It wasn’t all that long ago when the word “conservation” provoked an immediate negative response from most broadcasters, particularly during a pitch. But that was not true at the 2015 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival (JHWFF) – which ran from September 28 to October 2 – where conservation was a central theme, particularly during the three-day Elephant Summit.
The pachyderm-themed program – which took place from September 27 to 29 – was almost entirely dedicated to elephant conservation challenges centering on poaching, the ivory trade, the key role of eco-tourism and the twin impacts of the human population explosion and poverty on elephant habitats, ecology and behavior.
This included many disturbing reports from the field, such as the situation in Mozambique, where some elephants have become aggressive towards people after years of being hunted for food and sport.
This behavior was dramatically captured in a prolonged and coordinated multi-elephant charge of cameraman Bob Poole and his crew in a dramatic sequence from Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of a Paradise, which illustrated how exciting films with strong conservation themes can be – at least in Africa.
“These elephants have endured years of persecution by warring factions, and have adapted by banding together to drive out invading armies of soldiers or tourists,” said Poole.
By day two of the Wyoming-set fest, most everyone – including broadcasters – grasped the gravity of the crisis facing elephants and other African mega-fauna.
“Lions, elephants and rhinos are the foundation of a US$80 billion eco-tourism business in Africa. If they go, $80 billion vanishes with them, plus all of the films about them. We need to make eco-tourism work for conservation to work in Africa. As [wildlife] filmmakers, we have a lot at stake,” said Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Dereck Joubert who, with his partner Beverly Joubert, also operates Great Plains Conservation, an eco-safari company with a conservation and development mission.
Barriers to access for African audiences
Filmmakers and broadcasters were put in the hot seat for making dramatic films about African wildlife that few Africans ever see – much to the detriment of wildlife.
“Most Kenyans can’t afford to visit the wildlife parks and also can’t see most of the films that you make about them because our [TV] channels can’t pay your license fees,” Winnie Kiru of Conservation Kenya told delegates.
“Most Kenyans can’t afford to visit the wildlife parks and also can’t see most of the films that you make about them because our [TV] channels can’t pay your license fees.”
“If you want us to care for the wildlife that you love to film in Africa, you must lower or get rid of your fees so that more Africans will see them and learn to appreciate and protect their wildlife heritage,” she continued. “We now have more TV slots than ever, but need wonderful programs about African wildlife.”
However, some filmmakers like Walter Koehler of Terra Mater had mixed results offering free programs to stations in Africa. “Only South African TV consistently ran our films. Others, like Zimbabwe, took them but didn’t broadcast them,” he said.
Elsewhere, some filmmakers were frustrated by broadcasters’ tendency to demand and hoard all distribution rights.
“Many [broadcasters] insist on all world rights to films they commission, but make 99% of their profit in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Australia…In reality, they would lose little revenue by forgoing Kenya or even several African markets,” said Michael Rosenfeld of Amber Road Media.
Seizing and caching all distribution rights (and outtakes) even happens within companies, as a panelist revealed.
“The National Geographic Channel wanted all world rights to Warlords of Ivory, that we [Nat Geo Studios] produced,” said Brooke Runnette, a senior producer with National Geographic Studios. “This would have prevented us from sharing it with the public channels of cooperating agencies and nations in Africa. We fought hard to retain those rights and we won.”
A focus on ratings, not conservation
Other filmmakers shared their own variations on this theme, with Off the Fence CEO Ellen Windemuth noting that broadcasters mostly care about how programs impact their ratings in a season line-up, rather than their impact on wildlife conservation.
“We [producers] need to nix the exclusivity clause in our contracts and secure rights to our outtakes, for education and conservation outreach by NGOs, teachers, wildlife agencies,” said Windemuth. “What we need is a standard ‘social responsibility’ clause to insert into our contracts.”
In fact, after several days of deliberation, a social responsibility contract clause for broadcasters and filmmakers was drafted by an ad hoc committee of filmmakers and commissioners, guaranteeing low- or no-cost broadcast (and non-broadcast) rights to public broadcasters and cooperating NGOs in the developing world for wildlife docs produced domestically.
“People can’t love what they don’t know, and won’t protect what they don’t love. These films are an important way of filling the gap,” said Ginger Thomson, director of Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
Filmmakers also cited a natural aversion to controversy by broadcasters as another hurdle to more conservation messaging in wildlife films.
“We use shocking images with provocative messages in PSAs and short videos to provoke reflection and action,” said Peter Knight, campaign director of Wild Aid. “Our anti-ivory campaign showed China’s [basketball star] Yao Ming reacting to slaughtered elephants in person and led to China crushing 6.5 tonnes of ivory and 95% of Chinese people supporting a ban on all ivory trade, which should happen fairly soon.”
Shawn Heinrichs, a director of photography on Racing Extinction, campaigned for and ultimately helped secure a ban by CITES (Congress on International Trade in Endangered Species) on the slaughter of manta rays by showing delegates gruesome footage of hunts he filmed in Indonesia.
“It took several meetings to get it on the agenda, but our footage had already won the hearts and minds of many CITES delegates and it passed easily once scheduled,” he said. “Our biggest challenge and victory was convincing key senior fishermen in the village where we filmed [hunts] to lay down their spears and instead to enable tourists from around the globe to enjoy the dance of the manta rays.”
A need for well-told conservation stories
During the course of the many sessions dealing with pressing conservation issues and storytelling, commissioners reiterated their openness to conservation stories – when well told.
The Grand Teton Award-winner Jago: A Life Underwater - one of realscreen’s 2015 MIPCOM Picks - aptly exemplified a creative, fresh approach to interweaving conservation themes with an interesting story.
The doc, which is available for viewing exclusively on 4K subscription streaming video service Smithsonian Earth, frames the changes to a coral reef community in Sulawesi through the eyes of an elderly, free-diving fisherman named Rohani and uses local divers to portray him in his earlier years. Jago recalls more than a half-century spent partly underwater and notes changes to the reef and its denizens over Rohani’s lifetime.
Of course, innovative storytelling doesn’t necessarily translate into a fast green-light from commissioners.
“Once we found Rohani, we realized pretty quickly that what we had to do was tell his story from the beginning. We tried to get it commissioned first [with the help of Passion Pictures] but it was quite a difficult sell,” said director of photography and producer James Reed. “I don’t blame the channels for not picking it up. It only really became clear what it could be when we started filming it. There were still a lot of unknowns when we set out for Sulawesi.”
Reed independently financed Jago, initially with his own credit card and later with help from friends, some strangers, and from his crew who worked on deferred salaries.
Perhaps fittingly, the making of Jago reflects the theme of JHWFF 2015: the ongoing struggle to identify and protect the precious and vital, all while incorporating honest and fresh storytelling.