There is little to dispute about the wisdom of choosing a project by multiple-award-winning producers, which is what Amy Briamonte, supervising producer, documentary specials, A&E Networks, did for this pick. Associated Producers’ Quest for the Lost Tribes, slated to air this fall, solves a 2700-year-old mystery, one of the great puzzles of ancient civilization.
The Toronto-based producer, whose Hollywoodism also aired as a special on A&E, won the ’98 Emmy for Investigative Journalism with The Selling of Innocents, and the ’97 Emmy for The Plague Monkeys, which aired on Bill Kurtis’ Investigative Reports. In both cases, the producer hit on issues which ended up in vogue in the media: sex-trade in Asia and the ebola virus.
However, the decision to buy into the two-hour doc was made before the Emmy wins. Associated has a successful history of hard-hitting, well-wrought feature-length docs – exactly what Briamonte and department head Michael Katz, who greenlit Quest in ’95, look for when ferreting out the Sunday night specials. ‘High-concept, high-profile, big-budget documentaries,’ she says. ‘Both prestige and viewership vehicles, which are, for us, an opportunity to explore new production partners and subject-matter which falls outside of our ongoing series.’
A mix of modern and ancient, of travel, archaeology, anthropology and whatnot, with undertones of Indiana Jones, the CDN$1.3 million doc (also funded by CBC and Alliance) explores the mystery of the ten lost tribes of Israel, which were destroyed by Assyria in 721 BC. Carried into exile, they disappeared into legend.
The project (a search on a Marco Polo scale) combines myth exploration and modern-day detective work. ‘It was taking investigative journalism tools and applying them to prophecies,’ explains Simcha Jacobovici, director and producer (with Elliot Halpern).
He explains that aspects of different religions are predicated on the disappearance and resurfacing of the tribes. ‘Both for Jews and Christians, the return of the tribes is a must for the apocalypse,’ he says. ‘I’m privileged to be investigating a real historical mystery that’s of absolute gut-wrenching interest to millions of people.’
And ultimately, A&E wanted to cover the millennium, but through an original treatment. ‘It deals with millennial themes of the apocalypse without being a compendium of the last 2000 years,’ says Briamonte.
‘Quest for the Lost Tribes represents quintessesntially what we want to do… .We’re looking for strong stories which illuminate popular themes,’ she states, ‘and then we like to go in deeper and fill in the details, and expose audiences to a whole new layer of interest and drama. We look for dramatic stories which tap into things that are on people’s minds or close to their hearts.’
The Sunday primetime slot runs two-hour one-offs, as well as the occasional four-hour doc with the second segment airing Monday night (the regular program pre-empted). Recent shows include: Murder in Savannah (Greystone Communications), The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling (Hearst Actuality); upcoming there’s Story of Christianity (FilmRoos), and a gritty look at the NYPD Hostage Crisis Unit (Hybrid Films).
The strand is almost all commissions. Coproductions are infrequent, and acquisitions are basically extinct. ‘I can recall one since I’ve been here,’ says Briamonte, who has been with the department since 1995, and at A&E since ’94 (and in docs since ’90). ‘We really want to custom program,’ she explains.
International coproductions with partners catering to audiences of different tastes, speaking another language, hold no cachet for the English-language net, which is more likely to partner with the U.K., Australia and Canada (about 20% of commissions come from Canada, which has a high percentage of A&E viewers). However, a project with Montreal’s Canal D and Canal+ in France is in the works: Verseau International’s five-hour Cults and New Religions, which contains a number of English interviews, making conversion into a two-hour relatively painless.
The rights sought by the American cable network are quite simple: the A&E footprint, which includes all cable in the U.S. The price paid, on the other hand, is not as straightforward. ‘It’s competitive,’ she says (privately owned, A&E won’t talk money).
‘It really depends on the film, what’s in it, what the expenses are going to be… .We have a rough idea in mind of what we want to spend and then we let the project dictate from there. If it is something that we really want to do, and it’s too expensive for us, then we will look for coproduction partners.’
Jacobovici sees the strand as redefining `special’ beyond its broadcast denotation. ‘They are making their specials more special all the time,’ he says, citing A&E’s quality doc programming.
And Briamonte returns the compliment. ‘They’re exceptional filmmakers, who manage to find all the invisible threads and layers of meaning, which connect the viewer to the program,’ says Briamonte. ‘And they’re nice people. In the end that’s what matters most, because everything else can change.’