CANNES — Execs from Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, Gaul’s Boreales, U.S.’ National Geographic and Japanese pubcaster NHK got together to share experiences on building innovative co-productions at a financing panel hosted at Mipdoc, which wrapped Sunday in Cannes.
Moderated by Pat Ferns, prexy and CEO of Ferns Prods., the panel highlighted two recent higher-bracket projects: “Dawn of the Ocean,” a co-production between ZDF and NatGeo; and “Facing the Killer Volcano,” co-produced by NHK and Boreales.
Today’s producers and commissioning editors share creative and financial resources from the early development stages. But as broadcasters want programs that have a local flavor, international co-productions present a major challenge.
Based on Frank Schatzing’s non-fiction novel, “News From an Unknown Universe,” the German version of “Dawn of the Ocean” looked very different from the U.S. cut that aired on NatGeo in 2010.
The German version is a three-parter featuring a well-known local presenter; the U.S. doc has two episodes and no host, according to Kathleen Cromley, executive producer at National Geographic Channel, which came on board at early script stage.
“We placed greater emphasis on science and history and we thinned out the narration — we wanted fewer words,” she said. “Once the program was delivered to us, it took two months with in-house producers to rework it, condense its content, change the chronology, add new audio work and retrofit some themes.”
For ZDF, finding a co-producer was crucial.
“When you plan a project as big as this you immediately think about co-production,” said Jens Monath, ZDF’s commissioning editor. “Because it takes so much work it’s important to find a solid partner. We had worked with National Geographic before and knew it was a great fit content-wise.”
Cromley concurred, “We had worked with ZDF on ‘America Before Columbus’ so we knew the production values would be high, with great attention to details. We knew what we would be getting into.”
Meanwhile, Jerome Cornuau’s “Facing the Killer Volcano,” a docu-drama centering on the explosion of Japan’s Fugendake grey volcano in 1991 that killed 43 people, was a 50-50 co-production between France’s Boreales and Japan’s NHK.
Mika Kanaya, producer and head of international co-production at NHK, said the tragedy was considered a taboo in Japan because many considered the deaths could have been prevented. “We thought it would be interesting to approach this subject from a French point of view.”
But ultimately, the French producer, Frederic Fougea said the DNA of the film was half French, half Japanese.
“We learned about the Japanese perspective and we go to understand how the Japanese people relate to Earth. We had to adapt our way of telling the story.”
Added Fougea, “It took two and half years and 17 scripts, but in the end, the documentary became more complex and layered as a result of the co-production.”
Sheryl Crown, managing director of equity investment firm The Documentary Co., said her company could put up to £150,000 pounds ($241,634) on doc projects with commercial potential.
“We’re looking for projects that have a lot of broadcasters’ money and an international sales company on board. We need to see on paper that we’ll get 120% return on our investment,” said Crown, adding that the outfit hoped to work with countries with co-production treaties or conventions in place.