You couldn't call them humble beginnings. Ad hoc, impromptu, casual - but not humble.
August 1, 2001

You couldn’t call them humble beginnings. Ad hoc, impromptu, casual – but not humble.

When the founders of Filmmakers for Conservation came together in 1999 at the front of The Round Table Room at Jackson Hole, their agenda was already set: to raise the level of awareness for conservation, on a global scale, with everything they had. At that point, what they had was a lot of passion, a lot of experience, and vision. Two years later, the FFC is still driven largely by vision rather than dollars, but it’s a vision that is now shared by a growing membership, corporate sponsors and celebrity backers.

‘I think it’s amazing how far we’ve come, from a loose knit discussion group to a real organization,’ comments Caroline Underwood, president of Filmmakers for Conservation, and a 20-year veteran of conservation television with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Nature of Things. ‘Until now, there was no organization of filmmakers from a tradition of wildlife and environmental filmmaking. It’s the first time we’re getting together as a profession to further the goals of conservation.’

FFC membership now stands at around 50 members from eight countries, and represents many facets of the industry, including producers, directors, writers, new media experts and specialists in underwater photography. Board members include professionals like Australian producer and director Ruth Berry, Chris Palmer from Virginia-based National Wildlife Productions, and Haroldo Castro, vp of international communications for Conservation International in Washington, D.C.

On Earth Day (April 22, 2001), the FFC began to create a more public image with the launch of a sleek website, designed by FFC vp Piers Warren, of The internet is a key component of the FFC’s commitment to give conservation issues a broader reach. There are hopes to establish a dedicated internet/TV channel, and when the FFC holds its inaugural general meeting at this year’s Jackson Hole Film Festival, it will be webcast.

For now, the website lists many possible FFC initiatives, such as FFC film awards or an entire festival, establishing a code of ethics for wildlife and natural history filmmakers, a register for filmmakers who want to provide their skills or equipment to conservation organizations at a reduced cost, studies to show that audiences will tune in to films with a conservation theme, and funding film projects. Though all these plans are in their infancy or still at the conception stage, innovative thinking is evident.

Robin Hoods and Red Alerts

In the website’s section titled ‘Red Alerts’, doc-makers can gather research on environmental hot spots, like the Pantanal wetlands in South America that are threatened by a shipping route, or the potential environmental disaster should oil rigs invade the Arctic National Refuge in Alaska. But Underwood points out that in terms of environmental crises, there is no shortage of good stories. The challenge is getting those stories to the right audience. This is where Haroldo Castro’s proposal for the Robin Hood Fund comes in.

‘We have a market problem,’ says Castro. Companies are targeting the first world, but the majority of biodiversity and conservation concerns are in tropical countries without a film industry or the opportunity to see these films when they are finished. The other problem is budgets. High budget films have a low impact on conservation.’ Castro also believes there is still a perception among broadcasters that conservation doesn’t sell. With that attitude in the marketplace, Castro thinks it will be difficult to convince filmmakers to address conservation issues on screen.

‘The idea of the Robin Hood Fund is that we should not be obliging filmmakers to talk about conservation in all their films. If they still want to showcase the beauty without telling viewers the ecosystem is in danger, one way they could participate in the conservation of this area is to create a line in their budget to give to the Robin Hood Fund. Why not take two or three percent of those million dollar budgets to create films that will impact these areas? The FFC could use these funds for inexpensive, high impact films on these areas, so there could be an educational effect on the countries where the threats are happening,’ Castro says.

In addition to soliciting resources from well-padded productions, the FFC is seeking contributions from corporations. Chris Dickinson, a lighting cameraman and editor based in London, is in charge of corporate sponsorship. He says he finds that fundraising from corporations is a slow process, but that over 50% of the companies he has contacted have responded favorably, and many, like Vinten Broadcast (U.K.), Ikegami Electronics (U.K.) and EDS Portaprompt (U.K.), have already given equipment or funds. Kodak Professional Motion Imaging (U.K.) is backing the FFC by offering a substantial discount on training courses for FFC members.

‘Everyone benefits: members get valuable training; the FFC gets income, and Kodak creates new film-trained dps to help ensure that film remains the recording medium of choice for the next generation of documentary and wildlife filmmakers,’ Dickinson says.

He is also working on celebrity support. Actor Sir Michael Gambon has committed his personality and energy to raising the FFC profile. ‘To me, reaching new audiences is one of the most important aims of the FFC, and VIP supporters can attract these kinds of audiences – those people who, until now, haven’t seen the relevance of environmental issues to their lives. Word of mouth is great, so long as it’s the right mouth,’ Dickinson notes.

Five-hundred-dollar-a-plate dinners with celebs may be in the FFC’s future, but for now they’re thinking on a grand scale and acting on a modest one. The FFC’s next move is to meet with existing members and attract new ones at Jackson Hole. ‘If we have a meeting right now, we have it in three different time zones,’ says Underwood. ‘Jackson Hole will be important, because when you sit down face-to-face there is energy and synergy to brainstorm. It’s one thing to read online what we’re about, it’s another to hear the voices of people already involved.’

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