Buying Science

Producers and broadcasters alike are rushing to secure exclusive access to the next big find. But, as the intensity of the race to document scientific discoveries rises, so too does the cost of doing business....
December 1, 2000

Producers and broadcasters alike are rushing to secure exclusive access to the next big find. But, as the intensity of the race to document scientific discoveries rises, so too does the cost of doing business.

That the business of documentaries is increasingly competitive is not news. However, business is constantly changing as a result of this reality. In the case of science programming, both producers and broadcasters have responded to the competition by wielding the might of the pen. Today, exclusivity contracts between scientist and documentary filmmaker are de rigeur.

National Geographic is widely accepted by the industry as a pioneer of this tactic. National Geographic Society grant recipients and explorers sign a contract promising Nat Geo’s media arms rights of first refusal for popular publication of their research, findings and associated imagery. This past April, the Society established its Explorers-in-Residence initiative, adding seven prominent names (Robert Ballard, Jane Goodall, Wade Davis, Johan Reinhard, Paul Sereno, Stephen Ambrose and Sylvia Earle) to the Nat Geo brand. The activities of these resident explorers will provide Nat Geo’s media outlets with a rich source of science programming. ‘It is a wonderful source of stories for us,’ says David Royle, executive producer of National Geographic’s Explorer, a program that features the group’s work. ‘With an exploration, you are never certain of the outcome.

By having explorers in residence, we’re basically betting on people. For a television program, that’s a wonderful situation to be in, because I don’t have to pay to make these bets – it’s been made by the Society. Once in a while, [the explorers] hit the jackpot. When they do, I have the first opportunity to tell their story.’

National Geographic programmers also benefit from the scientific activities initiated by the Committee for Research and Exploration, which made its first grant to Jane Goodall in 1961 for her chimpanzee research, and the exploits of The Expeditions Council grantees, which was founded in 1998 to fund explorations geared towards adventure rather than the scientific method. ‘One of the principle reasons we were founded was to promote the development of new knowledge and exploration,’ says John Francis, executive director and vice chairman of the Committee for Research and Exploration. ‘We are in a fortunate position of having a number of vehicles – the magazines, television and websites as well as our lectures, programs and exhibits – through which to feature this work.’

Approximately 250 grants are awarded through the CRE annually, each averaging between US$15,000 and $20,000. A number of these result in such high profile projects as Robert Ballard’s expedition to the Black Sea and Johan Reinhard’s discovery of frozen Inca mummies on Argentina’s Andean mountain peaks.

Royle sees this arrangement as one of the greatest advantages for the National Geographic channel, and science producers have not missed the precedent. Since 1995, Stephane Milliere, president of Paris-based prodco Gedeon, has had exclusive access to the work of archeologist Jean-Yves Empereur. The arrangement developed when Milliere raised the $250,000 Empereur needed to excavate an ancient lighthouse from an area of Alexandria on top of which the Egyptian government was planning to build a breakwater that would bury the ancient ruin under tons of concrete. ‘When I met him, he had only two weeks to give the government an answer as to whether he wanted to do an archeological dig or not,’ remembers Milliere. ‘I came back to Paris and tried to find the money for him, because I thought it was too incredible that the remains of the lighthouse would soon be under thousands of tons of concrete. I couldn’t find the money, so I came back to him and said, if you give me exclusivity for the pictures and the film, then my company will give you the money. I needed the exclusivity, because I had to get some money back through the sale of pictures and the film.’

With exclusivity guaranteed, Milliere sold the program to France 2, the BBC, and PBS’ NOVA in the U.S. The resulting film eventually caused the Egyptian government to abandon its plans for the breakwater and garnered a further $400,000 investment from companies interested in securing a presence in the resulting media activity. ‘Sponsors would not commit to doing [these projects] if we didn’t have an exclusivity agreement,’ explains Milliere. ‘They want to be sure, when they give money, that this will be communicated. We can’t guarantee that without the exclusive rights, because we would never sell a film to the BBC or NOVA or Discovery if it’s not exclusive. [Broadcasters] won’t pay sufficient money if they’re not sure the story you’re telling is an exclusive. They don’t want to find the same story with the same people on National Geographic the week after.’

Within the last five years, Milliere says Gedeon has funded approximately 30 different missions. For each project, Milliere asks for exclusive access to the complete story, but he recognizes press reviews, television interviews and other news-related activity benefit his films, rather than compete with them. The producer is presently working on his fourth film with Empereur. Other current projects include the deep-water excavation of a shipwreck from the sixth century bc and the discovery of another shipwreck from 18th century France, during the rule of Louis XIV.

The dotted line

Larry Engle, producer, director, cameraman and founder (with sibling partner, Steven Engle) of Engle Brothers Media in New York, has produced science, adventure and travel programs since 1978, but only recently started arranging exclusivity agreements with potential film subjects. ‘Exclusivity is becoming more and more common. Whether it’s small independent producers or the broadcasters, everybody is starting to look at science as a commodity that can be locked up,’ observes Engle. ‘When we see a good character with a good story, our first instinct is not to develop it or shop it anywhere, but to try to sign the person up so that we protect ourselves. Why put the time and effort into developing a pitch if someone else is going to sign them up?’

Like Milliere, Engle sees the rise in exclusivity agreements as a sign that science programming has become an intensely competitive field: ‘With the explosion of outlets, there’s been an explosion of programs that need information and content. Much of that content is derived from science, because we’re an informational, science-based culture these days. There aren’t that many more scientists now than there were 15 years ago, but there are a hundred times more people in need of that information for programming.’

Unlike Milliere, who believes exclusivity applies to the content of a story, Engle sees exclusivity arrangements as a way to lock up a specific approach to a story. ‘If someone is doing a film about an archeologist’s findings at some site, they’re not signing up for the archeologist’s findings as much as they’re signing up the archeologist’s body of knowledge and charismatic capabilities. The findings are public domain; anybody can do that story, but not necessarily with that scientist.’

Exclusivity agreements can give smaller, independent producers a powerful bargaining tool. When Engle secured exclusive access to the work of Dr. Christy Turner, a professor with the University of Arizona researching controversial evidence of cannibalism among ancient tribes in the American Southwest, he had the advantage in negotiations with broadcasters. ‘C4, even though we pitched it to them, wanted to do the film with one of their directors,’ recalls Engle. ‘We basically said take the story with us or you don’t have a story. People were actually flabbergasted that we had exclusivity.’ The 60-minute doc Cannibals of the Canyon was eventually coproduced by New York pubcaster Thirteen/WNET and commissioned by the U.K.’s Channel 4, where it aired in 1999 as an episode of ‘Secrets of the Dead’.

Engle is careful to point out that despite this experience, larger companies often have the advantage of dedicated research and development departments that are more likely to find stories earlier than smaller indies, or whose budgets allow them to present scientists with more lucrative offers. Says Nat Geo’s Francis, ‘More often than not the scientists are very eager to work with us because we are such a powerful way for them to get their story told.’

Narrowing the field

In 1998, says producer/director Emmanuel Laurent of Films à Trois in Paris, an exclusivity agreement prevented him from accessing the story of an expedition led by Canadian geographer Kirsty Duncan. Duncan was hoping to retrieve samples of the Spanish flu virus from victims of the 1918 epidemic who were buried in Norway’s frozen tundra. Having successfully pitched the project to ARTE France and La Cinquième, Laurent found himself frustrated by the turn of events. ‘For a month we were in touch with Kirsty Duncan and scientist, Johan Hultin, who was involved in a similar expedition [in Alaska]. At the last minute, they turned us down because they said they had an exclusive deal,’ recalls Laurent. ‘The day we got the ‘yes’ from ARTE in France was the same day we got the ‘no’ from Kirsty Duncan.’

Laurent says the alleged exclusivity agreement was held by Toronto’s Associated Producers, which was coproducing a doc about the activities of Duncan and Hultin, titled Pandemic: Case of the Killer Flu, with U.K.-based Gosh Films. According to AP’s Eliot Halpern, who produced Pandemic with Simcha Jacobovici, the prodco held an exclusivity agreement with Hultin, but not with Duncan. He explains that as early as 1996, exclusivity was discussed with Duncan, but never consummated in a formal contract.

Laurent was able to attend Duncan’s actual excavation (which attracted television crews from TV2 in Denmark, Discovery Canada and NYT Television), but access inside the tent, where the bodies were being exhumed, was restricted to camera crews from Norwegian public broadcaster NRK – along with the BBC and Canada’s CBC, NRK was a broadcasting partner for Pandemic. Laurent says only selected segments of the exclusive tent footage were made available to other filmmakers and currently sell at a rate of US$460 per minute. (Pandemic aired on A&E’s ‘Investigative Reports’ in January 2000.) Laurent was disappointed the original concept for his film The Phantom Virus was thwarted and fears exclusivity contracts will silence important voices from the doc community. But, he sees exclusivity, especially agreements between private sponsors and scientists, as a greater threat to the accurate representation of scientific research: ‘In science, if you only have one point of view, you will only have one part of reality. Scientifically and politically speaking, it’s important to have several points of view.’ He adds, ‘Media ought to be allowed to do their work, asking questions that might be contradictory to a sponsor’s views.’

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