Terra Mater Factual Studios’ Walter Köhler & Sabine Holzer

Walter Köhler, Terra Mater Factual Studios’ CEO, and Sabine Holzer, head of specialist factual, share with TV Real what’s new at the company and reflect on trends in the factual business.

Terra Mater Factual Studios doesn’t just make beautiful documentaries about the Earth’s natural wonders; the company, founded by Walter Köhler almost a decade ago, is actively working to protect the planet’s precious resources. From campaign-driven feature docs like Sea of Shadows and The Ivory Game to developing a green strategy that can be implemented at other production houses to a series of videos on its own YouTube channel, Terra Mater Factual Studios has made fighting the devastating effects of climate change a key part of its business model. In the process, it has become a well-respected fixture in the global documentary production sector with titles commissioned by and sold to free, pay and OTT platforms across the globe.

***Image***TV REAL: Were any of your productions impacted as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown and subsequent travel restrictions?
HOLZER: COVID-19 principally prevented us from traveling, but in the spring, we were lucky enough to have finished all the principal shooting for a couple of products, so we could go right into postproduction and editing. Also, I’m working on a lot of films with local teams—in the U.S., the U.K., South Africa. That works well.
KÖHLER: We have a lot of green initiatives running at Terra Mater. One of these initiatives—which helped us a lot during lockdown—is the reduction of travel activity to keep CO2 emissions low. So, we’ve established quite a big network around the world, working with local teams who are in the place of the event, who have the best expertise in the region, and we just travel with directors and producers. [During COVID-19], contact with the teams was more or less virtual. It worked out. One of our big feature docs is expecting its last shot hopefully soon in Russia. We postponed the start of one production about primates—not because of traveling but because the whole shoot would have been harmful to the great apes we wanted to film in Africa. And we had to evacuate one team out of India. That was more or less where we were hit.

TV REAL: The SVODs have seen their businesses grow during the pandemic. How is the proliferating digital landscape impacting your business? Are they creating opportunities for new kinds of stories to be told?
HOLZER: The OTT platforms have been there since before the binge-watching and lockdown period. It’s not a surprise they grew subscriptions. We are working with all the different outlets for our productions, be it public broadcasters, pay-TV or OTT platforms. For us, they are great complementary outlets. We are developing our products for all of them.
KÖHLER: Especially on the feature-film side, which I’m handling, [the SVODs] are getting more and more important. We will see how cinema will compete. This will be a key issue in making these big films possible. At the moment, we are also experimenting with different types of storytelling. We just finished a film in co-production with our French friends Bonne Pioche called The Bastard King, which is about a lion hero. It’s made with real documentary footage but telling a fictionalized story, with some political backgrounds. We’ll see how this works. It will premiere on Canal+. We are [selling] the worldwide rights. I would not be surprised if some of the platforms would be interested in this new way of storytelling.

TV REAL: Do you think COVID-19 has opened people’s eyes to what we are doing to the environment—and how we can change it?
KÖHLER: My feeling is we have to develop much more awareness. At the moment, the world is just interested in a vaccine and not eliminating the reasons for this virus. My feeling is, our society is living a very unnatural life. The wet markets in China, the bushmeat trade in Africa, the industrialized animal farming we have in our Western-dominated civilization. This is the reason for COVID-19. If you do not fight that, the vaccine will maybe help against COVID-19, but the next disease is just around the corner. We have to harmonize our life toward nature; otherwise, we are doomed.

TV REAL: How do you put these important messages of conservation in your storytelling so that these films can have a real-world impact?
KÖHLER: On the feature doc front, when we do these big films like The Ivory Game or Sea of Shadows—which was nominated for a Primetime Emmy—there’s a political target area. When we start the project, we single out one political target we want to reach. With The Ivory Game, it was to help bring down the Chinese market for ivory, which we succeeded in, just two months after the film was released. It won at the Beijing International Film Festival and two months later, the Chinese administration publicized that they would stop every legal trade of ivory. On Sea of Shadows, we took a lot of initiatives to get the Mexican government working on that issue [the poaching of fish in the Sea of Cortez that is endangering vaquita porpoises]. And although it’s not solved, the situation is better than before, and we do hope they will find a solution to this complex environmental problem. This is what we try to do in these campaign-driven films. At the moment, we are also finishing a big project on ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] and the attempts to legalize oil drilling there. We’re finishing our first IMAX movie [America’s Arctic]. There will be a television version where we show the audience through the beauty of the place how significant the threats are and how easily this natural treasure chest can be destroyed. Especially in Sabine’s department, we try to hint at what people can do to protect the beauty of nature through its own beauty.

And since the fall of last year, we have a new, direct and immediate way to create awareness for endangered species or regions: our own Terra Mater YouTube channel, which has already reached more than 125,000 subscribers. Committed to our conviction that #terramatters, we create weekly videos about, for example, the origins of pandemics, the consequences of the sale of Alaska’s last wilderness, the deadly threat of ship strikes to whales or any other environment- and conservation-related issues.

TV REAL: What are some of the other projects you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?
HOLZER: For the fall season, we have quite a lot of films coming up. One is a big international co-production on the European Alps, with partners all around Europe and PBS in the States. I have two films on China: one is about Himalayan wildlife, starring the snow leopards, and the second production is showcasing the most beautiful animals of China.

TV REAL: What else is coming up for Terra Mater?
KÖHLER: Next year, we are ten years old. We will also publicize our green strategy. We hope that a lot of national and international production friends will find our recommendations appealing and try to help green the production business further and further. We need that. We are producing regulations for the whole production industry: how you should behave on set, how you should handle waste, what is the best way to reduce electricity, gas bills, how you can compensate for flights you have to take. Things like that give the industry perspective on how green a production can be. We are even going so far as to say by the end of the year, we will have our own CO2 calculator that you can pin down what the effect of the production is on the planet.