By Alex Watson
In our 2-part Case Study: An established, commercial nonfiction producer works for seven years on a ‘passion’ documentary project.
- The Project: BESA: The Promise.
It’s an inspiring documentary about how a sacred, wartime promise is fulfilled across decades and faiths.
- The Producer: JWM Productions
I spoke with Jason Williams, president of JWM, in the midst of BESA’s successful U.S. festival run:
- His documentary reveals the never-before-told story of how Albanian Muslims bravely sheltered Jewish refugees from their German occupiers during WWII.
- The story is told from perspective of Norman Gershman, a renowned Jewish-American photographer who was determined to shine a bright light on the bravery of these Albanian guardians.
- In the process, Gershman meets Rexhep Hoxha, a man who is bound by an unbreakable promise to return three books that belonged to a man his family had sheltered.
- When he finally hands over the books, “an extraordinary and utterly unexpected personal drama is set in motion – one that bridges generations and religions… uniting fathers and sons… Muslims and Jews.”
Here is the trailer:
In Part 1, we take a look at JWM Productions and the decision to detour into the creation of BESA. Next: the budget, funding sources, production process and more.
- Located in Takoma Park, MD.
- Established in 1996.
- Produced over 350 hours of television series, docs and specials.
Principals / Co-founders
- Jason Williams is the President. He previously worked with Time-Life Video & Television and TBS Productions.
- Bill Morgan is the MD. He previously worked for Nat Geo Television.
- According to Jason Williams: “At JWM we really try to find that niche between specialist nonfiction and reality TV, in a sense keeping a foot in each camp.”
- “In our nearly two decades as a company, we have been associated with blue chip non-fiction specials, but we’re also well tuned to other markets. This flexibility allows JWM to tell stories in “formats beyond traditional content-driven programs.”
- “We believe that there is no point in making television if you can’t capture the audience’s attention.”
Notable Past Productions
- Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom – Produced multiple seasons. (Animal Planet).
- Saving JJ – Recipient of the 1998 Emmy for Outstanding Coverage of a Breaking News Story. (Nat Geo, BBC).
- Digging for the Truth – Produced four seasons of this series, which explored various historical icons and mysteries (History).
- Ghost Town Gold – Brit Eaton and Scott Glaves hunt for cowboy treasures in the abandoned goldmines and ghost towns of the Wild West (Discovery/NGCI).
- Catfish Curry – A comic pilot that updates Mississippi Marsala for the reality age (A&E).
- Cellblock Psychic – An attractive psychic tackles a maximum security challenge: can she bring closure where all that’s left is pain?
- “Over the last 10 years, we’ve averaged 20-30 hours delivered per year.”
- “Normally 1-3 series are on-air or in development each year.”
- Currently in funded development: series for Nat Geo Wild and PBS.
- Jason says: “If producers don’t have something in the pipeline & cannot regularly produce a series that scores strong ratings, then we can quickly find ourselves in serious trouble.”
- “It is important to constantly keep something in development that targets what networks and audiences are looking for.”
BESA: THE PROMISE
- The never-before-told history of how Albanian Muslims sheltered Jewish refugees during WWII.
- Astonishing Fact: “The only Muslim country in Europe was the only nation whose Jewish population increased in WWII.”
JWM has typically targeted cable channels – so why the shift with this doc?
- “We initially thought it would be a great one-time production for PBS or another niche network.”
- “But as we probed the story more, it became obvious that we could follow a more nuanced, dramatic narrative.”
- “I had no idea this hidden history had occurred – and at such a critical juncture.”
- “We saw that a Class A documentary about an interesting footnote to WWII history could be made into something bigger than that – a genuinely universal story of relationships, survival, promises, and common humanity.”
- We found this to be particularly appealing, especially “given the relationship between Muslims and Jews today.”
- Rachel Goslins, Director & Producer – Rachel has made films for Nat Geo, Discovery, PBS, A&E, and History, and is currently the Executive Director of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.
- Philip Glass, Composer
- Tom Schmidt, Art Director & Graphics Supervisor, Percolate Digital
- Christine Romero, Editor & Producer. Her film career includes award-winning programs for domestic networks such as PBS, NBC, Discovery, Nat Geo and History.
COMING UP NEXT: BESA: The Promise 2/2
- Production: A Seven Year Timeline
- Budget / Funding
- Takeaways / Postscript
Where’s Alexander Watson?
- Edinburgh University, on an exchange from Georgetown.
- Send me an email if you’d like to extend a Scots welcome to him.
- He was our summer associate in 2012 and 2013.
- DocumentaryTelevision.com is seeking a part time Virtual Assistant with proven organizational and writing skills.
- Familiarity with e-publishing tools like Word Press and Constant Contact is a plus. Powerpoint also.
- Prefer North American location.
- Please send bio to Peter@DocumentaryTelevision.com