The Wildest Dream director Anthony Geffen has cemented his relationship with that doc’s executive producer, Mike Medavoy. They are getting their Geffen Medavoy Pictures banner off the ground with a branded slate of high-end documentaries–most shot 3D–to bring to life ancient empires, dinosaurs and other historical topics. Budgets on the 3D films will fall between $11 million and $15 million.
It’s a non-exclusive relationship and Medavoy continues with Phoenix Pictures. Their first 3D documentary together will focus on Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who spearheaded an expedition to the South Pole that left his crew stranded in sub-zero tundra after ice crushed their ship in 1915. Using shrewd management and harrowing treks through mountains, glaciers and brutal waters over 18 months, Shackleton kept all 27 members of his crew alive until they could be rescued. Medavoy and Geffen will produce together, hire a director and start production at year’s end.
Medavoy said other docu features they’ll make will focus on ancient Egypt, the Holy Land, and Africa. “The idea is to tell true stories with a large scope,” Medavoy told me. “We’re betting that people will want to see big-scale 3D renderings of places they’ll never go but want to experience. I look at this as similar to what happened to the animation segment when Disney was making hits and suddenly Pixar took it to a different level.”
Shackleton’s tale has been told before and there certainly have been 3D documentaries made. But Medavoy and Geffen intend to create a brand that breaks beyond the usual confines that have ghettoized docus as noble pursuits that don’t often make money.
While Medavoy has by his own count been involved as producer or exec in 314 films—the latest include Shutter Island and the upcoming Darren Aronofky-directed Black Swan— The Wildest Dream was his first documentary. It was Geffen’s first feature as a director, though he’s produced a long string of documentaries. The Wildest Dream tracks climber Conrad Anker as he discovers the body of famed British climber George Mallory, who disappeared in 1924 just as he nearly became the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest. Anker returned, determined to replicate and complete Mallory’s journey, taking the same route, even using the same equipment and clothing. Geffen met Medavoy after the director had assembled the rough footage and Medavoy made suggestions that improved the narrative and better wove together the quests of Mallory and Anker into parallel plots.
The Wildest Dream, which was filmed in 2D and cost $7 million, just completed its third weekend and has grossed $262,817 on a slow expansion to 17 screens. Geffen said the film is running ahead of profitability projections and by the time it opens in the UK next month and plays in 10 or 15 other territories through Christmas, it will make a healthy profit.
“The nice thing for Mike and I is there is real longevity to these films, particularly with the IMAX play,” Geffen told me. “The film has shown the firepower of what we’ll be doing. These will be big events, often in 3D. We’ll both be using our skills, mine as a documentary filmmaker, Mike as a storyteller who has extensive theatrical experience. In documentaries, 3D can take you places you never thought you would go. You’re right in the ice, you can see it and touch it and immerse yourself in what Shackleton experienced. In the past, these 3D film have been technology over content but Mike and I are determined to match the storytelling with the technology.” Medavoy said the key is personalizing big-scale stories with a focus on relate-able characters.
Geffen is using 3D on Flying Monsters, a docu he’s making with David Attenborough–Medavoy and Geffen were originally going to make this the first picture in their venture but Medavoy didn’t want to be the third wheel. The film focuses on dinosaurs with 40-foot wingspans that ruled the prehistoric skies 150 million years ago. Geffen is determined to brand these documentaries as theatrical events. It’s hard to bet against Geffen’s determination: to make The Wildest Dream, he essentially climbed nearly to the top of the world’s highest mountain three times, stepping over long-dead climbers in the death zone at 26,000 feet, and wondering more than once if he would survive. It was difficult enough for Geffen and his team to train standard cameras on Anker and his climbing partner; 3D equipment would have been way too cumbersome. Geffen said that’s changing quickly. The 3D equipment has evolved and we’re working with manufacturers to continue to reduce the size of equipment and make it all lighter,” Geffen said. “We’ll be able to walk 10 miles across the ice with those cameras for Shackleton.” Geffen is also not worried about funding, beyond the usual sponsors like National Geographic, which underwrote The Wildest Dream.
“We are putting together the funds to seed a series of projects, and we’ve gotten a very good range of investors because of The Wildest Dream,” Geffen said. “The revenue model for these films is there. Distributors are falling over themselves to make deals because they know there will be huge demand for 3D DVDs and not much content available. By next year, most TVs will be manufactured in 3D. It totally changes the dynamic from where DVD value has fallen on 2D films. James Cameron can make an Avatar every three years, but if I have a 3D TV, I need product. We see a huge demand coming. I would not be surprised to see some of the hardware manufacturers investing.” Flying Monsters was funded out by Rupert Murdoch’s new Sky 3D service.