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An unprecedented boom in wildlife programming risks being hampered by the shortage of skilled freelancers coming through to sustain it, leading producers have warned.  

Laura Marshall, co-founder of Icon Films, said that there was simply not enough experienced natural history producers, directors, APs, coordinators and others to keep up with the demand from broadcasters.  

‘’There is so much work in Bristol [the global hub of natural history filmmaking] and not enough people,’’ she told the Realscreen 20 summit in New Orleans.  

She said it was incumbent on Indies and broadcasters to invest in training and career development to increase the number of programme-makers working in the sector while making sure that ‘’quality doesn’t suffer.’’  

The warning came as BBC Studios announced plans to hire another 150 staff to join the Natural History Unit in Bristol to help deal with the swathe of new commissions from third party networks, while leading Indie producers said that the balance of power in recruitment had shifted decisively from the companies to the freelancers, with the latter now having far more choice to pick and choose which productions they work on.   

The Realscreen summit was told that wildlife programmes served a unique role in the schedules of content platforms, and all the new streaming services like Netflix, Apple and Quibi – as well as traditional broadcasters – were clamouring for more.  

‘’Natural history has always been popular. It speaks to all generations, and travels very well,’’ said Mike Gunton, BBC Studios. ‘’Lions roar in lion – not French or Italian. More crucially though, in the current TV landscape, it’s hard to find programming that speaks across generations, brings families together and makes them watch on [a TV screen] rather than [mobile device.]’’ 

Although the sector had been through boom cycles before it had ‘’never seen one like this’’, he said.  

Andrew Jackson of Plimsoll Productions said the streamers want ‘’natural history as a key part of their offering to viewers.  

‘’Netflix know what people are watching, They’ve lost the BBC content to Discovery and they want that [natural history] content in their shop so are putting money into it.’’ Last month Sky announced that it was launching a dedicated nature channel, while Blink Films has become one of the first UK indies to secure an order from Disney’s new streaming service with Meet the Chimps (working title.) 

Despite a reputation for being something of a closed-world talent wise, Icon’s Laura Marshall said that natural history was a good fit for people working in other genres.  

She said that traditional observational documentary makers’ skillsets were well-suited to wildlife. ‘’What we do is follow, follow, follow, follow, wait, wait … follow, follow. And then spend a lot of time in the edit. The cameras we use may be different but the skills and storytelling are the same.’’ 

The boom was also an opportunity to improve diversity and inclusion in the freelance community, as well as for new companies. Bristol-based Wildstar Films – set up a year ago by former BBC execs Vanessa Berlowitz and Mark Linfield – already has 5 series in production, while ex-NHU execs like Wendy Darky, Alaistair Fothergill and James Honeyborne have all set up their own indies.  

Janet Han Vissering, SVP of development and production at Nat Geo Wild, said that her network had recently formed a partnership with Wildstar to train a new generation of ‘’field ready’’ natural history programme-makers, especially women.  

The scheme – which opens for applications in April – would support 10 delegates, each with a senior mentor, not only to get experience in the field but also then guarantee them a job afterwards.  

Han Vissering told Realscreen that the challenge of finding and nurturing wildlife filmmaking in the US was even more acute.  

‘’Although we’ve got lost of [individual] great exec producers and filmmakers, unlike in the UK, with the BBC’s natural history unit and production hub of Bristol, there are not those iconic production companies in the US that focus on natural history,’’ she said.  

The expansion of reality TV in the last 10 years, has dominated the growth of the industry, but there hasn’t been a great deal of Natural History films in the US market.  

Now with Netflix and the other streamers, there is a demand for NH so ‘’I’m hoping the story-makers and production companies will get into this space.’’  


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