While word on the street (or in the wetlands, as the case may be) has it that conservation films are a dead issue for broadcasters, the Virginia-based National Wildlife Federation hasn’t had much trouble drumming up interest from producers. Chris Palmer, president and ceo of National Wildlife Productions – the non-profit tv, film and multimedia arm of the nwf created in 1994 – says he receives three or four project proposals a day.
Under the auspices of the nwf, Palmer helps the foundation fulfill its mission by serving as executive producer on projects which ‘entertain people while opening their eyes to the importance of conservation.’ On the television side, Palmer’s division is reponsible for series including The Living Garden on Home & Garden Television, Nature’s Best Photography on The Outdoor Life Network, Earth Journeys on The Travel Channel, BirdWatch With Don and Lilian Stokes on pbs, and a couple of series which air on tbs Superstation and in syndication: Alaskan Bush Pilots and Wildlife Vets.
This year nwp stepped into imax-film production, and their debut effort, the $4 million Whales, has become one of the fastest selling films in Imax theater history. A grant of over US$800,000 from The National Science Foundation helped bankroll a corresponding educational campaign, including interactive kiosks for lobbies in theaters showing Whales, study guides on cd-rom, videos with special behind-the-scenes footage, and cds of the score. NWP is already in development on three more imax projects: Wolves, Bears and Bison.
Palmer, who had an extensive career in environmental policy before getting into the entertainment biz, calls himself ‘a fundraiser, primarily.’ Part of nwp’s financing comes in the form of individual donations from some of the foundations’ members; ‘Good, close friends of mine with high net worth,’ says Palmer. ‘I cultivate them assiduously.’
While some foundations – like The National Science Foundation – offer out-and-out grants to offset production costs, the division does court individual investors, especially for NWP’s expanded imax slate now that Whales has proven itself a revenue-generator. Generally, budgets come together through a combination of cash from NWP’s coproduction partners (both indie prodcos and broadcasters), bank loans and the occasional corporate sponsor. Nikon backs Nature’s Best Photography, and Toyota chipped in $255,000 to produce companion education materials for the upcoming Wolves.
‘Overall, we intend to break even,’ says Palmer. ‘Any profit is recycled back into new productions.’
When sifting through proposals, Palmer says his relationship with the producer is critical: ‘I never work with people I don’t know.’ First contact is usually via a half-page proposal and a list of the producer’s previous credits.
‘The producer really has to understand our mission, and yet the project must resonate as something which is great entertainment, which is commercially viable,’ says Palmer. ‘It has to be very populist, with drama and good characters. We’re not a broadcaster, I need to go out and sell this after it’s completed.’
While Palmer works mostly with seasoned American producers – those who can occasionally bring some cash to the table and earn some back-end ownership – the door is by no means shut to more junior or overseas producers provided he can establish the necessary rapport.
‘What we bring to the table,’ says Palmer, ‘is our name and branding. And with over four million members, our ability to promote is tremendous.’
Currently, Palmer is working on increasing NWP’s output in the areas of children’s programming, theatrical features, and tv movies. To that end, he’s developing a $40 million-$50 million animated feature called Shekhar with Twentieth Century Fox and actress Meg Ryan. ‘We’re looking to option fictional stories as well as stories which are inspired by real events.’