LONDON — Not many companies would be able to persuade one of the BBC’s biggest stars, natural history broadcaster David Attenborough, to defect to the Beeb’s biggest rival, satcaster BSkyB — but Atlantic Prods. pulled it off.
Documentary “Flying Monsters 3D,” written and narrated by Attenborough and produced by Atlantic, took home a BAFTA last month after bowing over Christmas on Sky 3D.
It has been released in Imax cinemas across Europe and, thanks to a distribution deal with National Geographic Entertainment, it will make its theatrical bow in the U.S. this year before securing a TV slot. The doc uses CGI to recreate pterosaurs, huge flying lizards with 40-foot wingspans.
It’s quite a coup for Atlantic, set up almost 20 years ago by CEO and creative director Anthony Geffen.
“David and I had wanted to work together for a long time,” says Geffen, who was at the BBC for 10 years before forming Atlantic. “The only reason David went to Sky is because the BBC couldn’t do 3D.”
Geffen says Attenborough was concerned over going to Sky, which hadn’t been known for high-quality programs. But the Atlantic exec says that has changed.
“Nowadays it is Sky that is taking the big, ambitious risks,” he says. “I am a child of the BBC, but the BBC is taking fewer risks than it used to.”
In fact, last week BSkyB announced a $360 million hike in its programming budget to $983 million.
Atlantic has built a reputation for factual films using state-of-the-art graphics and international co-producers.
Aside from BSkyB, Atlantic’s clients include the BBC, Discovery, National Geographic and PBS.
Its programs include “The Greeks: The Crucible of History”; a number of shows that claim to reveal new takes on Egyptian and biblical history; a new theory about Jack the Ripper; and drama docus on historical figures Hannibal and Crusades leaders Richard the Lionheart and Saladin.
Geffen is fiercely proud of his company’s independence. At a time of renewed consolidation and increasing U.S. investment in U.K. production companies, he is determined to buck the trend.”From day one, a lot of people, including Americans, have wanted to buy us,” Geffen says. “One reason we are still independent is because we are not just driven by the bottom line. We’re profitable, but we pick the projects we want to work on.”
Geffen believes it’s important to be in control of one’s own destiny.
“It is corny to say it, but content drives everything,” he says. “What is the point of selling out to a bunch of bankers?”
Last year, Atlantic made just 27 hours of TV. Revenue for 2010 was a tiny £9.3 million ($15.2 million), but this figure excludes feature documentaries such as the recent Everest movie, “The Wildest Dream,” made in tandem with Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, with whom Geffen has set up a partnership.
“It makes more sense to work with Mike in Hollywood and save on overhead than to set up our own L.A. office,” he says.
With “Flying Monsters 3D,” Geffen says the challenge in the U.S. is choosing whether to show it on a small web with 3D capability, such as 3net — set up in February by Discovery, Sony and Imax — or to show it on a major cable network like Discovery.
He predicts “Flying Monsters 3D” could make up to $50 million at the U.S. box office — good news for its main backer, BSkyB, which is pioneering 3D TV in the U.K.
Its 3D channel, which bowed in fall, now has more than 70,000 subscribers, and the satcaster already has commissioned another 3D natural history docu, with Attenborough providing the voiceover. For this one, Atlantic is focusing on tried-and-tested box office gold — penguins.
Geffen’s 3D crew spent an uncomfortable six months on an uninhabited island in the Antarctic to gather footage for the as-yet untitled film, following the amorous exploits of one bachelor penguin.
“It is a very commercial, mainstream film,” says Geffen, who is determined to give it a big theatrical push once a distributor is onboard. “I like to think of it as ‘March of the Penguins’ on steroids.”