Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

The Development History of NATIVE AMERICA, a $3-4 million Signature PBS Series. A Case Study

NATIVE AMERICA is a premium PBS series that explores the world created by America’s first peoples.

  • It describes their foundational belief systems that synthesize science and spirituality.
  • The 4-part series captures the incredible diversity of the expressions of these beliefs across North, Central and South America.

Providence Pictures President and Executive Producer/Director, Gary Glassman was preparing for a panel on Cultural & Arts programming at Sunny Side of the Doc when he shared the development history of NATIVE AMERICA.

  • I reposted the NATIVE AMERICA Case Study in time for the series’ PBS broadcast on October 23, 30, & November 13.




You can listen here to Gary’s account of the 17 years it took for NATIVE AMERICA to reach the screen (18 min:

Concept Development

  • In 2001, Providence Pictures produced THE LOST KING OF THE MAYA for the PBS Science strand NOVA.
  • According to Gary Glassman: “Filming in a royal Maya tomb that was dated to 400AD and investigating the ancient city of Copan, I was overwhelmed by the complexity and sophistication of the culture. Carved and painted murals and artifacts that depict a Maya pantheon of Gods, beautiful monumental architecture and city planning, one of only a handful of writing system ever invented, advanced astronomical knowledge, all indicated a level of cultural sophistication that matched any in the world.”
  • “I became intensely curious about when all this started. And I wanted to know how the Maya world was connected to Native American societies to the north!”

Initial Pitch

  • Glassman put together a paper pitch and took it on the road.
  • He was encouraged by Yves Jeanneau, then a France 2 commissioner and now executive director of Sunny Side of the Doc.
  • Thomas Schreiber of NDR also showed serious interest.
  • “But no American broadcaster came on board, and a committed US broadcaster is key to launching most specialist factual series.”
  • “Despite the disappointment, I never abandoned the core concepts of that original pitch.”
  • “New ideas kept on sprouting up, and I continued to develop them as the years passed.”

PBS Pitch

  • “I met Beth Hoppe when she was leaving NOVA to go to WNET New York to work on the PBS series SECRETS OF THE DEAD. We always stayed in touch.”
  • “In 2013, Beth moved to PBS to head up PBS National programming, bringing in Bill Gardner as her #2.”
  • “I pitched Beth and Bill, and the subject and concept immediately resonated with them.”

Development Deal

  • “PBS funded us to develop an expanded treatment.”
  • “They wanted to feel confident that such a big project was built on a solid thesis and had major scholars involved.”
  • “It was critically important to establish the authentic participation of Native American communities as advisors, producers and production personnel, and as talent.”
  • It was 3-6 month project for a “small fee.”
  • 100-page deliverable
  • There was no video in the expanded treatment.

Inclusion Process

  • “We began a search for a series producer who was familiar with PBS’s entertaining, informative and curated programming standards.”
  • “I was fortunate to find Julianna Brannum, a member of the Comanche Nation and an experienced producer who we felt sure that we could work with.”
  • “Together we visited many Native American communities to gain their confidence and support.”
  • “We particularly committed to respect their rituals and ceremonies, giving them final editorial control over these scenes and involving them through the editorial process.”

Style Guide

  • An extensive Style Guide included examples of cinemagraphic styles, portraiture of participants, animation examples, and more.


  • PBS fully-funded the series with a grant from the Anne Ray Foundation.
  • The foundation had prioritized Native American culture, and was looking for qualified projects with PBS and other potential partners.
  • There is no co-production partner.


  • After PBS gave the greenlight, the contract was signed in only 3 months.

Project Budget

  • $750,000 – $1,000,000 / episode.
  • Includes promotion and outreach costs.

Creative Shift

  • Through the production process and collaboration with Native participants, Glassman and the production team decided to abandon dramatic recreations, which they determined were inauthentic, and instead create animated ‘sacred stories’.
  • They tested and then committed to a hand-drawn animation solution realized by Oscar-nominated Daniel Sousa of Handcranked Productions.

Editing / Post-production

  • “It was such a key role that we gave our chief editor, Rob Tinworth, a producer credit.”


  • There were many working titles – Lost Worlds of the Americas, America Rediscovered.
  • “NATIVE AMERICA as a title came to me nearly at the end of post. Like any good title it’s simple and obvious.”


  • September, 2017
  • Version: 53’45”
  • No International version

First Public Screening

  • An episode was screened to great applause at the Native Crossroads Film Festival at Oklahoma University to a 95% Native American audience.

PBS Premiere

  • October 2018.

Budget Breakdown (estimate)

  • Staff: 35%
  • Pre-production: 1%
  • Talent: 5%
  • Archival, music and animation: 20%
  • Field production 20%
  • Post: 10%
  • Admin 8%

Timeline: Chronology

  • Original concept: 2001
  • Pitched to PBS National (Beth Hoppe / Bill Gardner): November 2012
  • Contract to develop treatment: September 2013
  • Delivered treatment: January 2014
  • Signed production contract: December 2015
  • Commenced production: January 2016
  • Delivered series: September 2017

Timeline by Phase

The total series timeline: 90+/- weeks, which includes:

  • Development: 3 months
  • Pre-production: 26 weeks
  • Location photography: 53 shoot days over 22 weeks
  • Edit: 9+/- months

Providence Pictures

  • Providence has produced 50+ hours of documentary programs for PBS, Discovery, History, Nat Geo, BBC, and Arte since 1996.
  • Gary’s films have won and been honored with nominations for the industry’s most prestigious awards – six Emmys, two Writers Guild Awards, the AAA Science Journalism Prize, the CINE Golden Eagle Special Jury Award, and more.
  • Links: Providence Pictures / Facebook / Instagram

Credits (Selection)

  • Executive Producer/Director – Gary Glassman
  • Series Producer – Julianna Brannum
  • Producer/Directors – Scott Tiffany, Joseph C. Sousa
  • Producer/Editor – Rob Tinworth
  • Editor – Sean Sandefur
  • Music – Ed Tomney
  • Animation – Handcranked Productions – Bryan Papciak
  • Narrator – Robbie Robertson

History Case Studies

Original research from


PBS Ratings 2017

My Upcoming Markets & Conferences

SUNNY SIDE OF THE DOC La Rochelle, France. June 25-28
Panel: “The Future of Pubcasters: Adapt or Die”

NEWF: Nature, Environment & Wildlife Filmmakers Congress
Durban, South Africa. July 16-18.
Director Noel Kok has organized a great program that combines conservation and wildlife film-making. Make it your reason to come to South Africa. More to come….