Special Report on London Program Market: As U.K. producers become more inclined to look beyond the Empire for coproduction dollars, it’s inevitable that Americans – with their growing webs of international services – are going to …

CASE STUDY 1: The War of 1898 by Cafe Productions for TLC and Canal+ Spain...
November 1, 1997

CASE STUDY 1: The War of 1898 by Cafe Productions for TLC and Canal+ Spain

One of the most significant watersheds in modern political history is the Spanish-American War of 1898 which saw the emergence of the U.S. as a major world power at the expense of the Spanish colonial empire.

The story, which focuses largely on the battle for Cuba, is now to be told in a two-part special by London-based Cafž Productions. The key coproduction partners on the film are TLC (U.S.) and Canal+ Spain. The locations involved are Spain, Cuba and the U.S.

The idea for the film originated with Cuban-American Luis Perez, who spent his formative years working in television, during which time he made a film ‘which looked at the story of Cuban exiles.’ He explains, ‘As a result, I became interested in the story of Cuba’s development from a Spanish colony to a Republic.’

Perez went to work as a producer in Spain where he hatched plans to make a film about the war. ‘As the centennial approaches, the war has become a recurring theme in Spanish newspapers and at conferences,’ says Perez. ‘So I approached Andre [Singer of Cafž] because I knew he had experience in international coproduction.’

Singer, who met Perez at mipcom ’96, recalls that ‘Luis had a good idea and excellent archive material from the U.S., Spain and Cuba. But he didn’t feel he could handle the coproduction by himself. So we agreed to structure a project with Hugh Purcell, Cafž’s head of historical programmes, as series producer.’

Cafž secured informal interest from Spain for a three-hour version of the story, and structured a treatment accordingly. The next step was to find U.S. interest, and Singer brought in Stephanie Neville, an international coproduction packager whose relationship with Singer and Purcell stretches back to the 1980s when they worked at Granada in the U.K.

‘We presented the idea to Discovery and TLC,’ says Neville. ‘They were both interested because the subject hadn’t been covered before and there was a lot of unique creative material.’ tlc’s senior vp programming, John Ford, committed himself to the project at mip earlier this year, ‘but didn’t want three hours,’ according to Neville. ‘tlc also wanted less Spanish elements and more emphasis on the involvement of Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. So we redeveloped the proposal and struck a deal for a two-hour special to be shown in spring ’98.’ Richard Wells acted as executive producer for TLC.

Subsequently, the earlier interest from Spain fizzled, so Neville and Singer went to the international market and secured interest from Canal+ Spain. ‘They don’t traditionally pre-buy or coproduce,’ says Neville, ‘but competing broadcasters were doing a lot on the war so they wanted something special. They were impressed by the fact we had a U.S. deal.’

Canal+ Spain also wanted two hours, but was keen on having a greater emphasis on Spain. ‘We presented them with a proposal that had 25% new material,’ says Neville. ‘Initially there were questions about whether it was right for an English company to produce it. But we had Luis as a producer and we brought in a Madrid-based historian called Laura Rodriguez.’ Once Isabel Varela, Canal+ Spain’s commissioning editor for factual, was satisfied with the treatment, she left Cafž alone to get on with it.

Singer estimates the overall budget is US$450,000. The two broadcast partners provided the majority, but not all of it. As a result, Cafž had to decide whether to cover the deficit itself or trade rights for an advance from a distributor. ‘The lesson you learn as you get bigger is how useful it is to be able to take the risk,’ says Singer. ‘We didn’t need a distribution advance, but a smaller company might not have been able to go ahead with production. At a bigger company you can find sources to plug the gaps.’

One welcome boost was The History Channel U.K.’s decision to come on board in early summer. ‘It wasn’t a lot of money,’ says Singer, ‘but it triggered funding from The European Union’s media ii programme for development and distribution. You have to have commitments from two European broadcasters to obtain that money.’

The cash released by the E.U. is a soft loan which must be repaid, ‘But it is hugely helpful for producers because contracts can take so long, during which time you have no cashflow,’ says Singer.

Creating two different shows (the U.S. wanted 2 x 52 minutes, and Spain wanted 2 x 45 minutes) has not presented as many difficulties as supposed. Digital post-production equipment makes it much simpler to re-edit material now than even a few years ago, says Singer.

Purcell finds tlc the more interventionist of the two. ‘In my experience, u.s. partners are very professional and have little time for the British auteur style of filmmaking. They are very clear about what their market wants.’

In this case, TLC wants ‘a very U.S. version while the Spanish are happy with a more international story,’ says Purcell. ‘Because the U.S. is not interested in Cuban and Spanish domestic issues, the challenge is to be able to contextualise the subject in order to tell the full story.’

Purcell expects the edit of the U.S. version to take about 12 weeks, plus three more for changes to the Spanish one. He’s just returned from Cuba where he found a wealth of archival material. ‘They have a wonderful film industry with 30-year-old films of a very high standard on this subject,’ he says. ‘It was a delight dealing with them. They were very fair and professional.’

According to Perez who directs the Spanish version, a key difference is the treatment of the soldiers: ‘The Spanish version has more detail about the embarkation of its soldiers and return of the prisoners. There is also more on the Spain-Cuba relationship.’

Perez played an essential role sourcing archival materials from the U.S, France, Spain and Cuba. ‘From my previous work, I knew the Library of Congress had a large collection of Spanish-American War material including a film by Edison in 1898. This is also the centennial of the moving image, so we have some of the first war footage captured on film.’ In addition, Cafž secured personal testimonies from descendants of those engaged in the war. Purcell even managed to buy location rushes from a Spanish academic whose great-grandfather fought in the war.

One more significant deal was on the horizon at mip. ‘We finalized a deal with Discovery Latin America, who was thrilled to find a Spanish version available,’ says Neville. ‘They bought that rather than the U.S. version – even though it is being coproduced by their company.’

That deal requires linguistic sensitivity, says Perez. ‘Discovery Latin America can’t use Castillian Spanish so we have to find a neutral accent that can work for both South America and Spain.’

With shooting now finished, Neville is finalizing the key sales. In the U.S., home-video rights have gone to Films for the Humanities (Princeton) and Germany’s zdf and France’s La 5 are both interested in the Spanish version, though La 5 is talking about a one-hour version. Once presales are complete, Cafž will retain rights outside the Americas and Iberia. Then, a distributor will take over from Neville in exploiting the title internationally. ‘The subject of the film means its marketability is limited,’ admits Singer, ‘but the U.S. involvement in Cuba makes the story more attractive than just a little local war.’


-The Low Down on LPM

-Case Study: The Fifty Year War from Brook Lapping for BBC and WGBH

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.