Natural History: Dormant no Longer

The last few years haven't been easy for the natural history sector. While the steadily expanding global empires of thematic channel operators like Discovery Communications and National Geographic have played a key role in keeping the genre's head above water, the number of free-to-air networks able to finance a wildlife show has dwindled.
October 1, 2004

The last few years haven’t been easy for the natural history sector. While the steadily expanding global empires of thematic channel operators like Discovery Communications and National Geographic have played a key role in keeping the genre’s head above water, the number of free-to-air networks able to finance a wildlife show has dwindled.

‘There’s no shortage of people willing to acquire a completed blue-chip production,’ says Ian Jones, who has just taken over at National Geographic Television International (NGTI), the new name for the Nat Geo-owned distribution subsidiary Explore. ‘But there’s still a problem finding broadcasters that can commit to a substantial part of the production budget up front through pre-sale.’

That’s not surprising when you consider that an hour of top-quality blue-chip wildlife still costs US$500,000-plus per hour to produce. That’s twice as much as most reality shows, usually without delivering the same ratings. The result is that some shows never get off the blocks: ‘If you were looking at a typical one-hour blue-chip film,’ says Jones, ‘you’d aim to get 30% to 40% of the budget from the U.S., and a similar amount from two partners in the big European territories and/or Japan. But there are plenty of projects out on the market at present with only one partner attached – which effectively means they’re not being produced.’

London-based Parthenon Entertainment’s Carl Hall says the downward pressure on prices has polarized the market. ‘The thematic channels need long-running series to fill their schedules. There’s still demand for event and one-off films that can be slotted into flagship strands on free-to-air networks, but all the mediocre stuff in the middle is gone.’

Reduced volume has caused the number of companies left in the nh production/distribution business to shrink. Those that survived the cull have found that editorial requirements have also changed, with emphasis given to man-animal interaction.

NGTI is better placed than most to survive since it has a channel to feed, a respected natural history unit, and long-standing relationships with wildlife players such as pay channel Canal+ in France and pubcasters ZDF in Germany and NHK in Japan. Its current slate, however, underlines the importance of delivering a storyline that goes beyond depicting core behavior. Uganda’s Killer Crocs (52 minutes), for example, includes croc expert Brady Barr’s attempt to capture a 15-foot, one-ton crocodile and fly it from Uganda to an alligator farm in Florida.

Alongside man/animal relationships, the other big trend is towards shows that depict extreme animal behavior. The NGTI program getting the biggest push at MIPCOM, Predators at War, is a 2 x 52-minute film from Kim Wolhuter and Jeff Morales that has five predators (lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and wild dogs) scrapping for survival in the midst of an African drought. Additionally, NGTI’s pitch to buyers underlines the need for a hook: ‘CGI and creative shooting techniques are used to draw the battle zones. There are satellite grid visuals, on screen terrain statistics and internal views of the animals at war.’

While that might sound more like Fox News’ coverage of the Iraq war, Jones stresses that the science of the show is sound. And the shift away from traditional-style films towards man and animal/extreme behavior is fuelling a mini-recovery for the genre. ‘When we started filming on DigiBeta tape and showing people interacting with animals in 2000, there were a few raised eyebrows,’ says Ellen Windemuth, MD of Holland-based producer/distributor Off The Fence. ‘Now we get great critical and commercial feedback for one-hour films like City Slickers and Biggest Nose in Borneo.’ City Slickers is a one-hour film about the havoc caused by penguins when they encroach on human habitats.

‘NH imploded in the ’90s because it became academic and boring,’ says Windemuth. ‘We’re always looking for a way to inject a strong storyline into a film. The acid test for us is: Would this animal character still be interesting if it were human?’

OTF’s slate includes its own productions and shows it reps on behalf of market-leading outfits like Natural History New Zealand. A look at the current line-up provides a snapshot of the genre. Deadly Seven (60 minutes from Wildside/Aquavision/OTF) is ’24 hours of non-stop action with seven skilled assassins of the African bush.’ Death Valley (60 minutes of HD from NHNZ/Thirteen/WNET/NDR/NHK) ‘takes an iconic location and explores how species survive extreme conditions.’

OTF also recently signed a deal with Marseille-based wildlife producer Saint Thomas Productions to rep a slate which includes four 52-minute films to be produced under the ‘Killer Animals’ brand. As a counterweight to these hard-hitting shows, there’s also Mosadi’s Story (60 minutes, Aquavision/OTF), about a group of elephant orphans taught to detect landmines and diagnose cancer.

All strong stuff. But is there a point at which such films cease to be NH and become animal-based entertainment? Windemuth is conscious of such concerns and identifies two dangers: lack of investment in original sequences and scenarios contrived to secure sensational footage. ‘Our shows put a strong emphasis on scientific accuracy and unearthing new behavior. There are some areas in which it’s impossible to cut costs without losing quality, but the critical difference between traditional wildlife and our productions is that we use filmmakers who know how to film people.’

Look across most NH slates and you’ll detect similar editorial plans. In Bristol, Tigress MD Andrew Jackson says: ‘As a rule, our strategy is to employ directors who’ve come up through film school and team them with classic natural history producers and scientific experts who know how an animal would react in a certain scenario.’

Tigress recently completed a classic blue-chip film for BBC2′s prestigious ‘Natural World’ slot called Kusasi, The King of the Orangutans. However, the company has also experimented with other approaches. It was a pioneer of star-led natural history production, taking the likes of Julia Roberts to exotic locations, and a big chunk of its slate is long-running presenter-led series for thematic channels, notably a 17-hour run for Animal Planet based around Austin Stevens.

Says Jackson, ‘Our approach has been to introduce any elements we think will create a stronger show – whether that’s presenters, comedy, drama, adventure, a strong music score, cinematic style or docusoap techniques.’

Granada International factual chief Mark Reynolds contends that such approaches will help the NH market make a come back. ‘But it will probably never return to the boom days of the late 1990s,’ he says.

Reynolds’ strategy parallels that of his peers. At the high end of his slate is a three-part series for ITV/WNET/Nat Geo International called Jungle, which tops the $1 million-an-hour mark. The fact that Jungle has backing from a commercial network like ITV is a sign that there may just be a revival in NH. ‘It’s a definitive blue-chip look at jungles,’ says Reynolds, ‘but with a fresh, more personal perspective on how people and animals cohabit. I’m hoping it will mark a new stage in the genre’s evolution.’

Still, there’s programming to be found at every price range at Granada, from King of the Waterhole (a high-end 60 minute film about animal power struggles at an all-important water source) to archive-based series Built for the Kill. ‘For all of us, the aim is to provide films that maintain the quality of behavioral science while meeting the needs of competitive schedules,’ notes Reynolds.

While Parthenon’s Hall says the bottom has dropped out of the market for average shows, he stresses that ‘there’s a loyal customer base in territories like France, Germany, the U.K., Spain, Japan and the U.S. for the very best blue-chip shows. You stand a better chance of recouping your money if you’re prepared to back the best stories with big budgets.’

A recent example at Parthenon is Valley of the Golden Baboons, a 50 minute hd film that looks at the internal strife of a group of baboons undergoing a leadership struggle during a drought. ‘That was backed by Nat Geo U.S., Nat Geo Worldwide, NDR and France 5,’ says Hall. ‘Our view is that the future lies in HD. Not only does it provide a better TV experience, but there’s potential for dvd, theatrical or interactive exhibition.’

While there’s still room for top-notch natural history, Hall says he is also exploring hybrid specialist factual opportunities in a bid to expand the number of slots open to the company. An example is Animal Devil, which looks at medieval superstitions surrounding creatures like wolves. ‘You have to see NH as out there competing with history and science for slots, and there are fewer of those thanks to the impact of reality TV.’

Despite this blurring of boundaries, Hall has no real fear for the integrity of the NH genre because of the checks and balances within the system. ‘Most of us depend on scientists for access and research,’ says Hall, ‘and there’s no way they’ll lend their name to something that falls short. The quality and range of natural history today is comparable to anything that’s gone before, thanks to editorial and technological innovations.’

Perhaps one of the best indicators of nh’s rising stock is the way mainstream distributors are starting to see it as a useful addition to their specialist factual slates. Fremantle International Distribution, for example, has signed up Nigel Marven’s series Venom Hunters and Animal Crimebusters (produced by Marven’s Image Impact for Thirteen/WNET and U.K. broadcaster Five).

Also, Buena Vista International Television has linked up with Washington, D.C.-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises to handle international pre-sales, coproduction and distribution for the company’s factual slate, which includes Searching for the Snow Leopard and Homicidal Nature – a new title that follows a team of experts as they investigate the man-eating animals of India using high-tech animatronic dummies and camera traps.

When distribution’s big predators start returning to the watering hole, you know the market’s coming back.

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