Tom McDonald, evp of Global Factual for National Geographic, shared his wish-list for new wildlife shows and approaches to film-making, with the audience at this week’s Wildscreen Festival, being held in Bristol.
McDonald, former md of Factual at BBC Studios, has been in post since June. Based in New York, he is responsible for leading the development and production of all global unscripted series and specials that feed Disney+ and Nat Geo’s linear channels. His senior team includes Janet Han Vissering, senior vp, development and production, wildlife/natural history.
In conversation with presenter Liz Bonnin, he acknowledged the strength of Nat Geo’s current slate, adding “it feels like I’ve joined at a moment where there’s lots more potential.” He dismissed rumours of a natural history bubble on the point of bursting.
However he did say, “there’s a danger that buyers are commissioning too much of the same thing….. It’s incumbent on everyone to ask ourselves, ‘how is this original?’” He added, “I’m going to give myself a rule: if we start saying ‘what’s our version of x?’ we shouldn’t do it.”
He described the critical change in commissioning over the last few years at Nat Geo. “Rewind six, seven, eight years, Janet and the team were principally about commissioning for Nat Geo Wild – high volume, lowish cost shows, very good. They tended to be in the vets and pets space. Plus some co pros and acquisitions…About three, four years ago Janet was tasked with making Nat Geo a player in the blue chip space. It’s remarkable the speed at which the team has pivoted.”
In his new role, he says that he will be “a sounding board for Janet” asking “What does this look like in the portfolio, year by year? Will it be the right story in 2027, will it resonate? Who is the talent ? If we’re telling the story of Queens one year, what in the following?”
Another question he’s asking is whether Nat Geo is building enough brands. The Emmy winning Secrets of the Whales is now a franchise, with Secrets of the Elephants and Secrets of the Octopus.
Looking forward, at new ideas for blue chip productions, he wants a Nat Geo twist. He cites BBC Studios’ Lion, being executive produced by Mike Gunton alongside director Jon Favreau, “a Hollywood drama filmmaker putting a lens on natural history.”
“Disney+ is unashamedly family friendly ….Titles that are entertainment first, fun, playful..Not necessarily to watch with kids, but they tease, they’re playful, have mischief.”
Shows that present the connection between people and animals are important, bringing talent and blue chip elements, but can be made more speedily than the big blue chip projects. “One thing that always resonates with an audience is the connection between people and animals,” he says, referencing My Octopus Teacher and other films that map the connection. “When you can cross the species divide …..It’s an area I’m hugely interested in.”
Finding ways of hybridising is also high on the Nat Geo list. Drama is essential, but not the end game. Having mentioned a soft spot for the Kardashians – with strong characters and compelling storylines – he said, “Please don’t pitch me Kardashians with meerkats, but if we can take influences from other genres whether it’s science, history or factual entertainment, I’d love to see what that looks like.
“I spent years making big, rigged camera shows and I’ve always thought, ‘what would you do with big rig?”
He cites Secret Life of the Zoo as coming closest.
“It might be there’s a piece of technology, or lighting, or way that a story unfolds in a genre, even editing style..Some of the most interesting work tends to be a couple of people on a team who are not from a natural history background asking ‘why are we doing it this way?’”
The influence of drama opens many possibilities. “Aronofsky brought an entirely different lens into natural history and science film making’” says McDonald. “I’ve always said that natural history is not a factual genre. It’s miscategorized as factual because fundamentally, it’s drama.” And it’s this approach that he wants to see more of, moving further from the traditional, reverential tone. “I think we can afford to be more playful, we can learn from different types of drama.” He gave examples: “I think drama is always innovating around, for example, the chronology…. It is a trope of drama that you will have flashbacks and flash forwards. It’s a trope of drama that will show a sequence from one person’s perspective and then get it repeated from another person’s perspective in a sort of Knives Out, in a murder mystery kind of way. It’s a trope of drama that you have multiple cameras where you get to see different reactions.”
“We need to keep pushing at what this genre can do. I believe the opportunities are limitless,” he says. “I’m not sure we’re really pushing at the edges…A lot sits in a happy middle of nicely made and nicely crafted …Where are those outside influences where is that something we can bring in?”
Of course, he’d love to find that unicorn idea. He describes Apple’s Prehistoric Planet as “a game changer, in its own way a unicorn.” He also cites My Octopus Teacher and points further, to different possibilities, including 2016 BBC film Life That Glows that captured bioluminescence in a new way. “It makes me believe there are plenty of unicorns out there.”
With climate change now becoming more central to natural history production, he said, “It is incumbent on us to find ways of telling these stories. My door and Janet’s door are absolutely open to how do we tell these really important climate change stories in a way that resonates.”
Talking about Nat Geo’s taste for innovation and risk, McDonald points to Janet Vissering’s backing of young British explorer Bertie Gregory, with The Epic Adventures of Bertie Gregory, a Wildstar Films production.
Coming to Disney+ and backed with a multi-million dollar marketing budget. “I think it’s really brave,” says McDonald. But it’s also a necessary risk and they know that it could affect audience numbers. “We have to keep doing it.”
Bertie Gregory is an unusual find: a voice that can tell global stories. There’s been a rich seam using A list talent to helm, including Will Smith. Last week saw a first look deal with Nat Geo fan Chris Hemsworth’s production company Wild State. “What does a global voice look or feel like?” asked McDonald. He talked about Portuguese journalist Mariana van Zeller, based in LA, who narrates Trafficked. “She’s hardcore, she’s unbelievably brave…..It’s marrying the right people with the right stories.”
He also talked about big budget series Queens, another Wildstar Films production, about matriarchal animal societies, being made by an almost entirely female production team and narrated by women. “That shouldn’t be radical in this genre…The team on this series are best in class regardless of their gender. “I want people to come to us, to Janet and her team… That’s inspired us. If she’s proved anything, it’s that she’ll take a big bold move.”
Behind the camera, he was clear that with the current shortage of sufficiently trained crew, investment was needed to sustain the industry. He encouraged production companies to ask for training costs as part of any budget. “We have a responsibility whether it’s BBC, Nat Geo, Netflix to make sure that next generation comes up… Producers need to push back: are you prepared to pay for it, can we put that in the budget?”
Photo credit: Jon Craig
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