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Funding Living Universe: As challenging as finding extraterrestrial life

Raising $6.78 million for an ambitious space science documentary that would excite international audiences was the opposite of a walk in the park for Essential Media and Entertainment chief executive Chris Hilton.


It was securing a US platform for the French/Australian production Living Universe that proved most tricky. And when Smithsonian Channel pulled out it was particularly devastating: an enormous amount of time and a significant amount of Essential’s own money had been invested in development, and more than $5 million had already been raised but it was not enough to go into production.

Subscription video on demand service CuriosityStream eventually saved the day by committing to exclusive US rights. The US-based player generally acquires finished content rather than pre-buying projects still in planning.

It has now been six years since Hilton first met with the scientist and professor of astronomy who gave him the idea for the project, which examines the quest to find extra-terrestrial life by the brightest minds in space exploration.

The theatrical feature and the four-part one-hour series that has been spun off from it – to be available in English and French versions – are now in post-production.

Big thanks to Chris Hilton for being so frank about the components of the deal – and the ups and downs of independently financing big-budget documentary.

<em>The Living Universe</em>

Living Universe, an un-official Australian-French co-production that explores the search for life on exoplanets, will be made available at the end of this year to US subscribers of the global subscription video on demand service CuriosityStream and promoted as one of its original documentaries.

The production partners are Essential Media and Entertainment in Australia and producer/distributor ZED in France.

Exoplanets, or extrasolar planets, are planets that orbit a different sun to Earth’s. Exoplanets are being discovered at a great rate and in certain circles this is creating frenzied interest in whether any might support extra-terrestrial life. As a scientist says in the sales trailer: “For hundreds of years we’ve been asking: are we alone in the universe? Finally we’re making progress”.

US-based CuriosityStream was launched two years ago and has exclusive US rights to both the big screen 90-minute version and the four-part one-hour series in English. The deal covers all media with the exception of theatrical exhibition rights although the streaming service will collaborate on the planned event screenings of the feature at: science and other festivals; air, space and science centres; and other venues.

Living Universe, now in post-production, is produced by Christine Le Goff from ZED and Aline Jacques, supervising producer of factual at Essential. Le Goff was employed at Telfrance when she got on board Living Universe and when ZED hired her in 2014 they also bought the documentary, which was then being co-developed with Essential.

(Three other Essential shows are in ZED’s catalogue: The Grammar of Happiness, Getting Frank Gehry and The Birth of Shopping. Le Goff and Essential had previously worked together on The Birth of Shopping, aka Seduction in the City, and Songlines to the Seine.)

Market interest was high

<h6>Chris Hilton</h6><p>Essential Media and Entertainment chief executive</p>
Chris Hilton

Essential Media and Entertainment chief executive

From the outset it was clear that the budget of Living Universe would need to be two or three million dollars per hour to accommodate the large component of visual effects needed to create the sequences of space travel and the imagery of worlds beyond our solar system that would give the production its epic quality says executive producer Chris Hilton, CEO and one of the founders of Essential.

Science is one of the few topics that can travel internationally because it is a language that everyone in the world speaks. This means it is financeable internationally. This is not the case with history, especially modern history, he says, illustrating his point with the example of Japan and the US collaborating on a project about World War II: it would be impossible because they don’t share the same version of the story.

The following marketplace attachments were cash flowed into the budget of Living Universe:

  • A distribution guarantee (DG) from ZED for world sales rights to both the English and French-language television versions excluding Australia and New Zealand (ANZ).
  • A DG for all ANZ rights for all versions from Screen Impact.
  • A DG from Essential that covers the territories of the UK and Japan, and international theatrical rights excluding ANZ.
  • A presale to CuriosityStream for all US and Caribbean rights except theatrical exhibition.
  • Presales to European public culture and arts network Arte for television broadcast rights for France and Germany.
  • A presale to Blue Ant Media for Canadian rights to the English language version of the series.

Some of the Essential DG was offset by a sale to UKTV. There are no theatrical sales as yet apart from the one included in the Screen Impact deal for Australia. Screen Impact has a commitment from ABC TV in the form of a pre-acquisition. In other words, the public broadcaster did not put up a “commissioning level” licence fee.

“There is a 180-day holdback on the theatrical version and it took quite a bit of negotiating,” says Hilton.

ZED’s DG is against a number of commitments from European broadcasters. The company has an output deal with Blue Ant.

The budget was $6.78 million

The other components within the $6.78 million budget are:

Confidentiality clauses in various contracts prevent Hilton from saying how much of the budget came from where but he will make some broad comments.

About 30 per cent is from French and European sources, including the DGs from ZED, the ARTE presales and government funding.

The PO is likely to generate $1.46 million, being 21.5 per cent of the budget. Macquarie Bank agreed to cash flow 85 per cent of this amount, which is only claimable upon completion of the documentary. (All the DGs combined, including those from France, amounted to a little less than the contribution from the PO.)

CuriosityStream didn’t meet Hilton’s request for US$300,000 per hour but did offer well over half of that amount, which he was told was far more than the SVOD player had paid for anything previously. Its contribution was about the same as the French, German and Canadian presales combined.

For the record, Living Universe was one of eight documentaries that got support in the first round of Screen Australia’s Documentary Producer Program and this was announced back in August 2015. The $400,000 in funding was a grant.

Apart from IMAX projects, Screen Australia has not invested in a documentary with a bigger total or per hour budget.

The idea came from seeking out a scientist

Living Universe started with me going to meet Steve Squyres, a scientist and Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University,” says Hilton. “He is a charismatic guy and I was thinking that he would be a good presenter.”

Squyres has been part of many missions for NASA – the independent US Government agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration – including the Mars Exploration Rover project.

“He helped design and land twin robots on Mars in 2004, one of which is still travelling across the surface, taking pictures and sending them back. I met him at his house and asked him what space story he would want to tell if he had the budget. He wanted to examine the latest in the search for life on other planets.”

Squyres and his colleague Gentry Lee, chief engineer for planetary flight systems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and a writer of science fiction novels, worked on the initial proposal in consultation with Hilton.

Raising the budget was not easy

"To say that the budget was difficult to raise is a very big understatement"

To say that the budget was difficult to raise is a very big understatement. Hilton says he felt completely crushed by the disappointment at one stage during financing when a key partner pulled out.

“It became an obsession. It took six years and went through lots of ups and downs … Once you’ve raised a fair bit of money and spent a lot of your own money on development you have to keep going despite the setbacks so as not to lose your investment of time and money.”

Living Universe was first pitched at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in Washington in 2012. At that time ARTE were already on board – its involvement predated Le Goff’s. Representatives of NOVA, the prime time science series on the PBS network in the US, bit down on the bait the hardest.

“Immediately we had NOVA stalking us, in a posse, saying ‘don’t take it anywhere else’,” says Hilton. “The key (to the positive response) was getting Professor Squyres to pitch because he’s a brilliant science communicator.”

With Hilton at the time was Alan Erson, then the relatively new Australian general manager and head of factual at Essential – he has since moved on to WildBear Entertainment but remains an executive producer on the project. Other executive producers include Marcus Gillezeau, who set up the financial structure and wrangled the post-production and CGI on the various versions of Storm Surfers, and the Essential personnel, factual executive producer David Alrich and development executive Peter Rees, best known for creating MythBusters.

Soon after that first pitch, Squyres’ involvement was put in doubt: the project would require him to be away from his family for long periods, not for the first time, and his wife did not approve. That shadow was still over Living Universe when development progress was presented at the Science Congress in the following year in Montreal to representatives of ARTE and NOVA. ARTE remained on board but it became clear that the relationship with NOVA could not be a good one and no deal was struck for the US.

The concept was changed to feature Steve Squyres heavily – alongside other scientists – but not have him as host. Instead Dr Richard Smith would host and direct the feature and the English-language television version and co-direct the French-language version with Vincent Amouroux. Smith had previously worked with Essential on Voyage to the Planets and was brought on for Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide.

By the time of the 2014 Science Congress in Hong Kong, talks had begun with Smithsonian Channel. For this major player to be involved various scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, specifically from the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, had to give their blessing on the content and be featured. Smith began working with them on treatments.

It was devastating news when the Smithsonian pulled out in late 2015. Hilton felt that, to some degree, the production had got caught up in scientific rivalry.

“Essential had been paying for all the development on our side,” says Hilton. “We had ARTE, the ABC and UK TV all in place. We had raised $5 million but needed another US$300K per hour to complete the budget and we couldn’t scale it back because of the amount of CGI needed … If we (Essential) had had to invest the equivalent of the US sale, we would have gone broke.”

“I’d been talking to (chief programming officer) Steve Burns at CuriosityStream about my travails with NOVA and the Smithsonian – more as a friend and adviser than anything – and then, when Smithsonian dropped out, I finally formally pitched to him. I told him the project would be great for his brand and that the theatrical tour would give marketing traction to his platform.

“He came back overnight with an offer. Steve mainly picks up finished films but he liked the project and liked the team – he has known Richard and me for almost 20 years. He made me a very very happy man.”

Filming took place in 10 countries

Filming occurred in 10 countries between May and December 2016.  The locations included Iceland, Canada’s Rocky Mountains, Australia’s Pilbara and Chile’s Atacama Desert. Some scenery is appearing as itself while other footage is being used as plates for the CGI, which is being undertaken by two French companies.

To extend the Living Universe brand there is likely to be an eBook produced, as well as materials for teachers, virtual reality and giant screen versions and other assets.

“We are in the new age of exploration and it’s an exploding field,” says Hilton of his subject.

“What we’re making is science-faction."

"Scientists are currently looking under the water on one of the moons of Saturn for life. Outside our solar system most of the scientific contributors to the series believe that it is statistically impossible for there not to be extra-terrestrial life because there are so many earth-like planets in the universe – an estimated 10 trillion trillion."

“If we find life what will that mean? Even if we speed up spaceships to the speed of light the nearest planet is four light years away … The distances are so vast that the notion that we can move to another planet if we stuff this one up isn’t going to happen.”

Be very careful about what you get in so deep with, that there’s no turning back, says Hilton when asked the biggest lesson for him from the long journey of financing Living Universe.

“It’s risky and time consuming doing a big international project like this as a co-production, financing it this way and making multiple versions. I prefer not to spend six years raising money for one project and take such a big financial risk along the way but sometimes it’s the only way it can be done.  I especially prefer not to have financial partners drop out along the way but then that is quite typical in the independent movie business.

“NatGeo and Netflix want big noisy high quality cinematic projects and are prepared to pay $2-3 million per hour so I’d rather go to one place, make a margin and deliver on a reasonable schedule.

“On the other hand, risk is what we do. And philosophically, if we’d made the show five years ago, it would have been too early. There’s been an explosion of new discoveries  in this field in the last few year and we would have missed them. It would have been old news. We need this documentary to be as relevant and up to date as it can be.”