Non-fiction to go: Production News

May 1, 1998

-Science & Medicine


Produced by Cedar Rapids, u.s.-based Blooming Tree Productions in association with the University of Iowa, James A. Van Allen – Flights of Fancy is a one-hour documentary about the life and work of a scientist credited as being the father of the American space program. As head of the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa from 1951 to 1985, Van Allen began his rudimentary stellar exploration with balloon-launched rockets and unmanned probes.

After the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet craft which began the race to the stars in 1957, he led a team of University of Iowa scientists in planning and carrying out the launch of Explorer I, the first u.s. probe, into space. At 83 years old, Van Allen is still hard at work on his own, monitoring and reporting on the feeble signal produced by Pioneer 10, the first manmade craft to leave our solar system.

Discussions are currently underway with American broadcasters, but no contracts have been signed. Established in 1976, Blooming Tree produces about 12 docs annually, and the majority of its work has been done for pbs. Ready for the fall of 1998, the one-off carries a budget of around us$200,000.

Body Language

Delaying the launch (originally expected for miptv), London-based Wall to Wall Television plans to have Body Story wrapped by the end of July ’98. The 6 x 30-minute series takes viewers on a journey through the human body, exploring it as though it were a complete ecosystem of its own. This trip around the body relies heavily on special effects and animation as camera crews are a little large to do the job themselves.

The series runs a budget of approximately £200,000 per half-hour episode, and has already sold to Channel 4 in the u.k. and Discovery in the u.s. Body Story is being distributed through itel in London.


On the lam and off the dole

Raw Charm of Cardiff, Wales, has just about wrapped a pilot for its contribution to the docu-soap-mania that has struck the u.k. Hot is an 8 x 30-minute series set in the Dominican Republic, featuring a number of ex-patriots on the run from something or another.

With lax extradition laws, the Dominican is the place to be if you’ve got something to hide. Produced for Channel 4, the series will come in at £50,000 per episode, typical for the genre.

Also from Raw Charm, Trading Places watches as six Brits swap jobs with six Europeans from other countries. It’s time to see how the British work ethic stacks up against that of the rest of the e.u.

Produced with the help of itv’s Welsh incarnation, htv, the 6 x 30-minute series is scheduled to be completed by the end of July. The series is being produced for £160,000, proving the Welsh work ethic involves finding creative ways to work inexpensively.

-Natural History

Big animals and fast humans

The bluest of the blue-chip natural history producers, Oxford, u.k.-based Independent Wildlife is about to set off on safari to Botswana and South Africa with some ‘big’ plans. With South Africa’s Panthera Productions as coproducer and German partner Fernsehproduktion, they’ll be tracking the largest mammal in the world for The Elephant’s Empire, a 3 x 1-hour series for dci.

Empire looks at the elephant as the architect of its environment, and examines how elephant activity can affect every species in the wild, through ecological functions from seed dispersal to deforestation, or the draining of critical water holes.

Ready for late 1999, the series carries an elephantine budget of approximately £225,000 per hour.

Independent Wildlife and fellow Southern Star production entity, Oxford Films, are also working on a top-secret project tentatively titled Speed Freaks, which looks at how man has been inspired by the natural world to go faster, farther and higher than the species has before.

Humans have achieved speeds that would make a cheetah drool, but still can’t match some feats of the natural world. On a rollercoaster, for example, riders can achieve up to three Gs. Fighter pilots can pull seven Gs, and black out at nine. One type of beetle, however, reaches 200 Gs when it accelerates into a jump. (Tom Cruise may have been Top Gun, but not even he can do that.) Speed Freaks will use special visual effects to show what it’s like to be that beetle.

Ready for the turn of the millennium, the series will be available as a 6 x 30-minute or 3 x 1-hour series. With ink yet to be put to contracts, the producers wouldn’t comment on broadcasters, although they would say a u.k. outlet is close to being aboard.


Peace, love, murder and some damn fine jewelry

Toronto-based Microtainment is a small production company with a lot on the go. With a staff of only 12, it produces drama, animation and factual programming for an international market.

Peace, Love and Murder is a one-hour special for a&e’s Investigative Reports strand. Ready for late spring, the special tells the story of Ira Einhorn, a 70s hippie guru in the Philadelphia scene, who murdered his girlfriend and managed to escape capture for almost two decades. The budget for the hour is approximately us$200,000.

Also for a&e, but for the Biography strand, Microtainment is working on an hour entitled Cartier, about the famed Cartier family of jewellers. Shot internationally, the crew gained some unique access, including a peek into the Cartier vaults. Ready for the end of spring, Canal+ has picked up the program for France. Fittingly, Cartier carries a more lavish price tag of around us$500,000.

Unpleasant Anniversaries

November, 1999, has the dubious distinction of marking the 20th anniversary of the American hostage crisis in Tehran.

Produced by London-based Antelope in association with bbc2, History in the u.s. and Paris-based distributor Tžlž Images, 444 Days tells the story of the taking of the embassy, and the year and a half of captivity which followed. The 104-minute doc will air in the u.k. on bbc’s Storyville strand, probably in early summer. The budget lurks around £350,000.

Five new hours!

Ten great minds!

Unapix International of Sherman Oaks, u.s., found ‘great’ success on pbs with its three series, The Great Minds of Science, Medicine and Business. The newest 5 x 30-minute series in the same vein, The Great Minds of History, will also air on the u.s. public broadcastser and is set to wrap soon. Hosted by Roger Mudd, the series studies influential people and their particular moments in history, albeit from an American point of view. The series carries a budget of just over us$200,000 for the two-and-a-half hours.

Beginning production is the Great Minds of Politics series. It should be ready for October – but that depends on whether someone can come up with a list of five great political minds.


Send them all to boot camp

Hide your car keys and disconnect the phone, London, u.k.-based September Films is working on a 4 x 1-hour series called Teenagers. While September is more recognizable for its Hollywood series (now working on Hollywood Doctors, 4 x 1 hours, and Hollywood Homes & Gardens, 6 x 30 minutes), the upcoming Teenagers will profile the ‘awkward’ age, examining who these loud creatures are and what they want with us. It will also compare u.k. teens to their u.s. counterparts.

The series should be wrapped by July. So far itv has signed on as the u.k. broadcaster. Represented by itel, it carries a budget of about £1 million.


The Real X-Files

Just when you were confident that all those voices telling you to do bad things were just in your head, Human Guinea Pigs turns the screws a little, and makes sure you’re that much more paranoid.

Coproduced by Microtainment and Paris-based Kalamazoo Productions, the 2 x 1-hour series tells some chilling tales about newly declassified government files unearthed in the u.s. and Europe. Radiation, mind control, lsd experiments and general mayhem ensue, making sure you’re just ecstatic about the way you voted in the 50s and 60s.

Produced for about us$350,000 per episode, the series is still in negotiations with several international broadcasters. And remember, we’re watching you.

-Odds & Ends

Men and their toys

Big Stuff pretty much describes the latest 3 x 1-hour series from Unapix and Seattle, u.s.-based Belo Productions. Produced for tlc, the series looks at big things on land, in the sea and in the air.

From giant helicopters used to assemble skyscrapers, to giant earth-movers, viewers will be astounded and amazed as they watch really big things do what comes naturally. Ready to overwhelm television screens by October, the three-part series hauls a budget of around us$560,000.

-WGBH on the go: Exploring the wonders of past and present

Boston’s ever ambitious pbs station, wgbh, has two five-part series in the works, guaranteed to be as impressive as the topics they cover.

Passion for the Past is a 5 x 52-minute series coproduced with u.k.’s Channel 4, La Cinquime in France and London-based distributor itel. Revisiting historical glories, the series will unravel the mysteries of Easter Island, reconstruct a suite of Roman baths in Turkey, and generally impress the heck out of viewers with the remarkable sites that a us$3.2 million budget can create. The executive producer for the series is award-winning nova director/producer Michael Barnes. Passion is scheduled to be ready for air by the end of the century.

Wonders of the Modern World (working title), also 5 x 52 minutes, is being produced with the help of the Production Group of Washington. The series examines the largest and most complicated structures that humanity has aspired to build, and how it was all pulled off. ‘Bridges’, the first episode, will be filmed this summer in Segovia, Paris, Rome, London, Edinburgh, New York and San Francisco. The us$6.8 million series (mostly spent on plane tickets) will be ready for the fall of 2000, and will be accompanied by a major educational outreach program. Executive producers are Larry Klein and nova’s Paula Apsell. No international partners were involved as of press time.

-Spotlight on Canamedia: Lifestyles of the active and bored

Whether your idea of a good time is tearing through the bush looking for wild animals, or propping your feet up on a stool while you gorge on salty snacks, Toronto producer/distributor, Canamedia Productions has a series for you. With new shows in the works, some building on past successes, Canamedia has found its niche with inexpensive productions for the North American cable market.

> Under the working title Wild Things (to be changed to avoid that inevitable phone call from Paramount), Canamedia and coproducer Sound Venture Productions of Ottawa, will spend 13 half-hours looking for wild animals in their native habitat. Sold to Outdoor Life in the u.s., the series will be ready in September, at an approximate budget of cdn$60,000 per episode.

> Also made with Sound Venture, Homes By Design is returning for a third season. The 13 half-hours on renovation and home construction have been picked up by Home and Garden Television in the u.s. and The Life Network in Canada. Homes is being built at cdn$60,000 per half-hour.

> Plumbing the ocean depths for a second season, Undersea Explorer is tied to Outdoor Life in Canada. Coproduced with Toronto’s Sport Diver Television, the us$60,000 13 half-hours is being distributed by l.a.-based Porchlight Entertainment in the u.s.

> Skier’s World, produced by Double Black Diamond Productions in Toronto, is a new series, partially reversioned from Pontiac’s World of Skiing. With 39 half-hours ready for the end of spring, each episode contains tips, competition updates, personality profiles and industry news. Sold to Outdoor Life in the u.s., the budget for the series is about cdn$50,000 per half-hour.

> Still early in the works, Canamedia also will be handling the mysteriously titled Extreme Fishing, 10 x 30 minutes from Waterdown’s Canadian Sportfishing Productions, and the more sedate Backyard Pleasures, produced by Toronto’s Boland Productions. Backyard is a celebration of the life outside your door, with gardening tips, instructions and tours, running to 13 half-hours – no helmets required.

-Hot Docs and Warm Pitches: Results of the ’98 pitch session

There is an ancient saying: When you’re asking someone for a quarter-of-a-million dollars, try to look enthusiastic about it.

If you want to know how best to impress a room full of commissioning editors, take a lesson from Jamie and Leigh Clarke of Odyssey Films in Calgary, Canada. The filmmakers charmed the room with tales of the conquest of Everest and plans for their next great adventure – a long walk across a barren, u.k.-sized stretch of Saudi Arabia, dubbed ‘The Empty Quarter’. Arriving with sponsorship in hand, the duo attracted the interest of Discovery, Socižtž Radio-Canada, and ABC Australia among others. Alan Hayling of Channel 4 (who, in the best line of the day, described C4′s programming as falling into two categories: ‘landmark television or landfill television’) suggested they try itv, C5 or bbc1.

The one-hour shows, Above All Else: The Everest Dream and Crossing the Empty Quarter, are being packaged as a two-part effort, under the title From Everest to the Desert. Each segment runs an approximate budget of cdn$250,000 (camels not included).

Iqaluit’s Flow Edge Productions pitched a one-hour 16mm called The Tent, the Woman, and the Dog. The doc examines the importance of three meteorites as a source of metal and lore in primitive Inuit culture, but it didn’t find its way into many hearts (or checkbooks). The pitch concentrated on the art and visual aspects of the production, which, as one Norwegian delegate observed, was ‘a good example of how to scare commissioning editors.’ Canada’s Vision TV wasn’t intimidated though, and offered $3,000 worth of development money towards the cdn$200,000 project.

New York-based Public Policy Productions’ contribution was Sound and Fury, 90 minutes on a new implant that allows the deaf to hear. The technology has been causing a furor within the deaf community, its culture threatened by eradication. pbs has come up with about 20% of the us$500,000-plus budget and international interest seemed high, especially from C4 and arte. The Canadian contingent, however, was a little wary of the high American content and pbs’ broadcast spill over.

Montreal’s Galafilm also found a receptive audience for Chief, six one-hour biographies of Native American chiefs, with the possibility of six more episodes. Tied to History Television in Canada, the hefty cdn$500,000-per-episode budget didn’t intimidate international editors. Hayling praised the filmmakers for their ‘sense of scale and ambition,’ and said C4 would be interested. Vision was in as a possible Canadian second window, depending on how long htv plans to hold onto the first. arte and Canal D said they would cherry pick from the series if that was an option, but couldn’t use it as a whole. a&e was only interested if it could get an exclusive cable deal in North America.

Reinventing Ritual from Toronto’s Northern Lights Communications was a highlight of the morning. The 3 x 1-hour series will look at rites of passage: coming-of age rituals, marriage, as well as birth and death ceremonies. Vision has taken first window in Canada. dci was interested and wanted to see producer and director tapes to get an idea of what the project might look like when it was finished. Generally, however, Ritual was a difficult sell. ABC Australia had a similar series called Reclaiming Ritual, which they had just scrapped, and many of the editors had a difficult time deciding how they would find a large enough audience for the three hours.

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.