An Optimist’s Guide to Production

Extreme weather patterns, environmental challenges and questions about the future have put climate change at the top of audiences’ minds. While getting content on troubling topics made and sold can be touch-and-go, the brand-new An Optimist’s Guide to the Planet with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau can help factual producers gain insight on how to toe the line between realism and marketability. Produced by Cream Productions and Wildfire Television in association with Bloomberg and Bell Media, the docuseries is set to bow on February 8.

“The series was inspired by the feature documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, which is an artistic exploration of the physical effects humans have had on our planet,” says David Brady, CEO at Cream Productions and executive producer of the series. “Where Anthropocene explores the detrimental side effects of centuries of human ingenuity, An Optimist’s Guide to the Planet with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau looks to the future and toward the positive solutions that our ingenuity will deliver.”

Brady sees Coster-Waldau, an actor and producer who has also worked with the United Nations Development Programme as a Goodwill Ambassador for sustainability, as “a kindred spirit.” A perfect fit for An Optimist’s Guide to the Planet, “he is passionate about a positive future and was enthusiastic about leading the expedition.”

The six-parter travels the globe, making stops in Greenland, Australia, the U.S., Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Kenya, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Spain, Mexico, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Choosing where to take the series was no easy feat, but the criteria were simple. “First we found stories, solutions and ideas that excited us,” says Coster-Waldau. “After that, it was a question of how to make it logistically work. What was clear was that we could do 20 seasons of this show and still only scratch the surface of the incredible amount of inspiring people all over the world.”

Incorporating such an ambitious roster of locations takes thorough planning. While the production was not immune to the current downturn in market conditions, Brady explains that with two major broadcast partners on board, “we had a healthy budget to create the series that we dreamt of making. Even still, we needed to find cost efficiencies everywhere in order to bring what we could to the screen.”

Brady says these cost efficiencies included incorporating block shooting and scheduling for each location and minimizing the frequency of travel, “in part due to budget and [in part due to] the green nature of this show.”

“The four-dimensional chess game that our production teams constantly played involved flight and transport changes, visa timing, creative changes, location decisions, catching stories like butterflies in a net, contributors’ schedules, access restrictions and weather,” Brady explains. Indeed, maximizing the global reach of the storytelling the series aimed for required stretching the production budget to be a top priority. “We considered everything with costs in mind.”

Landing as many partners as possible across territories was important for creating the aforementioned healthy budget. “Together with Nikolaj and our partners Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, we at Cream took the project to a number of networks and streamers; Bloomberg Originals was the first to jump in with an offer,” says Brady. The series is set to land on a raft of platforms this week, including Apple TV, Hulu and Roku.

“To access the maximum Canadian co-production tax credits, we needed a Canadian network, so we took it right to Crave in Canada,” Brady says. “They jumped in fairly quickly with a generous offer for Canadian rights.” Because Coster-Waldau is not Canadian, the series needed to be structured as a treaty co-production. “I approached Philip Clarke at Wildfire Television in the U.K.,” Brady explains. “They provided production travel and coordinated location logistics, among other things. Combining their efforts with Nikolaj’s production company Ill Kippers, the fellowship was formed.”

Star power is also a crucial element in getting any series made and sold, and the factual space is no exception. “Nikolaj is an established actor with so many movies and series under his belt, including the global megahit Game of Thrones,” notes Brady. “During production, passersby stopped to gather around him, and it’s that same star power that will draw them into the world that we’re exploring through our new series.”

But fame is only one-half of the necessary appeal; genuine passion is what reads through the screen. “Both Bloomberg Originals and Crave sensed what makes Nikolaj unique. He’s not only a star; he also is an enthusiastic environmental advocate who’s optimistic about our common future.”

While optimism is important, successfully selling positivity to audiences also requires acknowledging the reality of climate change. “The optimism has to be, and is, grounded in reality,” says Coster-Waldau. “We are not trying to ignore the enormity of the challenges we face both locally and globally, but what we did find was a desire for positive change. It’s not going to be easy. Rome wasn’t built in one day, but it was built.”