StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

A Producer at Risk: Siberian Budget-buster! The Takeaways (Case Study 2/2)

We continue our Siberian Case Study: How to manage productions in dangerous and remote locations.

The post was first published in April, 2011, and republished in 2016 in honor of the fearless producer Vinnie Kraylevich, who passed away suddenly, and republished again in March 2022 as Ukraine War highlights the dangers of covering Russia in war and peace.

This week: Nuclear Takeaways from the Russian Permafrost.

Last week:

  • Producers, talent and network programmers push the limits
  • That can mean business risk, personal danger and even death
  • A budget blowout looms, hands won’t be greased, a disappearing nuclear icebreaker, a potentially ruined relationship with the commissioning network, and more
  • The Hail Mary decision



by Vinnie Kraylevich (KPI, New York)

1. The budgeting process for remote productions needs a trained back office

  • Cultural and business differences can’t be accounted for in budgets
  • I encourage the KPI back office team to go on a shoot and see how our business runs in other countries
  • Even if it costs us in the short term, the staff becomes more flexible and knowledgeable when they deal with producers in the future
  • In the long run that saves money

2. Network legal departments and your accountants will get angry

  • You won’t get receipts or documentation for a lot of what happens
  • Most networks reserve the right to audit your bookkeeping
    • So keep excellent internal records, even if it is just email correspondence
  • And forget about releases – try getting a Russian to sign anything

3. Don’t let problems snowball

  • The networks review your results and not your decisions
    • Don’t whine or complain to them
    • But know when to come to them with a situation that is threatening to get out of control
  • The Russian helicopter decision was an easy one
    • It added drama to the program
    • The downside was a calculated and finite risk
  • Had it not worked out, we would have figured something out:  there was no way I’d come back without the story I was paid to do

4. Take out death and dismemberment insurance

  • On the Russian promo, you will notice exterior shots of the ship taken from the ice at 3:00 am
    • Polar bears were following the ship, looking for food scraps thrown by the cooks
    • We were on the ice about 3 football fields away from the ship
    • If a polar bear had spotted us, we’d have been dinner
  • Our crews are working on the World Trade Center site today, 50 stories in the air
    • The training and insurance needed for this shoot have been extensive

5. You can’t scout remote locations 

  • Consider the logistics before pitching a show
  • Look for great characters in a contained environment rather than in situations that you cannot scout in advance because they are too far away
  • If these situations involve physical and financial risk because of intangibles — then be very careful!

6. Female producers get no respect

  • In many countries from Italy to Turkey, Tunisia and more, I’ve observed that female producers get no respect
  • However, we shot in Lithuania where the woman who was in charge of our project was totally on top of her game, and everyone respected her

7. English helps

  • No one spoke English on the icebreaker project  
    • We thought we could work around it 
    • And still get a pilot that would earn us a green light for a series  
  • If the Tamyr crew spoke English, we would have had more success 
    • But English-speakers don’t crew on Russian icebreakers!
  • Instead the show had a lot of VO   
    • It was the kiss of death 
    • Getting There Alive was aired in a lousy time slot  
  • And it was decided not to put promotion behind a one off.  Even though KPI, hence History, had arranged the first American production to ever board a Russian nuclear icebreaker 

8. Watch yourself at airports!

  • You must have a carnet: a list of all your equipment that establishes that you are not illegally importing or exporting products
  • And don’t assume baggage handling operates like in the West
    • I got into a standoff with porters at the Moscow airport who helped us unload our gear
    • I went to tip them $20 each, and they demanded $400
    • My crew began to take our gear off their carts
    • They called a Russian cop, and he took my passport
    • To get it back, I had to pay out the $400

9. Budget for gifts and greased palms

  • We were told to buy a watch for the captain that should cost no less than $500
    • And 75 Dallas Cowboy hoodies for the crew of Tamyr
    • Hoodies from NY teams such as the Yankees were too expensive.
    • We picked up the Dallas ones cheap at Walmart
  • Cognac was big, too
    • I was told to buy a half dozen bottles each of Cognac and Scotch to have ready for the inevitable obstacles
  • Each country and region has its own favorites.  But cash is king. And people prefer it in their own currency (rubbles not dollars)
  • But don’t expect receipts or reimbursements

10. American Express –  leave home without it!

  • In many places the American Express card is about as useful as your Blockbuster card
  • No one takes Amex
  • Bring Visa and MasterCard
    • Visa, MasterCard and ATMs also track exchange rates on the day of use
    • So there is no haggling over fluctuation rates

11.  There are upsides to shooting in ‘exotic’ locations

  • For a huge gladiator special for Animal Planet, we shot the animal scenes in Canada and the gladiators in a Roman coliseum in North Africa
    • There was a lot of fancy technical footwork to create fight scenes that involved lions, bears, jaguars, wolves and tigers.
    • The trainers were dressed like gladiators – and it was all shot against a blue screen

  • It had the potential to go wrong at every second of every day
  • We could never shoot that sort of project in the U.S.
    • The cost would have been prohibitive
    • And the hurdles are very high when large animals are involved


Dont miss our earlier producer profiles:



Sunny Side of the Doc
La Rochelle, France

What the Video On Demand Boom Means for Documentaries
Wednesday, 22 June

  • Established channels everywhere report that they are losing viewers to online video services.
  • Netflix original documentaries are opening Sundance and winning Academy Award nominations.
  • Amazon is launching documentary channels as well as commissioning originals.
  • Niche players like CuriosityStream are racing to market, and so are regional VOD services like Australia’s STAN.
  • In this session, a panel of SVOD market participants will first define the VOD market, and then analyze the Opportunities, Success Factors & Deal Terms across the VOD sector. 
  • The experts will respond to questions from Sunny Side delegates on key topics such as how to work with these new players and what they are looking for on the international market.
  • The analysis will uncover the success factors across the online video landscape.


  • Elizabeth Hendricks North & PeterNorth, CuriosityStream
  • David Royle, Smithsonian Networks
  • Moderator: Peter Hamilton
  • Producer: Laura Longobardi