Risky Business

Pink river dolphins swim through gold-tinted water and flit between trees in a flooded forest. Huge aruana fish leap into the air to catch giant spiders. These are only two of the images Andrea Florence and her crew spent over a year capturing in Brazil for the one-hour, Emmy Award-winning doc Secrets of the Golden River a decade ago.
JANET STILSON investigates the new distribution model
July 1, 2002

Pink river dolphins swim through gold-tinted water and flit between trees in a flooded forest. Huge aruana fish leap into the air to catch giant spiders. These are only two of the images Andrea Florence and her crew spent over a year capturing in Brazil for the one-hour, Emmy Award-winning doc Secrets of the Golden River a decade ago.

Today, that kind of wildlife production has become as endangered as some of the species doc-makers observe. ‘I’ve been in wildlife filmmaking for 18 years,’ says Florence, chief exec of London-based Aquila Films, ‘and the feeling of the industry is very different these days.’

At the time she shot Golden River, Florence was working for Partridge Films in the U.K., and the program was fully funded by L.A.-based producer/distributor ABC/Kane Productions, which retained all distribution rights for airing on its U.S. corporate sibling, the ABC network, and around the world.

Now, neither Partridge nor ABC/Kane exist, and it’s rare for independent producers to secure enough financing to shoot for a year. It’s even more rare for a distribution company to put up much money in advance.

The distributors that natural history producers seek to attract have evolved in significant ways. While they continue to cast a critical eye on the financial potential of projects, they are also demanding greater creative input.

The good, old days

To understand distribution today, it helps to look at what it was a few years ago. In speaking of the ‘old’ model of distribution for natural history programming, observers often point to London-based ITEL, which was absorbed into the U.K.’s Granada International last year.

Peter Worsley, who headed up the distribution side of ITEL’s business in the early 1990s, explains that ITEL routinely supplied producers with financing – in the neighborhood of 25% of the production budget – against international rights. ‘Very few companies would do that now, because they’re more concerned about cash,’ says Worsley, who is currently the managing director of AAC Fact International in London, a division of Canadian conglomerate Alliance Atlantis.

Worsley and others in the business point to a series of dynamics that caused distributors to change the rules of the game, not all of which are negative. Bryan Smith, executive vice president of programming and production for National Geographic Channels International, notes: ‘To some degree, blue chip wildlife programming of 10 years ago in many countries was financed by the tax payer, through public broadcasting systems. That source of money may not be so readily available now. But what happened is an enormous expansion of other markets, such as cable and satellite channels, which give indies a variety of avenues to sell their ideas.’

That said, many channels that established a viewer base by televising wildlife programming are now faced with a variety of new pressures. A producer would have to be living under a rock – or be photographing birds up an extremely remote creek for about five years – not to see the channels’ challenges: tighter budgets due to a decline in ad revenue; viewer fatigue due to an over-saturation of wildlife product, and/or changes in corporate mandates.

‘Almost without exception, small independents have had difficulty getting commissions in natural history for the last 18 months,’ comments Peter Jones, chairman of Bristol, U.K.-based Green Umbrella, which counts among its natural history productions Triumph of Life. ‘We’re all curious when the downturn will reach the bottom and we can expect an upturn.’

Bo Landin, managing director of Swedish prodco Scandinature, says that less than two years ago, there were about 225 primetime hours of natural history programming on German TV a year. Today, most of those broadcasters ‘have turned their back on it,’ he says.

Landin continues, ‘I’ve been spending the last few months working on budgets for natural history films, and I can’t make them work. I’ve concluded that it’s a dying breed.’ Both Landin and Jones rely on other genres of programming, such as history and science, to fill their production schedules.

The new attitude

Distributors are responding to the tougher dynamics in their own ways. ‘ITEL was an icon for a lot of indies, but it’s obvious now that they overpaid for product,’ says Simon Willock, Southern Star’s London-based group head of factual programming.

Notes Greg Diefenbach, vice president of production and development for Devillier Donegan Enterprises of Washington, D.C., ‘In the past, distributors bet that what was essentially an untapped world market for natural history programming could be successfully reached.’ As networks around the world became more involved in coproductions, that became a dangerous proposition.

Speaking of the networks’ dual role as competitors

and clients, Willock comments, ‘Broadcasters are our worst enemies as well as our partners.’ Southern Star still invests upfront in a select number of productions, ‘but I try very hard not to write checks,’ says Willock.

DDE finances indie productions too, but picks projects very carefully, ‘to make sure we have buyers or partners lined up early,’ says Diefenbach.

‘We still do advances,’ adds Marie France Han, COO of Paris-based distributor Tele Images International. ‘But, we are very careful about the types of advances we do.’ For smaller prodcos in continental Europe – companies that usually work with lower budgets than prodcos in markets such as the U.K. and U.S. – Tele Images often picks up a mere 10% of the budget cost in exchange for worldwide rights, she says.

Tightening the money spigot is just one way distributors have altered their business. In the past, distribs engaged in very little editorial activity; now some, like Southern Star, serve as executive producer, working with prodcos in the early stages to develop program concepts. This allows the distrib to sell the film globally to a variety of clients.

‘The future for indies involves a close relationship between the person who used to be the distrib and who is now a creative and financial broker,’ Willock contends.

While some filmmakers rankle at the idea of brainstorming creative ideas with sales execs, there are obvious advantages. Cobbling together a host of presale deals is not the expertise of most producers, notes Peter Hamilton, managing director of the N.Y.-based Peter Hamilton Consultants, which specializes in factual programming. ‘It’s a distraction from filmmaking,’ he adds.

Anything you can do, I can do better…

In the same way that distribs such as Southern Star are blurring the lines between sales and creativity, so too are some producers. Among them is Carl Hall, managing director and owner of new London-based production and distribution company Parthenon Entertainment. Hall, who headed up HIT Wildlife before launching Parthenon, struck a deal with his former employer (HIT Entertainment) to distribute the 280 hours of wildlife shows produced by hit during his tenure.

‘I’ve put together my own distribution business, because you can’t rely on a third-party distributor to have the knowledge to really sell the shows,’ says Hall. That was part of the problem at HIT, he adds, where factual shows competed for the attention of sales reps with HIT’s library of children’s programming.

Hall’s economics are buttressed by output deals, as well as through branching into history. He’s also secured an unusual deal with new British channel Simply Nature (owned by Simply Television), which debuted in July.

Simply Nature intersperses action/adventure, nature and wildlife shows with infomercials and commercials, selling products (home-shopping style) that appeal to nature enthusiasts, such as wildlife photography gear. Parthenon gets a cut of Simply Nature’s revenue from both advertising and merchandise sales.

‘People have said there’s no secondary revenue stream for wildlife programming, the way there is for children’s shows,’ Hall notes. ‘We’ll see how much of an audience is out there for this.’ He says Simply Nature is securing exclusive rights for only part of Parthenon’s library in the distribution window for satellite-delivered channels, and that it doesn’t jeopardize Parthenon’s deals with other channels in the market. ‘We’re not killing the golden goose; it’s a completely new revenue stream,’ he adds.

Parthenon’s financial creativity is manifest in other ways as well. Hall says he’s figuring out a way to produce blue chip programming for less money. While big-budget natural history extravaganzas can weigh in at well over US$1 million an episode, Hall says he can cut enough corners to produce top-tier shows for US$400,000 to $500,000 an hour.

The last word

To revive the genre, says Hamilton, those that create natural history programming have to come up with fresh ways of presenting their stories. And, distributors need to discover new ways to sell and finance natural history.

‘This is an exciting time, with new technologies,’ Florence concludes. ‘It makes people think in different ways. But there’s a limit to how far we can go.’

The Word on the Street

By Janet Stilson

In July, RealScreen and the Wildscreen Trust collaborated on a mini-survey, contacting 30 executives of natural history prodcos. While the sampling is small, the results offer a finger-in-the-wind reading of the state of the industry.

* Of those who answered the online questionnaire, 81% say they have fewer commitments from broadcasters for natural history programming today than they did two years ago

* About 69% of respondents admit they’ve branched out into other genres to make up for the loss of business

* 50% say they have laid off staff members as a result of the depletion in production

* In the short term, 38% of respondents expect there will continue to be a decline in commitments

* Another 38% foresee a rise in commitments

* 24% predict a plateau in demand

* Production companies are more hopeful when in comes to the future: 56% of respondents say that in the next five years they expect natural history production to experience an upswing

About The Author
Justin Anderson joined Realscreen as senior staff writer in 2021, reporting and writing stories for the newsletter and magazine. During his 20-year career he’s filled a variety of roles as a writer and editor at a number of media organizations, covering news and current affairs as well as business, tech, the film and music industries and plenty in between. He’s also spent time behind the scenes in television production, having written everything from voiceover scripts for documentaries to marketing copy. He has a degree in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).