Tangled Bank aims to untangle mysteries of science

Headed by former National Geographic Television exec Michael Rosenfeld (pictured), prodco Tangled Banks Studios will be the cornerstone of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's US$60 million science programming initiative.
November 26, 2012

Philanthropic research organization the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has launched Tangled Bank Studios, a production company focused on producing science documentary programs.

Headed by former National Geographic Television (NGT) president Michael Rosenfeld, the editorially independent company is the cornerstone of the Chevy Chase, Maryland-headquartered non-profit’s US$60 million film and television initiative, and will produce around 10 hours of science programming annually for TV, cinemas and digital media.

Its development slate includes two, three-part miniseries: Your Inner Fish, a scientific adventure story that chronicles the 3.5 billion-year history of the human body co-produced by London’s Windfall Films; and The Quest to Map the World, an account of the scientists and explorers that mapped the planet co-produced by National Geographic Television.

Amsterdam-based indie distributor Off the Fence will handle international distribution for both films. They are both being developed and produced in collaboration with U.S. pubcaster PBS, which will air them in America.

In an interview with realscreen, Rosenfeld said Tangled Bank’s programming will fall into “the classic non-fiction mold” in that it aims to strike a balance between entertainment and substance.

“Most people who are in this business spend a lot of time trying to get that balance right,” he says. “Quite honestly we’re pushing a little harder on the substance side.”

The veteran producer left NGT last year to become HHMI’s head of television and film and executive producer, a decision motivated by his desire for change after 22 years with the company, as well as his interest in getting involved in a start-up.

“[Howard Hughes] is one of those places that really spends its time trying to figure out how to make the world a better place,” he says. “There’s a sense of quality and mission there that is really appealing and, in some ways, not all that dissimilar to the sense of mission you have at National Geographic.”

HHMI is a non-profit medical research organization and the largest private supporter of science education in the United States. Footage from every project will also be used to create shorter films to be used in high school and post-secondary classrooms, and each Tangled Bank production will have an independent advisory board of scientists and experts to review content.

With so many networks – public and commercial – focusing on long-form series, Rosenfeld is hoping to fill a void in high-end, three-to-eight-part miniseries that are high-impact and delve into a topic in greater detail. Another area he would like to focus on is giant screen theatrical films that would play in natural history museums, science centers and aquariums.

“The audiences that go see those films are really good audiences for our mission: families with kids and school groups,” he says. “We haven’t made a final decision but we’re developing a couple of projects and I think there’s some real potential there.”

Tangled Bank, which took its name from the final paragraph of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, has a staff of six, including Rosenfeld, and is partnering with outside production companies on all projects currently in production and in development.

Although Rosenfeld intends to produce programs for cable, he admits that private broadcasters’ focus on character-led, multi-party reality series with broad appeal doesn’t leave much room for the kind of in-depth science programming Tangled Bank will specialize in.

“I still think there’s an opportunity there,” he says. “From a mission standpoint, we don’t only want to reach people who are already avid consumers of science. We’d like to broaden the audience and bring some fresh audiences in.

“We’re interested in not just telling people what we know but how we know what we know, which I think is a really relevant issue these days,” he adds. “There is good work being done but our feeling is there should be more good work being done.”

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