Green pics heat up MIPDOC

Big budgets also hot topic at confab

Get big and go green were the two messages coming out of this year's MIPDOC, the annual two-day international nonfiction confab held in Cannes ahead of this week's MIPTV.

The Oscar-winning success of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" has set off a wave of environmental docs that are heating up the international marketplace.

Among them is the ambitious "Earth From Above" series from France Television Distribution, which uses high-definition technology and satellite imaging to trace environmental degradation; and the green game show "Wasted! Waging War on Waste" from the U.K.'s All3Media, in which contestants compete to see who can best reduce their family's environmental impact.

MIPDOC featured a virtual flood of documentaries on the global thirst for oil and the harrowing environmental consequences. Germany's Telepool is selling the award-winning Swiss doc "A Crude Awaking: The Oil Crash," France's Tele Images International features "2013-Oil No More" and Australia's ABC is hawking "Crude," a 90-minute attack on the international oil business.

"Environmental issues are on everyone's lips since 'An Inconvenient Truth,' " said Bettina Oebel, head of documentary sales at German United Distributor. "The producers and broadcasters are scrambling to develop shows and programs to meet the need."

Many of the hottest global warming titles at the market also are the most ambitious. FTD's "Earth" cost €1 million ($1.4 million) per episode. New Zealand's TVNZ and National Geographic Television International are shopping around the four-part mega series "Ocean," which will be produced by Barrie Osborne, one of the producers behind "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

In getting big, environmental docs are only following a trend already set by science and historical nonfiction, which is increasingly focusing on tentpole productions — often costing the equivalent of a feature film — to pull in viewers.

The Discovery Channel's "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," National Geographic's "Gospel of Judas" and "The Dark Ages" from the History Channel are the most recent examples of event-size documentaries that draw ratings-winning audiences worldwide.

The project getting everyone buzzing at MIPDOC is WGBH International's "The War," Ken Burns' epic but intimate look at World War II that is narrated by Tom Hanks.

While Burns is a household name among U.S. history buffs thanks to his landmark documentaries series "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz," it is "The War," which airs on PBS in September, which could prove his most successful effort internationally.

Another title attracting attention is "Update: The World in 50 Years," a look into a possible high-tech future, produced by German pubweb ZDF in cooperation with the Discovery Channel. With a budget of about $4 million, the three-part series, with its state-of-the-art graphics and computer-generated effects, illustrates high how the bar has been set for primetime documentaries.

On the other end of the scale is the surging growth of documentaries online. Such sites as FourDocs and Green.tv are sprouting up to provide a distribution outlet for mainly shortform, low-budget nonfiction.

In the case of FourDocs, which is controlled by the U.K.'s Channel Four, the Internet is a testing ground for new talent, which can then be moved into bigger-budget traditional television.

For Green.tv, which is financed mainly by sponsorship, the Internet is a way to get the message out about environmental issues as well as a promotional tool to lead viewers to green docs like "A Crude Awaking."

"Broadband TV is an ideal medium for certain kinds of documentaries, like science documentaries," says Gideon Summerfield, managing director of U.K. Web-hosting firm Pioneer Online. "The Net is already where people go when they are interested in a science or medical issue, so it makes sense to put those kinds of documentaries up there where people can find them."

While the audience for documentary sites remains tiny, Internet TV operators are learning how to piggyback on the exponential growth of such popular user-generated sites as YouTube and MySpace.

"When we put 27 of our short documentaries onto YouTube, we saw our traffic skyrocket, with some 30,000 views of those films," said Paula Le Dieu, director of Open Media at FourDocs producer Magic Lantern Prods. "We learned pretty quickly that you have to take the work to where the audience is."

Good advice for any documentary producer — whether their film is a megabudget treatment of Word War II or a three-minute Internet clip on global warming.
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