Walter Köhler and Sabine Holzer tell TV Real about how Terra Mater Factual Studios is chronicling a mission to the moon, delivering high-end wildlife docs and spreading a message about conservation.
In the second half of next year, Robert Böhme and his team at PTScientists will embark on the first private mission to the moon. “We aim to create an ‘Apollo moment’ for a new generation,” Böhme has said about the endeavor, which will use two lunar rovers to capture HD images from NASA’s Apollo 17 landing site. Mission to the Moon has signed on a slew of commercial partners, among them Audi and Vodafone, while Red Bull Media House was tapped to serve as the global media production and distribution partner. Terra Mater Factual Studios, a subsidiary of Red Bull, is set to roll out a three-part doc series about the mission.
Walter Köhler, the CEO of Terra Mater Factual Studios, was among the advisors on Red Bull’s historic 2012 space jump, in which Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner flew into the stratosphere in a helium balloon before free-falling and parachuting back to Earth. “When I was still commissioning editor at Austria’s public broadcaster ORF, I encouraged them to [air] it live,” says Köhler of the headline-making stunt, Red Bull Stratos. That spirit of risk-taking is the perfect attitude for chronicling Mission to the Moon, Köhler notes, and is in line with Böhme’s own approach. “It’s amazing that such a young guy has the vision and the guts to do this,” Köhler says. “What makes him so incredible is that at the moment, this small team is the only one that has the technology to land on the moon, except, we think, the Chinese state program. Neither NASA nor ESA has a landing module.”
While space and science indeed feature prominently in the Terra Mater Factual Studios portfolio, the company, which Köhler founded after years of honing his craft at ORF’s Universum division, is best known for its high-end blue-chip wildlife docs. And across that slate, a message of conservation is always present.
“In the last eight years, a lot has changed,” Köhler explains. “The urgency of saving our planet has become more and more obvious. I grew up in the last 30 years in the business being quite influenced by my friend David Attenborough. The two of us always say, you have to change attitudes toward nature by showing audiences the beauty of nature—so that they care. This is still relevant, especially on the small screen. What we don’t want is to only show how everything is being destroyed. My fear has always been that the reaction of the audience is then to say, Everything is lost, what can we do? In our feature docs, when we tackle natural-history topics, we want to do them a little bit differently. They should be far more cause-driven, campaign-driven. We tested the waters with The Ivory Game and won on every count. From the beginning, the goal was to change China’s attitudes toward their national legal market in ivory. At the beginning of this year, they put the legislation through. A lovely film about elephants would have never changed [policy]. We lived on natural history for the last 35 years—my feeling is we have to give something back.”
The Vienna-based outfit has managed to build up a prolific output in the seven years since its founding, including several productions with natural-history icon Attenborough. It produces 18 to 20 natural-history docs for TV every year. “When I started the company, we set out to prove you can make quality in certain quantities, even outside the BBC. Today I can sum up that we succeeded.” Köhler says. “Feature docs are a little bit tricky. You have to find a need for them. And then you have to manage the risk. The financing model is different. The one we have in production now, I decided to risk everything and just start it,” even though the financing isn’t complete. “If you don’t start, the action is gone, the cause is gone.”
In addition to its television slate, the company currently has two feature docs in production and one in development, and is also developing various related fiction series. Terra Mater Factual Studios can deliver this level of output because much of the team has been working together for many years; in the case of Köhler and Sabine Holzer, the head of specialist factual, it’s a relationship that has lasted some three decades. “In our business, nothing can beat experience,” Köhler says.
“Experience and market knowledge are key,” Holzer agrees. “We have 20 hours about to deliver, at least 20 others in production, 20 others where we are trying to secure the budgets, and another 20 in development. So, we manage roughly 80 hours per year in a wheel. I work with a small team of EPs and I can rely on my people completely.”
Asked about what broadcasters, particularly in Europe, are looking for, Holzer notes “that channels with regular wildlife and science slots have an appetite for miniseries of 3×1 hours as well as for one-off specials. The same applies to multi-territory networks such as Nat Geo WILD, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.”
Strong sellers have included titles that take audiences to “exotic countries or dream destinations. These films often tell a story of certain inhabitants, which means there is a solid storyline embedded in stunning pictures of landscapes and never-before-seen behavior.”
Holzer adds, “The traditional market is still there, luckily, as there remains a huge demand for blue-chip natural-history and science programs. It was said that they were doomed to death—not due to the content or the audience habits, but much more because of the budgets required.” Co-productions remain a crucial way to get expensive titles off the ground.
OTT platforms, Holzer adds, can be good homes for “very specialized content,” but there is always the question of how much they can contribute financially. There is also the matter of inventory on OTT platforms. Köhler notes, “The nonlinear platforms will say, I have one elephant show, why do I need another one? The answer is, You have one crime series, do you need another one? This is a learning process [for them].”