In its latest feature The Ivory Game, Red Bull-owned Austrian prodco Terra Mater Factual Studios found a different formula for telling tales from the natural world. Not only did it turn to hybrid storytelling, using tropes from spy thrillers to help make the film more appealing to a broader audience, but it also opted to work with Netflix as a distribution partner, an increasingly novel model for factual filmmakers, one that gives them instant access to a massive digital subscriber base of approximately 82 million and the opportunity to generate word-of-mouth awareness a la Making a Murderer. That’s an attractive benefit for filmmakers looking to build interest around conservation issues, like The Ivory Game is attempting to do with the illegal and highly damaging ivory trade. In advance of The Ivory Game‘s debut on Netflix on Nov. 4, realscreen caught up with Terra Mater CEO Walter Köehler to talk about his experience working with Netflix, his prodco’s relationship with the Red Bull mothership, and what the future holds for natural history filmmaking.
How would you describe your experience working with Netflix?
I was really amazed at how wonderful it was working with them editorially for a very limited time. I really appreciated Lisa Nishimura (VP content acquisition at Netflix) talking to us and we then included two to three small sequences into the film as a result which really made a difference.
We put in more elephant behavior. Especially in my mind, after 25 years of blue chip natural history, I’m [familiar with elephant behavior], so it was really important for somebody from the other side to come in and say “please put that in and make it even more emotional.” And that was really a superb push and a super collaboration.
You’ve mentioned before that one of the benefits of working with Netflix is they bring their massive subscriber base to the table and that helps raise awareness about the illegal ivory trade. What other benefits are there in your mind to working with an SVOD platform?
The content, the story is in focus because there is no advertising. And if the film is really good people talk about it and they can go back and back and back whenever they want to.
What do you think are the biggest opportunities for natural history filmmaking right now?
My feeling is, and this we used also with The Ivory Game, everybody’s interested in new ways of storytelling, sometimes out of desperation, and this is good.
Terra Mater is part of the Red Bull mothership. How does that relationship affect your editorial decision making in terms of the projects you pick to pursue?
Not at all. We never would do branded things and there is no relationship between the brand and us, which is really fine. All the branded stuff is done by Red Bull Media and we really can concentrate on the things we know best.
So what’s their interest in Terra Mater?
It’s a business relationship. We are a profitable studio. It’s also a reputation relationship. I hope we bring them a lot of reputation. On the German-speaking network [Servus TV], our brand is still shown every Wednesday evening with the highest ratings on the channel. We were always destined to become an international production company who can work with everybody around the planet.
What’s next for Terra Mater after The Ivory Game?
We are working on several scripted big feature film ideas. All of our big ideas will be standing with both feet in reality. We just want to tell real stories and fictionalize them in a way that everybody knows this has happened, this is a topic. And one of them is this idea of taking a real conservation theme as the background and do(ing) a fun story (NOTE: Köehler says Terra Mater is looking at doing a scripted City Slickers-type film around eco-tourism and rhino conservation). The background is, we all know that feature comedies have a big audience. I want to have [our audience] laugh and they should leave the cinema and say, ‘Wait a minute, can I do something for the rhinos out there?’ And if we achieve that, we have achieved a lot.
How many factual projects do you have in the pipeline right now?
We always have around 25 to 30 films in the field, in post production.
What do you think the future holds for natural history filmmaking?
I think there is one big constant: natural history is the only true genre in filmmaking and televisions where language doesn’t play a role. And, therefore, it will stay the number one co-production territory. People love animals and there will be an array of different kinds of storytelling, but as long as there are elephants walking around the planet, there will be natural history programming on the television set.