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Expanding the Doc Universe: Producing Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, and the Business of IMAX

Expanding the Doc Universe: Producing Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, and the Business of IMAX

Producing

Those of you who are familiar with film marketseither those happening in conjunction with a festival like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto or independently as a stand-alone market such as AFMwill know that, the deeper you are into the market, the projects you will be pitched become crazier and more bizarre.

The power players and the good projects come early and leave early. This year in Cannes, for example, most of the important buyers had left by the first Sunday.

A couple of years ago at the Marché du Film in Cannes, I was standing at the booth of Red Bull’s Media House, whose cinema department I was heading at the time, and after the usual barrage of killer zombies on snowboards, or aliens invading earth to steal our energy drinks, or a mixture of a Western with the Comanches attacking on snowboards (one of my favorites) a quiet person approached me and told me that he knew who I was and would like to talk to me about something. Hmm…

The guy didn’t look like one of those crazy people with a crazy project. There was something else about him. Having been in the industry for more than two decades, with ever-changing legislation and tax laws, for a moment I thought, “Has the IRS started hunting down film producers in Cannes? Have I done something wrong?”

After a minute or so, I relaxed, since he was clearly not a tax office investigator. He wanted to talk to me about a project, but he wouldn’t disclose the project or the director attached to it. Just that it was something very big and would have international impact and I would be the right producer for it. The enigmatic guy went on and on. He was telling me that if I Googled it, I would pretty fast discover what he was talking about, but he couldn’t tell me. He was bound by an NDA not to talk about the project.

I couldn’t consider a project that he would not talk about, and this was one of the most bizarre pitches (or rather non-pitches) I had ever experienced. But I was still, strangely, intrigued.

Being a documentary producer, one of my main drivers is my curiosity. With the little fragments of information I had been given, I started my voyage of discovery.

Documentary. Lifetime. Famous director. Nature. Cosmos. The words he spat out were beguiling, and it did not take long for the name “Terrence Malick” to pop up. The name is legendary. I had to know if this was for real.

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Prehistoric humans gather round a fire in Voyage of Time

Having produced BBC’s Earth and Deep Blue to global success made me part of this very small group of specialized producers who do impossibly complicated projects that take forever, and require big budgets and global audiences to be financed.

Filming animals and nature is one of the toughest things in our industry. The only real secret is, it takes an extremely long time. The more time you spend in the field, the better your results will be. For Earth, we had crews out shooting for many months. The total number of days of cinematography was 4,500. (This is no typo.) When you have about 30 to 50 crews out somewhere on the planet at any given moment, you can get to this number in a matter of three to four years.

A couple of weeks after the meeting in Cannes, I found myself boarding a flight to Austin, Texas to meet Terrence Malick and his longtime producers Sarah Green and Nicolas Gonda.

We talked a lot about what he had been doing with Voyage over many years and what he wanted to achieve. We spoke about my previous theatrical documentaries, how they were done, how they were released and what we’d learned. Terry knew a lot about the process of making these films; he had worked with some of the same cinematographers we had employed for Earth and Deep Blue.

He then showed me a 60-minute assembly of the kind of materials he had filmed so far. Obviously Voyage was never going to be a pure natural history project. It was always dependent upon images collected by the Hubble telescope, NASA, ESA and other sources of space imagery, scientific simulations and depictions of events that occurred millions or billions of years ago, or were hidden from us in the microscopic world.

After seeing the compilation, I had many questions about the positioning of the movie, the message of the film and about how he planned to tell the story. This is the most crucial moment in the making of every film: determining the “why” a project is made and what the motives of each of the key people in the project are. There are projects that are made for money. There are projects that are made because of an artistic, creative desire. There are projects that are important to make because of the subject matter. Most of the time, documentaries do not mean financial success. You have to have a common vision, otherwise you are bound for disaster.

Terry had been working on Voyage on and off in various forms since the 1970s. Often filming would be triggered by natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions and other events, which stubbornly refuse to be made part of a proper shooting schedule.

Money was needed, and not a little of it. Accumulated costs needed to be recovered and more shoots commissioned, but most importantly, a massive post-production process, involving tons of visual effects, had to be undertaken.

The more I familiarized myself with the project, the more I wanted to be involved. All the work I had done over the past 20 years, trying to push the limits of what documentaries can be, making them appealing to broader audiences, pushing them out of their niche and giving them the platform they deserve as passionate works of visionary, creative filmmakers who spend their life working on them, brought me to the conclusion that Voyage of Time had the right pedigree. Earth had beaten The Dark Knight in Germany and Japan in the box office, two of the biggest theatrical markets. Now was the time to push the envelope even further, not only financially, but creatively.

The theatrical documentary market is very particular. The world is used to the US being the main driver of film projects and providing the lion share of the financing and leading the releases.

When you look at documentaries (apart from Michael Moore’s films and concert films on big music stars), you will quickly discover that the overseas markets often are the bigger driver of revenues. Theatrical documentaries typically make 70 percent or more of their business outside of the U.S. March of the PenguinsEarth, OceansWinged Migration and Microcosmos all became successes outside the U.S. before they were released stateside.

There is another side to it though: IMAX documentaries work exactly the other way round. They make the vast majority of their business domestically and only a smaller percentage overseas. I enjoy a strong relationship with IMAX because of my previous work. Voyage came at a time when we were looking for new projects to work on together. Terry always planned for Voyage to play at the biggest screens cinema has to offer: IMAX.

Considering all the above, I developed this diverse release strategy to have the two versions of the film, being released in different release patterns. The 90-minute feature-length version of the film, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, would have its strongest market potential outside the U.S., whereas Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience would have its stronghold domestically.

A still from Terrence Malick's Voyage of Time

A still from Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time

With this in mind, we went out to seek financing reflecting exactly this situation. An overseas-based sales agent (Wild Bunch) would handle the 90-minute feature version and IMAX (ideally) should be our partner in the Giant Screen world. We made sure to engineer such a structure where the success of the IMAX version would also benefit the investors of the 90-minute feature version and vice versa. This ensured there would be no “competition” between the two versions, all of us would work for both versions.

We all go to the cinema for the emotional journey, not because of our thirst for knowledge. How do you do that in a theatrical documentary, especially one that deals with science and natural history, carrying with it the constant danger of transporting the audience into a science class and not into a moviegoing experience? Many of these documentaries (and I have been a culprit as well) are glorified Discovery Channel showsjust bigger and louder.

If we want to have an audience for documentaries in cinema, we need to become more engaging and cinematic. The minute you feel you could be watching a documentary on TV at home is the moment when we lose our audience. What is the reason to make it theatrical in the first place?

I have been pushing for documentary features to become more cinematic and less explanatory. The 90-minute feature version of Voyage delivers precisely this: emotion, poetry, inspiration and a work of cinematic art. At the same time, it is deeply personal.

Historically, IMAX documentaries have had more of an educational focus, since a large portion of their audience are school classes, field trips and families with their young children. They are exhibited in museums, science centers and aquariums and other environments with similar aims. They want the facts and figures and all the background information. Most of these films have been following a certain formula, cueing up the audience at the very beginning of what they are about to see, showing it to them with plenty of information and at the end summarizing what they just saw—your condensed “all you need to know about turtles” in a 45-minute program.

Yes, Terry’s 45-minute IMAX version of Voyage is scientific—it teaches about the universe, the making of the stars, the planets, life and everything else in it. But with this IMAX version, we see a great potential to deliver this to the IMAX audience in an unprecedented way. MM

Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience opens in IMAX theaters on October 7, 2016, courtesy of IMAX.

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