maysles, Steve James, Lucy Walker and Lixin Fan. The films debuted online as well as in festivals around the world, including Sundance.

Brett Ratner's Beyond the Brain

Brett Ratner’s Beyond the Brain

With this series, however, Comstock notes that it’s a step forward for the company, since GE is a full development partner with NGC.

Like ’30 for 30,’ but for science

On Grazer’s end, the idea for the program stemmed from ESPN Films’ Peabody Award-winning ’30 for 30′ series. The producer – known for the TV series 24 and Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind among many other projects - envisioned a similar series of independent short films on science, which each honing in on a potential or real problem facing the planet.

“The model that I love is the one in sports for ESPN. I think it’s the best model of anything that’s like this,” says Grazer. “I thought [Breakthrough] can have a similar sort of structural capability.”

While he says the team behind the series was working with “different economics” (the budget for Breakthrough has not been disclosed) the onus was still on “cinematically, reaching people emotionally.”

One of the key people who realized Breakthrough and gave it that cinematic edge while keeping the program grounded in science was Kurt Sayenga, a freelance executive producer who came on board with co-producer Asylum Entertainment. The project was still in the planning stages when the long-time producer of science programming – whose credits include five seasons of Science Channel’s Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman – was recruited in June of 2014. In a month’s time, Sayenga had whittled down the 100 topics discussed by Grazer and his team into 18 tangible films. From there, six were selected.

“Since the changes in the [science] industry tend to be very slow, while in other areas there are things happening fairly rapidly, you need to follow those stories as they happen. That’s the really difficult part,” he says. “The primary mission was to find a story that we could follow in real time, and a couple of other existing research [projects] that were very cutting-edge but not something where the entire production could fall apart if it didn’t pan out.”

Once the subjects were in place, it was a matter of coordinating with the schedules of six top Hollywood players with starkly different approaches to directing – no easy task. Each film had 15 to 18 shoot days – all filmed earlier this year – and received its own editor and visual effects shop to ensure episodes were aesthetically distinct.

Kurt Sayenga

Kurt Sayenga

“The strength of the series, and what interests me the most, is that it’s not queuing to a strict formula,” says Sayenga. “Usually when you put together a series for somebody, they want you to establish a formula that can keep repeating. It’s much easier to produce that way, too, if you’ve got respective landmarks and one set style. Instead, you’re looking for six different films from six different people.”

The road ahead for Nat Geo

Presently, another episode order has yet to be officially greenlit, but Grazer says more Breakthrough – with more Hollywood names attached – is on the way. And soon, the producer and his partner Ron Howard will again reunite with NGC for the forthcoming series Red Planet, about the quest to colonize Mars.

As Monroe explains, drawing A-level talent is all part of building the brand up to its potential. As the channel has done with its backing of Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala and the Kevin Costner-produced special Billy the Kid: New Evidence, science programming, too, is getting the Hollywood treatment.

The Morgan Freeman-hosted series on science and religion, The Story of God, will air on the channel next spring, while an Alex Gibney-produced documentary series and theatrical film on the global water crisis is also in the works. Meanwhile, Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson returned for a second season of his talk show, StarTalk earlier this month.

“In some respects, while the channel has been successful, we’ve really never quite lived up to the promise of the brand,” says Monroe. “We’ve instead spent time chasing others in the marketplace instead of charting our own course.

“Because Nat Geo is about quality and it’s about science and adventure and exploration, my vision is this channel lives up to the brand by creating big, event-driven TV that is, quite frankly, worthy of the Nat Geo brand.”

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.