As established natural history broadcasters spread their word around the globe, and companies outside the traditional pack jump on the wild world bandwagon, RealScreen canvasses four decision-makers on what they want, what they need, and what they avoid…
Paul Villadolid is a happy man. As senior VP of specials and non-fiction programming at Disney Television, he spent the latter part of June on a working vacation in Alaska, overseeing one of four nature documentaries recently commissioned by Disney. The unnamed four-part series begins airing in the U.S. on ABC affiliates in the fall of 1999, marking Disney’s re-entry into the natural history field after a 50 year hiatus – an arena where the animals aren’t stuffed or animated.
For Villadolid, Disney’s move back into nature documentaries was one which required serious consideration. ‘In the interim, while Disney had stopped producing nature programming, other companies had stepped into the void and filled it very admirably – companies like National Geographic, The Discovery Channel, PBS, Turner. They were all producing award-winning nature programming, and the question was: if we are going to re-enter this field, how can we make a difference?’
The difference, he says, is in the POV. ‘We’re really looking to tell very focused stories from the point of view of these animals, and if that means that a more dramatic story becomes a narrower story by focusing more exclusively on the plights and travails of the animal…and not diverting and taking in so much of the environment, which a lot of films attempt to do as well, then so be it.’
Villadolid is quick to emphasize the difference, however, between the old and the new Disney product. ‘In a lot of the old Disney films, there was a lot of anthropomorphizing…we are not going to do that so much. We are not going to take as many liberties as the old Disney films did. What we want to do is spend the time – some of these films are going to be shooting for 18 months or so – and really find behaviors and be able to identify with [the animals] and tell stories that way.’
A former creative supervisor at Showtime Television who managed the production of the 1991 critically-acclaimed documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Villadolid brought in John Wilcox, a producer of adventure and nature documentaries through his own company, Aspen-based American Adventure Productions, to act as exec producer for the four commissions. Shooting on two of the one-hour projects began earlier this spring.
On the look-out for projects, Villadolid and Wilcox began scouting wildlife film festivals and the PBS airwaves. ‘John and I started talking to people and meeting with people a little over a year ago in preparation for this series.’ The first as-yet-untitled Disney-produced doc, to be directed by Bruce Reitherman, will follow the migration of a caribou herd across a northeast portion of Brooks Range in Alaska for more than a year.
Reitherman came to the Disney duo’s attention when his film Denali – filmed in the mountainous Denali National Park in Alaska for the ABC/Kane-produced series The Living Edens – premiered on PBS. Says Villadolid, ‘We loved the idea of doing a film in Alaska and he [Reitherman] had just done a wonderful job with his Denali film…so we spent a long time courting him.’
Two others have been commissioned to date. One, to be directed by Pete Zuccarini, will focus on sharks in the waters of Baja. Wilcox, who’s produced a number of underwater films, found Zuccarini through word of mouth. The third project, commissioned by Disney through London’s Partridge Films and directed by Adrian Warren, will film the Etosha elephants in Africa.
The fourth of the Disney docs is not yet confirmed, but given the global nature of the other three, Villadolid is sure that it will be a U.S.-based subject: ‘I want to do something that comes from the lower 48.’
Reluctant to give exact figures, Villadolid confirmed that the budget of each project would top US$500,000: ‘The budgets we’re working with are at the high-end of natural history films. We’re very competitive. The kind of budget that National Geographic is spending.’
A significant part of that high-end budget has been earmarked for music: ‘A lot of times, when people get into post-production, the music budget is the thing that gets squeezed out. And we’ve really put aside a significant amount of money to do original scoring…and if needed [will] commission songs or license songs. An inspiration for us, to a degree, is The Lion King. The use of music in telling a story, I think, can be applied to these types of [nature] films and we want to try to do that.’
Buena Vista Television, Disney’s syndication division, will carry the films domestically, using affiliated stations owned by abc as part of the roll-out plan. Buena Vista International will distribute the films worldwide. Says Villadolid: ‘They’re very excited about this product also. Obviously natural history films travel very well overseas, so they’re actually one of our partners in producing these.’
The first is scheduled to air in the fall of 1999, with the rest falling within 2000. None of the four have yet been selected as the premiere. And, with another 12 months of filming ahead, Villadolid and Wilcox will be waiting at least a year for their next round of commissioned filmmakers.
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Odyssée (pg. 32)
Animal Planet Europe (pg. 41)
National Geographic Australia (pg. 42)