Disney goes wild with French nature label

Company gets involved in documentaries

PARIS — It’s unusual for a Hollywood major to entrust the creation of a new feature film label to one of its foreign outposts.

But that’s just what Disney did when it founded Disney Nature last year, naming Buena Vista France topper Jean Francois Camilleri as the new Paris-based entity’s president.

“Paris is a hub for natural history and wildlife documentary-making, so it makes sense for Disney Nature to be based here,” Camilleri says.

The topper also has an unusually keen eye for a hot doc.

Buena Vista France was the first backer to board “March of the Penguins,” way before Warner Independent got its hands on the movie. The Antarctic-set docu waddled its way to a gross of $16 million for Disney’s Gallic distrib.

” ‘March of the Penguins’ opened an opportunity for nature documentaries,” says Camilleri. “Today, people want to see ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Ratatouille,’ but they also want to take a break to see something different at the movies.

Camilleri says Disney Nature’s ambition is to make state-of-the-art wildlife films that deserve to be released theatrically. “We want to back films that are entertaining, but also convey a message about the world we live in,” he says.

The label plans to co-produce one or two docus a year, with budgets of up to $10 million. The first film to be fully financed and distributed worldwide by Disney Nature will be “Dreamscape,” a docu about the annual gathering of millions of pink flamingos on Tanzania’s Lake Natron.

“The pitch is: ‘March of the Penguins’ meets ‘Winged Migration’ meets ‘Darwin’s Nightmare,’ ” Camilleri says. “It’s an incredible story.”

Produced by the U.K. shingles Kudos Films and Natural Light Films, and directed by Matthew Aberheart and Leander Ward, the pic is slated for a spring 2008 release.

Docus about two threatened species, orangutans and the albatross, are among other projects in development. Disney Nature is also talking biz with “Planet Earth” director Alistair Fothergill.

Disney Nature could bring plenty of merchandising possibilities to the Walt Disney Co. — books, toys and games for worldwide auds.

“There’s a certain logic to Disney being involved in documentary-making, because of its target audience and because of its philosophy,” says Camilleri, pointing out the corporation’s ownership of the Orlando Animal Kingdom and its part in “Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures,” a classic piece of nature documaking.

Meanwhile, Buena Vista France, not Disney Nature, will handle the French distribution of two nature-themed pics: “The Fox and the Child,” Luc Jacquet’s fictional follow-up to “Penguins,” which will bow Dec. 12; and “The First Cry,” due Oct. 31, a docu about the gestation and birth of 10 babies in different parts of the world.

With a rash of other docus upcoming — including two French projects, Jacques Perrin’s “Oceans,” and photographer Yann Arthus Bertrand’s environmental-themed “Boomerang,” financed by Luc Besson’s Europacorp — isn’t the cinemagoing public going to tire of the genre?

Camilleri is convinced it won’t.

“Nobody says that animation is a fad, or that comedies are a fad. A good film will always find a public, and that applies to documentaries as much as it does to any other genre,” the topper says.

A father of two, Camilleri is also inspired by a mission that goes beyond the mere commercial.

“At Disney, we have a role to play, because our films touch millions of people, families with children who are the next generation. Documentaries can explain things that are important for the future of the world, as well as entertain them.”