MIPDoc ’16: Balancing drama and history, hype and VR

The conversation at Sunday's (April 4) MIPDoc sessions offered looks at Amazon Studios' first foray into non-fiction, the dramatization of history and what one executive feared would be "the overheating of virtual reality."
April 4, 2016

During a session at MIPDoc in Cannes on Sunday (April 3), Amazon Studios head of half-hour programming Joe Lewis discussed the firm’s first venture into the non-scripted foray via Alex Gibney‘s The New Yorker Presents.

The docuseries, which brings to life stories from one of the world’s most renowned publications, premiered across SVOD service Amazon Prime in the U.S., UK and Germany earlier this year. Gibney serves as executive producer alongside Dave Snyder and Dawn Ostroff.

“The series just spoke to who we were, the chances we wanted to take and David Remnick, who is the editor of The New Yorker, and his team just matched so much of the mindset of what we look for, which is high artistic integrity, trying to do things differently and trying to get into different worlds,” Lewis told interviewer Diego Buñuel, Canal+ head of docs.

After having synchronously birthed the idea with Conde Nast Entertainment, the production team worked hand-in-hand with The New Yorker‘s staff on the series, which provided unprecedented access into the magazine’s entire print archive. After narrowing down a stack of stories to a solid list of 11, the involved parties went to work on pairing filmmakers with each project.

“We had a good budget to work with but it’s not so much the money but giving people a platform where what they’re making is incredibly accessible and of the highest artistic order,” Lewis said. “Alex Gibney is such a force in the documentary world that having him [be] a part of it helped attract a selection of filmmakers.”

As a production studio, Amazon is in pursuit of “worlds” that individuals haven’t been exposed to or seen before, whether it’s an oblique area like gender through its acclaimed scripted series Transparent, specific worlds like classical music in Mozart in the Jungle, or trying to transfer a magazine to a different type of media.

“There aren’t a lot of comparables out there,” Lewis said about creating the types of series Amazon is seeking. “The truth is, if you’re pitching an idea and everyone you’re meeting with nods their heads and wants to do it, then that idea probably is a little behind the times.”

History With A Twist: Drama & Tech Rock Docs


History With A Twist

Earlier in the day, Peter Hamilton, MD of Peter Hamilton Consultants, headed the panel “History With A Twist: Drama & Tech Rock Docs,” which featured Sally Habbershaw, VP of international programming, production and operations at A+E Networks; Isabelle Graziadey, head of international sales and acquisitions at Terranoa; and Julia Schulte, international sales manager at France TV Distribution.

The session saw Habbershaw outline the international History and H2 networks programming strategy that included a proposal for coproduction partners to come forward on international tentpole “megadoc” projects – titles combining the use of scripted and unscripted to tell “epic stories” through dramatic re-enactments.

“We’ve got two a year at the moment and we’d like to do four,” Habbershaw stated.

The latest such project is Barbarians Rising, a partnership between A+E and Germany’s NTV, slated to launch internationally this June. The series primarily uses an estimated 90% dramatic recreation contextualized with experts and historians to tell the story of the key freedom fighters who opposed the Roman Empire’s 700-year rule.

“There’s the historian who gives you the context but then there’s somebody who’s fighting oppression who can give that opinion,” Habbershaw explained. “We did that with World Wars as well; we didn’t just go for traditional historians, we brought in people from the army to get their background and perspective on strategy.”

The session also saw Terranoa’s Graziadey introduce two projects, including the one-off special Mesopotamia (1 x 90 minutes, 1 x 52 minutes), which is scheduled for a December release and provides a recreation of the area roughly surrounding modern-day Iraq, Syria and Kuwait as it was more than 2,000 years ago; and The Magnificent Three,a four-part series showing how the development of a city is reflected in the urbanism of today via Amsterdam, London and New York. The project is slated for a June 2017 release and was commissioned by ARTE.

“It shows that history can be sexy, can be high tech and it doesn’t have to be dramatized necessarily but still addresses an audience that’s keen on new discoveries,” she said of the projects.

Finally, France TV Distribution’s Schulte presented The Last Stand, an animated ancient history series on the last battle between the Gauls and Caesar’s armies.

“This is innovation for us because it’s dramatized, it’s 60% animation and 40% live action,” Schulte said.

Virtual Reality: From Storytelling to Story Living

A MIPDoc panel focused on the advancements of virtual reality saw Anthony Geffen, CEO and creative director of Atlantic Productions UK; Thomas Wallner, founder and CEO of Deep; and Wolfgang Bergmann, CEO of broadcaster ARTE Germany and director of ARTE/ZDF provide cautious optimism on the future of the technology.

While the trio of execs championed the medium’s capabilities and “wow factor,” they agreed that proper content is currently needed to advance both the technology and the experiences it provides.


Virtual Reality: From Storytelling to Story Living

“What we need is proper films. The real danger, particularly in the U.S., is everybody is making one- and two-minute [films]. To get this thing really alive we need longer form,” Geffen stressed. “The worry is it will follow 3D… and we’ll be sitting here next year asking what happened to VR?”

Atlantic Productions, through its virtual reality studio Alchemy VR, is currently taking its David Attenborough-fronted VR experiences, Great Barrier Reef and First Life, to museums across the globe. The touring project, Geffen said, has verified that audiences would seek out good stories despite having to sit for long periods of time in headsets.

Bergmann, meanwhile, cautioned that the threat of technical development and high investment into the medium would inevitably speed up the process to the point of “overheating” during what should be a time of exploration.

“It’s my thinking that we’re at a stage where we should have time to think, time to experiment, time to learn to move in this new space and time to think about why are we doing this. Is there any reason to go further on with VR?” he explained. “My answer is there are extremely interesting first proofs of things you can make… but in terms of narrating, we are on our very first steps to understand what is possible.”

However, Toronto-based VR firm Deep is attempting to bridge that information gap as much as possible by providing education to traditional broadcasters and producers alike in an attempt to alleviate some of the stress and intimidation associated with filmmaking in the VR space.

“That interests me the most because they really know something about storytelling and I think providing a platform for people to connect to the audience will actually help in the evolution in this medium.

“As a broadcaster, you can broadcast space and time,” Wallner added. “You can actually broadcast a moment that your audience can inhabit…it breaks the fourth wall.”

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.