Striving to Make a 'Reel Impact': Planet Green Launches New Environmental Documentary Series

When Laura Michalchyshyn took the helm at Discovery Communications' Planet Green five months ago after over a decade at the Sundance Channel, she convened a meeting with her new team, and the consensus was that they weren't airing enough documentaries.

"We realized that there was a great opportunity," Michalchyshyn explains. "There are so many great one-off docs available in the marketplace that aren't getting much television play." 

Planet Green decided to seize this opportunity by creating Reel Impact, a new Saturday evening slot that will feature long-form documentaries that explore pressing issues from bee colony collapse disorder to the acidification of our oceans.

Introduced in June 2008, Planet Green reaches over 57 million cable subscribers with original programming focused on environmental sustainability and individual action. Reel Impact will feature about 80 percent premieres and 20 percent "classics," like Davis Guggenheim's Oscar-winning Al Gore platform, An Inconvenient Truth. Films will also be rebroadcast on Thursday nights and selectively released online as Video on Demand.

Audiences will also be able to see additional footage, read filmmakers' blogs, participate in forum discussions and play educational games on PlanetGreen.com and its sister site, TreeHugger.com, a popular online destination that highlights creative responses to environmental challenges.

"We're creating custom content on our site to help support the broadcast, which is very important because our audience is a really engaged and they're often online--if not simultaneously with, then shortly after, the broadcast," says Michalchyshyn.

This multimedia approach is familiar territory for Laura Gabbert, co-director/co-producer of No Impact Man, which premiered at Sundance and opens in theaters nationwide through Oscilloscope Pictures this fall starting with New York and Los Angeles on September 11. Following the one-year journey of Colin Beavan, a.k.a. No Impact Man, and his family to radically minimize their environmental footprint, the film is one component of a growing advocacy empire, which includes a blog, book and the newly launched No Impact Project, a nonprofit campaign supported by The Fledgling Fund and Working Films that aims to "empower citizens to make choices that better their lives and lower their environmental impact through lifestyle change, community action and participation in environmental politics."

 

From Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein's No Impact Man (Prod.: Eden Wurmfeld), which premieres in 2010 on Planet Green's Reel Impact series. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures

 

While Gabbert is currently focused on gearing up for the film's theatrical release, she is looking forward to the world television premiere on Reel Impact in early 2010. "My previous films have been on PBS, but I'm always excited to try something new," she says. "I met a bunch of folks from Planet Green when we were at SilverDocs, and it feels like a very
appropriate place for the film. I also feel that it could play on a general interest channel, but I think this is a great place to launch it."

No Impact Man seems to be the right fit with the Reel Impact series, which
highlights stories of individuals who are compelled to take action when they realize what's at stake for current and future generations. Gabbert and her filmmaking team, including co-producer Eden Wurmfeld and co-director Justin Schein, were themselves inspired to rethink not only their personal daily habits, but also the way they make films. They minimized air travel, employed only practical lighting and used four rechargeable nine-volt batteries for the entire year and half of shooting, as opposed to the hundreds thrown in the garbage over the course of the making of most doc features. They even felt compelled by the Beavans to go car-free, capturing tracking shots from the seat of a rickshaw attached to the back of a bicycle.

"It felt kind of wrong to be documenting Colin and following him around in an SUV," Gabbert maintains. "But I also think it lent the film an intimacy and it makes you feel like part of the family."

While some dismiss the efforts of the Beavans to eliminate their impact, including getting around exclusively through biking and walking and not buying anything other than food (local, of course), as too radical for most Americans, the point is to invite viewers to consider making changes that feel right for them.

"The tagline for Reel Impact is ‘Watch at eight, talk at ten,'" says Michalchyshyn. "The idea, really, is that these films will engage and provoke. We're not taking a
position. There is no right answer in this movement and there is no right answer in these films."

This helps to explain the inclusion of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's haunting 2005 profile of Timothy Treadwell, an arguably suicidal naturalist whose passion to protect bears makes him believe he is immune to being attacked by them. Michalchyshyn agrees that "a lot of people would say that Timothy pushed it, and unfortunately lost his life over some of the decisions that he made. That's what Werner does so well as a filmmaker: He presents the facts and sort of says, ‘Here it is; you make your decision on how you feel.'"

 

Timothy Treadwell, subject of Werner Herzog's 2005 film Grizzly Man, which airs October 10 on Planet Green's Reel Impact series. Photo: Timothy Treadwell 

 

While many of the films in the series focus on individual choice, they also examine systemic negligence and corporate greed, from the literal and financial demolition of the electric car industry in Chris Paine's 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? to environmental contamination by natural gas extraction companies in Split Estate.

Debra Anderson, director of Split Estate, got an offer from Planet Green as a result of her participation in The Good Pitch, a partnership between the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Working Films UK that aims to bring together social issue docs-in-progress with representatives from NGOs, foundations and the media to forge alliances around the films. "We're very excited about the Reel Impact premiere," says Anderson. "We hope the film raises awareness of what's really going on in communities all over the country where folks don't have money or resources to publicize what's
happening to them. Because the industry has plenty of both, and they use them liberally to support their side of the story."

 

From Debra Anderson's Split Estate, which airs October 17 on Planet Green's Reel Impact series.

 

 

Planet Green is excited to provide a new platform for documentaries like Split Estate. Michalchyshyn concludes, "It's a big move us for us and it carries on the tradition of satisfying
curiosity, which Discovery Communications is really all about. That is our mantra, and that is our mission. And there's nothing that satisfies curiosity more to me than some great, provocative documentary stories."

Reel Impact airs Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., starting September 12 with the world premiere of Jeremy Simmons' The Last Beekeeper (Prods.: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato).

Shira Golding is an Ithaca, New York-based filmmaker and community activist who has been reducing her environmental impact by sharing resources locally through the group Share Tompkins, sharetompkins.wordpress.com. Check out her work at www.shirari.com.