Netflix 2024: What You Need To Know Now!

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

“Gravity” Wins Oscars! But Failed to Lift Off at Science Producers’ Congress in Montreal. Why?

At last year’s buzzy World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in Montreal I decided to field a mini-survey. 

I asked two questions about Gravity which was then raging at the world’s box office?  

  • Have you seen it? 
  • “Did you like it?”

The delegates were leading producers and commissioners in the ‘content-rich’ or ‘authored’ field of television.

Here are the results:

Gravity At World Congress

  • They hadn’t seen Gravity.
  • And if they had, by a margin of two to one, they didn’t like it!


The producers lack of interest mystified me.

  • I had seen Gravity twice in 3D at Brooklyn’s BAM Cinemas.
  • My last movie repeater was Muriel’s Wedding. Maybe I forgot Chopper.
  • Although the Gravity story faded a bit, I was thrilled with the technical mastery of the film making, and the suspense.
  • Gravity propelled my imagination into space in a way that I hadn’t felt since reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” so many decades ago.
  • Gravity also rang  my bells because I had become absorbed in the challenge for Japan’s NHK to create Cosmic Shore, a $6.5 million project that captured natural phenomena seen from the ISS space station.
  • You can read my detailed Cosmic Shore Case Study here.

I read numerous reviews of Gravity that were written by astronauts from all around the world:

  • They pointed out lapses in the Science (e.g. our heroine would be wearing diapers/nappies and not her cute Pilates’ shorts.)
  • But all the astronauts were big advocates of the film because it re-ignited popular interest in space.

So why do I think that the world’s leading Science producers brushed off the opportunity to be inspired by the most successful ($700+ million worldwide) Science-infused, hit theatrical film of the century?

Particularly at a time when formerly specialist unscripted networks like History, Discovery and Nat Geo are charging into scripted territory that is compatible with their brands and audience profiles?

1.”Space doesn’t rate”
That’s been the conventional wisdom since the ‘Eighties, at least in the US.  But Cosmic Shore was a huge hit in Japan. And Nat Geo’s re-making of Cosmos is the network’s signature factual series for 2013.

2.”Not interested in the topic!”
But there was a packed session at Congress featuring Chris Hadfield, the charismatic Canadian astronaut and social media phenom.

Check out his classic nuts-in-space video (its just a few seconds long):


3.”Too busy!”
That’s a big factor. The demand for “curated” Science, Natural History, Ethnographic and even History specials and series has been undergoing a steady decline. Discovery, Animal Planet, Nat Geo and many other longtime US buyers have turned to character-based series. So ‘less work’ should free up time for the producers to dive into the popular culture? No! It seems to me that nowadays  producers in these fields have to do more of the work: develop, pitch, produce and deliver. And they do it for less money because the funds have been cut back for development. 

4. “No money!”
Related to #3 above. 

NEW!…………………….SWEET SPOTS 2014………………………….NEW!
Production Cost Benchmarks for U.S. Factual Networks

  • What do 30 US channels pay for programs?
  • For docs? And reality?
  • For Signature, Standard and ‘BArgain-basement?
  • Is our commissioning team paying more or less than the competition?
  • Do preferred producers earn a premium?
  • Does my pitch fall in the budget sweet spot for my target network?

We interviewed dozens of executives and producers to create a unique source of proprietary information about network budgets for commissions and copro’s.

Read More

5.”I’m OK anyway!”
There are many producers who keep busy doing it the old way. They enjoy European commissions from Arte and the public broadcasters, as well as copro relationships with Canada and other regulated territories. They hear that Gravity‘s science is questionable. So why bother?

6.”Don’t bother with the popular culture!”
In last week’s workshop with Ed Hersh for visiting Australian writers, we discussed how producers and creatives should strive to anticipate trends in order to deliver shows just as their popular culture themes break. Maybe the producers at Congress march to a different tune? They could be focused on breakthroughs in camera kit like robots and drones to create their unique stories. Or CGI?

7. “3D is a bomb!”
Yes. But look at Gravity‘s $700 Mn global box office. And Giant Screen/3D documentary films like Butterflies – profiled here recently in my case study – can still make big money at the box office.  There are projects that have the potential to follow the crossover television / museum cinema model.

Well, that’s seven reasons. Add: “Can’t stand Sandra Bullock and George Clooney!” and you have nine.


Speaking Engagements

Asian Side of the Doc
Chengdu, China, March 18-21, 2014
Panel: Crowd-funding Platforms in Asia
Panel: 3D / IMAX/ BIG SCREENS for Docs

Totonto, April 5-6, 2014
Panel: How to Get the Funds: Co-pro’s and Foundations
Interview: Louis Vaudeville, CC&C Paris: The Apocalypse Franchise

AND, don’t miss Hot Docs in the Big TO.
April 24 – May 4, 2014
BTW, We just began to prepare with the Hot Docs team our hot-selling annual International Documentary Program Buyers’ Guide

Women in Film Summit
Pittsburgh PA, May 16-18
‘Documentary & Unscripted Networks Worldwide: What Do They Want?
What Do They Pay? What’s the Deal?’
Watch out for details