Tag Archives: Bristol

Don’t mention the E-word

There was a packed auditorium for the main debate at Wildscreen on Wednesday. It covered themes familiar to previous festivals, but no less important for that, according to Wildscreen veterans. How television wildlife films misrepresented the world and its environmental problems. How cute and fluffy animals don’t tell the whole story. How the word  ‘Environment’ is a turn-off for commissioners. Questions from the audience came from people identifying themselves as from the ‘‘Save the Rhino’ or ‘Ocean Conservation’ campaigns. They were impassioned about the need to raise public awareness of habitat and species loss, including of the dreadful trade in shark fin soup which kills between 75 and 100 million sharks a year. The reality of climate change and our role in destroying our planet hung over everything.

On the panel, Channel 4 factual boss Ralph Lee presented a clip of the series Fish Fight, sitting alongside Will Anderson of producer Keo Films. The impact of Fish Fight on the policy of supermarkets, and European Union policy, including through social media is thoroughly documented and well worth a read.

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But Channel 4 has had to set aside some of its campaigning work to keep its ratings up. I heard Ralph Lee say as he was leaving the venue that he’d been dining out on Fish Fight for three years. Alongside him on the panel, the BBC’s Science and Nature commissioner Tom McDonald squirmed a bit when asked if as a public service broadcaster they could do something like Fish Fight. He used the familiar BBC defence ‘we’re not allowed to do campaigns or be political’ – which seems quite weak to me. There’s nothing party political that I can see about a programme dealing with the food on our plates, or how the supermarkets behave. And Fish Fight wasn’t promoting a campaign group, it was an independently produced examination of the subject which got its message out.  If there was a problem with dealing with such issues, shouldn’t the BBC be looking at Watchdog and other consumer journalism? Feel free to browse the BBC’s editorial guidelines to see how you interpret them, and how they apply to series such as Fish Fight.

Ralph Lee had cleverly assembled a reel of C4 clips – from a live show from the Space Race, the drama Utopia, and a Kevin McLoud design series – to demonstrate how environmental questions could be covered in other programme forms, not just documentaries about the natural world. The BBC’s science and natural history commissioner Tom McDonald also reeled out plenty of examples. 

But this didn’t satisfy the audience, or me. The state of the planet is too grim, and climate change too grave an issue, for it to be just ‘smuggled into’ programmes. It really needs creative thinking and leadership from the top. Tony Hall of the BBC has brought about a change in the BBC to be an Arts broadcaster, and a Diverse broadcaster. And backed it up with money and resources. How about allocating similar funds and managerial will to making the BBC actively cover climate change and its effects? This BBC Trust report from 2011 on BBC’s Science coverage still seems to stymie debate in the BBC about the coverage of climate change issues – but it can’t be allowed to. TV has a bigger  responsibility than that.

Joe Smith and Kim from the Open University, with the filmmaker Jeremy Bristow behind the camera, interviewed me for a research project about the coverage of environmental issues in broadcast media. A great subject, and it made me think hard about the responsibility of people with such powerful tools as cameras, TV channels and other platforms at their disposal – and often with money from the public.

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Jeremy Bristow and Joe Smith

 

The channel I’m now working for, SBS, has done a series looking at the origin of the seafood Australians eat, called What’s the Catch? – starting on Thursday 30th October.  I’d like to see more campaigns and awareness-raising on the channel, and know I’m going to be asking myself with the same questions on the best way to get people to engage.  It can’t be beyond us to work it out, can it?

Please comment on this, or email me. Thanks for reading!

Wildscreen…I think I love you

Wildscreen is a conference and gathering held in Bristol for nature and wildlife filmmakers, distributors, and broadcasters. It happens once every two years, alternating with the Jackson Hole festival in Wyoming. Everybody clusters around Bristol’s lovely harbourside, like animals around a waterhole, wandering between the Arnolfini Gallery, Bordeaux Quay, and the Watershed centre.

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It’s relaxed, chatty, and dressed-down. 

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Nearly 30% of the world’s wildlife programmes are made by Bristol-based companies or crew. The BBC Natural History Unit was founded here over 50 years ago, and provided a foundation for the sector. Now October every two years is the place to be to watch, discuss and celebrate the genre. It has its Panda Awards, given out on the last night – and you can see the results here. Wildscreen feels very different from the business-driven ‘industry’ events like Realscreen, the Broadcast conferences, or Sunny Side. There are sponsors of course, but it’s all low-key.  Like the World Congress of Science Producers, Wildscreen feels run by the community for the community.

After I left for dinner on Wednesday I’d like to think the crowd at Bordeaux Quay would have got down grooving to this little number:

There’s a strong production aspect to Wildscreen – about actually making films as well as financing them. There was much talk about the need to innovate in camera techniques to boost declining audiences. Camera manufacturers and rental companies had their own room to show off their kit, usually with seriously long lenses attached. 4K is now standard for filming wildlife.

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Janet Han Vissering of Nat Geo Wild handed out lots of chocolates, and got the members of her panel on coproduction, the first of the day, to wear T-shirts with flags of the countries they were from. Everybody on the panel knew and had worked with each other. Janet’s metaphor for coproduction was a holiday with a friend, and she entertainingly got audience members to talk about the pitfalls of such holidays. All the panellists looked as if they’d be pretty good holiday company.

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Partnerships across borders are now essential in factual programmes. Hence the very international feel of the market. I met Germans, French, Austrians, Australians, Irish, Americans, Canadians. Kenny Bae from Korea was there with his hi-tech selfie-taker

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 Hiromichi Iwasaki of NHK in Japan told us about their very big budget Giant Squid documentary from earlier this year. The production used a boat costing $50,000 a day, for 60 days, to try and catch the first images of the squid. $3 million just for the boat, with the rest of the cost of making the film on top. (Though that $3 million did apparently include the submersibles).

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The US producer on this coproduction (on the right in the picture above) told the audience that having invested in the huge cost of the expedition, Discovery said that they wanted a ‘monster‘ film, not an expedition one, as ‘monsters were hot right now’. They needed quite a bit of persuading to keep the expedition aspects in, apparently. 

I’ve been making it my business to work in the coproduction area over the past three years. That’s been with the Sunny Side and Asian Side of the Doc markets, helping the international development of Gedeon, and now consulting for SBS in Australia. Wildlife is a very international genre, but because of that – and the fact it often doesn’t date – supply outstrips demand.  And the audience is always asking for something newer and different, particularly in Australia where both the ABC and the commercial channels show the cream of natural history filmmaking. I’m realising I need to ‘think different’ and find more partnerships with broadcasters – and not just the usual suspects – to secure the impactful shows that we want to bring the SBS audience. I’d love to hear and talk about ideas along those lines you might have.

Suzanne Harle from distributor Green Planet Films,  seeing that I represented SBS, told me of when she was a student in the early days of SBS, where it was associated with programmes about drugs, peace and love. Apparently in those days the student audience watching it was mostly stoned, and SBS stood  not for Special Broadcasting Service but for the Special Bong Station. I will look that when I go to Sydney in December…

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