Executives from ZDF Enterprises, NHNZ, PBS, CCTV9, ARTE France and ZDF weighed in on co-productions in a MIPDoc keynote superpanel moderated by World Screen’s Anna Carugati ahead of the premiere of the blue-chip series Big Pacific.
Kyle Murdoch, managing director of NHNZ, said that co-production makes up about 60 percent of the company’s activities. Big Pacific is a good example of the kinds of co-pros NHNZ is involved with, Murdoch noted. “It’s probably a very extreme example of a co-production too, because we have so many partners,” among them PBS, CCTV9, ZDF Enterprises, ZDF and ARTE.
“Co-production is important for us because it brings together financing but it also brings together platforms from different parts of the world,” Murdoch said. “That’s essential for us to be able to create something as big as Big Pacific because it’s an expensive underwater blue-chip series to make.”
Jens Monath is the commissioning editor of Terra X, ZDF’s Sunday night doc slot. Recent examples of co-pros for Terra X include The Celts, a three-parter with the BBC. “We did all the reenactments, BBC sent us documentary shots, so that was a very good co-production. We did First Flight with ABC Australia and a production company from Perth. We’re in all kinds of models, with broadcasters and with production companies.”
Pamela Aguilar, senior director of programming and development at PBS, oversees science, culture, natural history and history at the American public broadcaster. Co-productions are extremely important to PBS, she said. “We’re able to access local productions, local producers from around the world, and make our dollars stretch.”
When asked if co-productions help producers and broadcasters access sources and locations they wouldn’t be able to on their own, NHNZ’s Murdoch said, “Absolutely. Big Pacific [involves] such a massive geographical area. A lot of the co-producing partners have some sort of link with the Pacific. For example, we can access parts of China that we wouldn’t be able to access without CCTV, access parts of the U.S. or French Polynesia.”
Hélène Ganichaud, the deputy head at ARTE France overseeing the specialist factual department, commissioning science, history, nature and natural-history docs, referenced a current docudrama project with NHK. “It’s definitely access, experts, location, down to Samurai costumes. They are literally managing the production locally, so it’s incredibly beneficial. Between the French and Japanese production, it’s very intertwined.”
On the subject of what kinds of projects work best as co-pros, PBS’s Aguilar mentioned science and natural history. “History is a little tougher for us at times because it really needs to relate to an American audience.”
Ralf Rückauer, VP of ZDFE.factual, said that ZDF Enterprises is involved in many history co-pros. “There is space for history,” he said, but agreed it can be challenging as “sometimes we don’t share the same history. Science and natural history are more global from the start.”
Monath said that Terra X is looking for partners for historical docs. “If you look at the market right now, we don’t find many big documentaries about history. To make big projects happen, like The Celts, you need partners. The audience expects a cinematic look.”
CCTV9, the factual channel operated by the Chinese state broadcaster, is always looking to “bring the highest production values and the best storytelling” to its audiences, said Yuan Tian, head of international and co-production. The focus is on “traditional or classic factual programs. We launched the channel in 2011 and since then have worked with international colleagues. We’ve learned from our partners.”
Wildlife, science and history are the key areas of focus for ZDFE.factual, Rückauer said. The company does come on board to gap finance projects from producers from around the world. “We invest in programs we think other commissioning editors would like to show their audience.” Over the last few years, Rückauer said ZDFE.factual has turned to another model. “We start a new and fresh idea together with a producer, like Jasper James in the U.K. We encouraged him to create a sizzle on the topic of ‘size matters’ and he did and now we have a co-production [Why Size Matters]. We want to be a little bit more involved in the creative process and be financing from the start.”
Carugati then moved the discussion to Big Pacific, which originated at NHNZ. “We developed the concept in-house. From my office I can see the Pacific Ocean, it’s our backyard. NHNZ has been making television documentaries for 40 years. To do something ambitious about the Pacific is almost a culmination of that 40 years of experience in producing. We want to take natural-history stories and turn them on their head. We didn’t want to give people exactly what they expected. We want unexpected stories around the Pacific.”
ZDFE.factual’s Rückauer said that NHNZ’s sizzle for the project gave him goosebumps. “It gave you a ‘never seen before’ feeling. I get 1,000 proposals a year. Sometimes you get a little bored. The sizzle really was outstanding.”
Ahead of production, NHNZ held a summit with the key partners. “We discussed the topics, what people liked and didn’t like,” Murdoch said. “I enjoy working collaboratively with our partners. It means that people have skin in the game and they feel they are involved.”
To offer up a new perspective on the Pacific, each episode of the series “is driven by a narrative arc of a particular emotion,” Murdoch said. “We have ‘Violent Pacific,’ ‘Passionate Pacific,’ ‘Voracious Pacific.’ It’s a snapshot of life in the Pacific.”
ZDF Enterprises is launching the series to the global market at MIPTV this week.