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Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

A Producer at Risk: Soviet-Era Nuclear Icebreaker Smashes thru the Arctic… and the Budget! (Case Study 1/2)

Producers, talent and network programmers push the limits.

That can mean business risk, personal danger and even death.

In this week’s Case Study: Veteran, New York-based producer Vinnie Kraylevich and his crew travel deep into the Siberian permafrost.

They face threats from budget blowouts, hands that won’t be greased, a disappearing nuclear icebreaker, polar bears, a potentially ruined relationship with the commissioning network, and more.

  • This post: The Hail Mary Decision
  • Next: Siberian Takeaways – How to manage productions in dangerous and exotic locations


  • Assignment: Create a pilot for a series
  • Location: Norilsk, a closed industrial city in the Siberian permafrost
  • Objective: Board the nuclear-powered icebreaker Taymyr for a trip to distant Murmansk
  • Issues: Greased palms don’t work. Passports are confiscated. The Taymyr leaves port in heavy fog. We’re not on board
  • Big problem
    • No shoot on the Taymyr. No pilot
    • U.S. channel very upset. No series
    • Lose and return investment:  $225,000+/-
    • And throw away months of work

The Hail Mary Solution 

  • Hire a helicopter to chase the Taymyr out into the icepack
  • Pay $12,000 cash. No receipt
  • Accept that helicopter may not find her in the looming blizzard
  • … that maybe she can’t be boarded …
  • And that the network won’t cover the cost


  • The little things of everyday life must often travel vast distances and survive terrifying ordeals to reach your plate, pocket, car, and home.
  • Discover and explore the world’s most dangerous trade routes with Getting There Alive


Getting There Alive: From Siberia to Suburbia

  • Norilsk is a former Soviet gulag city that is still locked in the closed ways of Siberia’s Communist past
  • It is a heavily-polluted mining and smelting center, sitting above lucrative deposits of Nickel, Platinum, Cobalt and other valuable metals
  • Norilsk is located deep in the permafrost, without road & rail links to the outside world
  • The Northeast Passage is the only way out: It is a 1,200 mile Arctic sea route that is smashed by a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers
  • Commissioning network: History Channel
  • Years: 2008-9


Total (hour): $370,000 +/-

  • Development: $0
  • Pre-production: $115,000
  • Field production: $120,000
  • Post / Delivery: $135,000

Field Production Team

  • Episode producer: Ryan Miller
  • AP: Jonathan Smith; DP’s: Tim Metzger, Marcus Lehman; Sound: Dave Swanson
  • “I also went to Norilsk because I wanted to make sure KPI achieved what I had sold to the network,” says EP Vinnie Kraylevich
  • “Our production team was extremely capable.  I just knew they would hit roadblock after roadblock, even though we had secured all the permissions. We were going to face a lot of decisions on which the production – and that meant the possibility for an entire series – would sink or swim.”


  • Vinnie Kraylevich’s experience: 25 years
  • KPI: 18 years
  • Commissioning networks include
    • History, A&E, Discovery, Animal Planet, Military, HGTV, Travel, Nat Geo, Smithsonian, Bravo
  • Total hours produced: 500+/-

KPI’s Pipeline in 2008

  • 30 hours in production
  • History: 2 other series
  • Nat Geo: 1 series
  • Various one offs

Projects in 2011 Include

  • The Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero (6 x 60) Discovery. Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg 
  • Fleaman (6 x 60) Nat Geo Channel


  • Hire the helicopter!
  • “I had a plan to mitigate the risk
    • “I asked half the team to stay in Norilsk
    • “We would all get into the helicopter and fly to the icebreaker
    • “Half the crew would film us getting on board
    • “And then they’d return to Norilsk to produce the mine segment”


  • “Norilsk falls below us. It becomes a sheet of white. Our eyes can no longer tell land from sea
  • “About 30 minutes out, we see a shipwreck with its frozen bow sticking out of the ice. We are over water
  • “We hear excited chatter in the cockpit. The door opens and the pilots kindly wave us in.  We see the Taymyr below. It is tugging a 600-foot cargo ship
  • “We circle in and hover 6 feet above the ice. A Russian jumps out with a tire iron to test that the ice will support us. We rush our camera gear from the helicopter and are hoisted onto the Taymyr by its cargo crane
  • “We became the first ever American TV crew to board a Russian nuclear icebreaker. We were off to Murmansk.”

 Next Week

  • Here is the link to #2/2.
  • The Takeaways:  Managing danger-filled productions that are potential budget-busters
  • Death & Dismemberment Insurance? You’ve got to be kidding!

I learned today from our friends at Realscreen that Vinnie Kraylevich had passed away suddenly.

It is such a loss. Vinnie combined tremendous creative energy with an open heart. He was always prepared to share his wisdom and experience with his colleagues. 

I’m particularly grateful to Vinnie because he helped set the editorial ambitions of my newsletter.

Soon after my launch, Vinnie offered to reveal the tremendous risk to life, limb and bank balance that producers take on when they go after the jeopardy-filled stories craved by channels and viewers.

His ‘Siberian Case Study’ (April 11, 2011) tells how he hitched a ride on a Soviet-Era, nuclear-powered icebreaker, and is one of my all-time favorite posts about the daunting business of our business.  

Thanks, Vinnie, for so generously sharing your enthusiasm and the instructive details of your work. I’m sure my readers join me in extending their condolences to your family. I have reposted the Siberian Case Study in your memory. Below is Part 1/2. And here is the link to #2/2.

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, 2016

  • 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


  1. Vinnie was an amazing guy.

    As a collaborator he took time to listen to any of my ideas, no matter how dumb.

    As a client he was as near as it gets to perfect – loyal, courteous, appreciative. He always looked after his suppliers, paying fairly and on time, even when (I suspect) he wasn’t getting the same benefit from those upstream of him.

    Vinnie was one of those people who responded to every email – often including a hilarious, throwaway comment that hinted at the challenges he was experiencing on a production. But the above story shows just how much he was prepared to lay on the line.

  2. Paul Heaney
    TCB Media Rights

    So pleased you’ve written this about Vinnie, Peter. Though I only met him in 2012 he made a profound impact, he WAS an inspiring, mesmerising, charismatic, kind gent. We’re also the same age, with similar aged kids… I was so gutted to hear about him passing but loved reading your pieces about him. I bet Bill Hunt and his other close friends will love it too.
    Thank you

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