Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

$100+ million for Wildlife Programs. What do Channels Want? What’s after 3D? Report from Jackson Hole

By Tom Veltre, The Really Interesting Picture Company


Two new, well-funded players made their debuts at the 2011 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, and they created quite a stir.

They were Terra Mater and The Howard Hughes Medical Institute Film Program.

Terra Mater

Terra Mater was created earlier this year as the Science & Natural History arm of Red Bull Media House, the content arm of the Red Bull energy drink giant.

Based in Vienna, Terra Mater is headed by Walter Köhler and has a staff drawn mostly from the “Universum” series that he directed at ORF, the Austrian public broadcaster.

The mission of Terra Mater is to produce, co-produce or acquire 100 blue-chip films over five years, and several theatrical features.

Their business model is now based on a German-language commercial satellite broadcast platform (ServusTV) with added international distribution.

Köhler insists that his team is committed to the blue-chip quality and “visual excellence” which marked his decades at ORF.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute Film Program

HHMI captured the attention of the documentary community with the hiring of former National Geographic Television president Michael Rosenfeld.

  • Rosenfeld explained that his mission is to bring entertaining and informative science programming to a world-wide audience.
  • He plans to spend $60 million over the next 5 years.

HHMI will serve as funder, executive producer and distributor for these projects, and is exploring potential partnerships with broadcast and cable outlets.

HHMI’s year 1 programming priority is to determine an “identity” for their “brand.”

  • Rosenfeld is looking for “break-out special events” and “buzz-worthy” 2- and 3-part miniseries that will achieve this goal.

The hiring of David Elisco as director of Development indicates the kind of “break-out, genre-defining” productions HHMI expects to produce in the future.

  • Elisco was co-creator of the acclaimed series Strange Days on Planet Earth.


Most of the cable and broadcast outlets in attendance (for example, Discovery, Nat Geo Channel, Nat Geo Wild and Animal Planet) held “Half-hour with…” informational sessions.

Their programming needs were remarkably consistent:

  • Series are greatly preferred over one-off docs.
  • They especially value series with “strong characters” which have the potential for long runs over multiple seasons.
  • However, they are on the lookout for the one or two big “break out specials” or 2-3 part series which will burst through the clutter and help define the brand.
  • Several networks, especially Animal Planet stressed that “repeatability” really matters.
    • They want series which can be run in any order, and can be moved from one timeslot to another, or run consecutively as a “mini-marathon” — and still be enjoyable.
  • Several networks also expressed an interest in “stunts” like one-of-a-kind live events or themed weeks (sharks, big cats, etc.) that might create a “buzz”.


There were multiple sessions on 3D: 3D technology, 3D aesthetics, 3D budgeting, and more.

And – for the first time – a temporary full-dome video projection planetarium was set up in the parking lot, where delegates viewed nominated programs.

The dome hosted workshops and cocktail receptions designed to connect producers and programmers from the universe of planetarium operators with filmmakers from the science & natural history world.  Each camp hoped to energize the other with the prospect of telling new stories on a large, immersive canvas.

The Last Word

My ultimate Takeaway from Jackson Hole, 2011?

  • Go small, modestly-budgeted and repeatable
  • Or go “Big and Buzz-worthy”
  • Or go home!

Tom Veltre is an independent producer and founder of The Really Interesting Picture Company, Ltd – recently nominated to the RealScreen Global 100 List.  Tom was a judge in the Original Music category for this year’s Festival.


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