Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

AIDS: ‘The Rise of the Killer Virus’ A Case Study of an International Co-pro Event

The Rise of the Killer Virus: Our unique Case Study of a complex international co-production, republished for World AIDS Day, 2015

The Rise of the Killer Virus is a scientific detective story that traces the pre-history of HIV back to its moment of origination in Africa around 1908.

  • The film asks the difficult question: How and why does the interspecies transmission of a virus take place?
  • It takes us back to the first chapter of HIV and reveals how a virus becomes a pandemic.
  • It aims to inspire through a boots-on the-ground documentary approach by portraying scientists at work in the field in Congo and Cameroon.

The film was 3+ years in development:

  • It is directed by Carl Gierstorfer.
  • And produced by Antje Boehmert, DOCDAYS Productions, Berlin.
  • With co-production partners Fabrice Estève, YUZU Productions, Paris, and Paul Pauwels, CONGOO, Brussels.

The Rise of the Killer Virus is being broadcast globally today, December 1, to commemorate World AIDS Day. Outside the US, the title is The Bloody Truth.

  • We met with Antje Boehmert at MIPCOM.
  • At World Congress in Hong Kong we caught up with Fabrice Estève and PBS International’s Tom Koch.
  • And later with Smithsonian Channel’s Chris Hoelzl.
  • David Rosen prepared our Case Study.

Here is the story of The Rise of the Killer Virus.


The story

  • AIDS has killed 30+ million people.
  • But when, where and why did HIV originate?
  • AIDS was not a freak of nature, nor “a gay disease.”
  • Rather, HIV is a form of interspecies transmission, a virus which jumped from animals – chimpanzees – to humans.
  • AIDS is as much a scientific story as a historical and social investigation. It originated in colonial Africa at the dawn of the 20th century.  
  • The filmmakers worked with a team of scientists who discovered tissue samples from the 1950s and ‘Sixties that point to the disease’s origins.

Who developed the concept?

Expanding the team

  • Shortly after the Masterschool, Gierstorfer pitched the project to DOCDAYS Productions.
  • DOCDAYS asked their colleagues YUZU Productions and CONGOO to join as co-producers.
  • YUZU’s Estève says “The project was structured as a German/ French/ Belgian copro in which the partners joined forces rather than split the main European markets.”
  • Congoo particularly contributed access to the Belgian archives, expertise in shooting in Africa, and also relationships with Belgian broadcasters and funders.
  • PBS International came on board within months after the 1st pitch. They made a commitment in the $15-20K range for International rights outside the many copro territories.

Ebola link

  • Everyone involved in the project recognized that the Ebola outbreak could drive viewer interest in the film.
  • Ebola also involves cross-species transmission in heavily-disrupted environments – this time from bats to humans.

What was your “elevator pitch”?

According to Antje Boehmert:

  • Short: “You really believe HIV is 30 years old? You have no clue… “
  • Longer: “When did HIV originate and where? How did it become the worst pandemic of our age?”
  • Event: The program was always pitched as a ‘global event’ to be broadcast worldwide by multiple channels around World AIDS Day, December 1, 2014.

Where were the pitches made? And how?

The producers prepared a set of pitch materials:

  • Promo reel: 2:20 minutes.
  • Treatment: 15 pages.
  • An exhaustive scientific backup study available upon request.
  • An iPad presentation, including visuals from a recce trip and the promotional reel.

Pitches were made at:

The pitch session formats varied:

  • Sheffield
    15 minute One-to-One meetings with 8-min overview and sizzle reel, and 8-min for conversations.
  • Science Congress
    5 minutes to present and give elevator pitch.
  • Sunny Side
    10 minutes for producers to pitch to a large group, and 5 minutes for decision makers to ask questions and to express their level of interest, “and some did agree to participate!”
  • EBU
    The producers showed a trailer and the director Carl Gierstorfer gave a more scientific presentation.

According to Boehmert:

  • “We were lucky to get very direct feedback: We pitched it, broadcasters came up after the pitches said ‘We’re in!’”
  • “And believe it or not, they were in!”
  • “It took a year from first pitch to have the contracts ready.”

PBS International’s Tom Koch says:

  • The pitch was an unusual hybrid: “Neither Science, History or Culture, but all three.”
  • “AIDS is revealed as the horrible legacy of a brutal colonial rule in Central Africa.”
  • “The story is one of scientific sleuthing, in which a search of oddly comprehensive but decaying Belgian medical records takes us back to the pre-history of HIV.”
  • “The research reveals that the virus is gender-agnostic, despite the cultural baggage of the ‘Eighties when AIDS was seen as a gay disease.”

Smithsonian Comes on Board

We asked Smithsonian Channel’s Chris Hoelzl about his response to the pitch:

“I first heard of it at a speed-dating pitch session at the Science Congress. It was a really good pitch on paper and as presented by Antje Boehmert.”

“And it had a film-noir title, ‘Bloody Truth’ that leant a bit of mystery to the story.”

What made this pitch stand out?

“The story was there, but was the science? Could they prove that HIV originated far earlier than thought? Did they have access to the scientists and the tools to establish this?”

“The answers to all of these questions were all there in the pitch.”

“The emergence of an “archive” of samples taken by the Belgians during the colonial period was really important.  These were frozen in time, sealed in paraffin and potentially dating from the early decades of the century.”

“Then the question was: Could you go into a conflict zone and shoot the story?”

What came next? 

  • After Sheffield in June 2012 the co-producers did some more research, but didn’t start pre-production until April 2013, “when it looked solid.”
  • “In June 2013, we had all the co-pro partners but one on board. Our distributor PBS International was behind us, and off we went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”



  • “Gierstorfer knew all the scientific sources and which archive materials he wanted. It was up to our researchers to find them.”
  • “We used AP Archive and ITN Source to tell the story from 1960 onwards.”
  • For earlier periods, Gierstorfer relied on state-run archives in France and Belgium.
  • “The Cinematheque Royale, ANOM and Pathe were very helpful.”

According to Boehmert, “the film’s art director, Marcel Ozan Riedel, developed a technique to mix documents, photographs and archival film in a wonderful and novel way.”


  • Most pre-production research involved planning how to film in Africa.

Field Production

Antje Boehmert says:

  • “The trip to Cameroon was very difficult. This is a remote corner of Cameroon, bordering the Central African Republic.”
  • “To go and film scientists collecting chimpanzee droppings you may think is no big deal, but due to the dangerous territory we needed support from the local authorities. Government officials escorted the director and his crew.”
  • “All our travels in Central Africa were made possible with the support of the German Embassies and a great fixer.”
  • “Still Carl and his director of photography, Renaat Lambeets, did a great job not to let the security issues show in the visuals.”


There were two versions, with two titles, and each with around 10 minutes of archive:

  • International: THE BLOODY TRUTH. 52 min.
  • Smithsonian Channel: THE RISE OF THE KILLER VIRUS. 46 min.
  • S4C Wales made a specific version that added Welsh elements.


The co-producing partners are:

  • Smithsonian Channel (North America).
  • ZDF in collaboration with ARTE (Germany & France).
  • CCTV10 ‘Science Channel’ (China).
  • Belgium’s public broadcasters RTBF (French) & VRT (Flemish).
  • Additional financing support came from the European Union (MEDIA) and the Flemish Film Fund (VAF).

And your distribution effort?

  • PBS International is distributor for the rest of the world.
  • They secured presales to: S4C Wales, ORF Austria, TVI Portugal, NRK Norway, Sweden’s UR, and MBN in the Middle East.

How did the partners come in?

  • The co-producers came on board between Sheffield in June 2012 and early 2013.
  • “We are really proud that this is the first ever co-production with China’s CCTV10.”
  • PBS International was in early and helped secure presales, which were critical to qualify the film to receive MEDIA funding. As Boehmert acknowledges, “Their sales team rocked!”
  • “With EU MEDIA funding we knew we were good to go.”

According to Boehmert:

  • “The challenge with a co-production this big is that we are dependent on many broadcasters.
  • “It could have been difficult and painful, but our main partners were very quick to make decisions.
  • “We needed strong and committed partners who were ready to tell a story that at first sight does not tick any of the boxes of decision makers.
  • “There were lots of potential negatives to overcome: pandemic, Africa, many languages, the risk of ‘science-in-the-making’, and the unstable conditions on location.

Promotion as ‘Event’

  • The partners agreed to broadcast film as a global broadcast event on World AIDS Day on December 1, 2014.
  • They are emphasizing AIDS in terms of Science-in-the-making.
  • “We email-blasted our network of journalists and we are working with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to get the word about the film out to science writers and the news media.”
  • “For ZDF and ARTE, we created a Scroll Doc that is also in English. It retells the pre-history of AIDS.”
  • “We are reaching out to news media, foundations and HIV awareness groups to embed our Scroll Doc that re-tells the pre-history of HIV under the title “What It Takes to Make a Pandemic.”



  • Total cost: Euros 550,000+.
  • The contributions of the copro partners are confidential.


  • Development: 5%
  • Rights & Salaries: 53%
  • Travel and Accommodation: 25%
  • Equipment & Post-production: 14%
  • Insurance & Auditing: 3%


  • 2011 – Concept developed during Documentary Campus.
  • March 2012 – Principal scientists agree to participate.
  • June 2012 – First pitch.
  • June 2013 – Principal photography kicks off.
  • December 2013 – Last partner comes aboard.
  • May and September 2014 – Delivered the film in two different versions (Smithsonian Channel vs. International) and six different language versions (English, Mandarin, Welsh, Flemish, French, French/German).
  • December 1, 2014 – Broadcast for World AIDS Day.



Antje Boehmert, co-producer

  • “From the 1st pitch we had a strategy to make this an event broadcast. It caught the partners’ attention during the pitch and in closing the deal, and later simplified lots of questions regarding release sequences.”
  • “It takes a team that has a lot of endurance and co-producer partners like YUZU Productions and CONGOO to make a major documentary, one that takes three years to get out of the door.”
  • “It’s very challenging to film in Central Africa. It requires special experience and knowledge, including production team members who have worked there.”

Fabrice Estève, co-producer

  • “Our joint and undivided structure with a very clear underlying deal helped us overcome the challenges of a difficult production.”
  • “A Mandarin speaker on our team was invaluable because the translations of editorial and contract language could have led to enormous complications with CCTV10.”

Chris Hoelzl, Smithsonian Channel

Compelling story!

  • “It was the perfect storm from an epidemiologist’s point of view. You had people living in close quarters in unhygienic conditions, forced to forage in the jungle for food where they came in contact with the virus’s hosts. You had a communicable disease that was transmitted through sexual contact.  And you had the “best intentions” of the colonial authorities trying to immunize the workers against sleeping sickness, but doing so in by injecting many people with the same needles.”

Important topic!

  • “Putting the truth to a lie is always good TV and it is especially important when dealing with AIDS.  The stigma associated with AIDS has not completely gone away, and anytime you can shed light on the subject it is a good thing.”
  • “It is a universal topic with a theme that concerns everyone.”

Tom Koch, distributor

  • “Documentary Campus does work as an incubator.”
  • “Patience pays off. A lot of perseverance and expertise went into realizing this complex scientific idea.”
  • “International copro’s, complex ones, can still realize ambitious concepts.”

Carl Gierstorfer, director

  • “I felt this was an important film to make because there are so many conspiracy theories surrounding the origin of HIV: so much misinformation, and so much blame on minority groups. But scientists have pieced together the true story in incredible detail. so it was time that this story was told.”
  • “There are many parallels to the current Ebola outbreak: the virus jumped from animals to humans because we come in ever closer contact with wildlife. People in Africa consume bushmeat because they often have no other choice. Deforestation and habitat fragmentation increase the likelihood of new pathogens crossing the species barrier.”
  • “Then, there was a late response by the international community, just like during the emergence of HIV. Only when Ebola became a threat to people in Europe and America, did politicians and the public wake up to the threat of another pandemic.”
  • “Finally, HIV as well as Ebola show that in a globalised world, with humans the dominant species, expanding into the remotest corners of this planet, zoonoses like HIV and Ebola will become more likely. We should be aware of the fact that our actions do provoke reactions in nature.
  • (Carl is currently researching his next doc film on Ebola in Africa.)

  • Several major international pitch fora made decisive contributions to the success of this project.
  • Pitches at Sheffield, WCSFP, Sunny Side and EBU all moved Killer Virus forward after Documentary Campus.
  • There is a lot of skepticism that pitch sessions have become ritualized, and that most projects are spoken for by the time arrive at the pitch table.
  • Virus tells a very different story about the continuing relevance of pitching at the major conferences and markets.

This post is dedicated to Eric Shearer, Peter Bartlett, Brooks Holmes and Vincent Marazek


Speaking Engagements

Realscreen Summit
Washington DC, January 27-30 2015

Formula For A Hit,  January 28, 2:30pm.

  • As the television industry evolves to meet the threats of fragmenting media head on, so too do the methods to determine what should make it onto a particular network’s air.
  • In an era increasingly driven by big data, in which algorithms and analytics have increasing influence in programming choices, how are broadcasters adapting their metrics, measurement and marketing techniques to grab, and keep, eyeballs?
  • Find out the answers to these questions and more from some of the top minds in TV research.

Peter Hamilton, Moderator