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Nature's Way: Genre Must Adapt to Survive

By Barry Clark

Eight week-old fennec fox pups in their den, from the Mandalay Media Arts production <em>Sahara</em>.

The natural history genre occupies a niche that is located somewhere between the nonfiction (reportage) genre and the dramatic (storytelling) genre. While the typical documentarian earnestly pursues the grail of objectivity, nature producers are noted for their unabashed embrace of myth and metaphor and for their willingness to massage the known facts of nature in order to relay uplifting moral lessons to their audiences. These tendencies naturally arouse the suspicion, if not the righteous indignation, of the nonfiction filmmaking community and, in response, the nature genre has spawned its own distinct subculture of festivals, symposia and tribal gatherings—events that stand apart from the convocations of the “pure” documentarians. Notable among these rituals are Wildscreen, held in alternate autumns in Bristol, England; the Jackson Hole Festival, staged in intervening autumns in Wyoming; the International Wildlife Film Festival, held each spring in Missoula, Montana; the Japan Wildlife Festival, held each summer in Toyama, Japan; and a half-dozen similar confabs that convene regularly in picturesque settings around the globe.

But while the florid work of the nature filmmakers may be disdained by some members of the documentary elite, the genre has been showered with rewards by television audiences worldwide, with the result that the budgets of high-end nature programs have soared, during the last decade, to over $1 million per hour, while a half-dozen cinematographers and producers at the top of the field have been propelled into the ranks of ranch-owning multimillionaires.

In the past two years, however, a creeping malaise has begun to nibble at the fringes of the nature filmmaking world: Series have been cancelled, budgets have been slashed, and armies of would-be auteurs have begun to glance anxiously at the sky and mutter about the onslaught of a long cold winter. In the dark pubs of Bristol and Missoula and Jackson Hole, theories of blame swarm like deer flies around the rotting carcass of a moose. While one school holds that the ubiquitous Discovery Channel and its upstart offspring have recklessly flooded the world with carbon-copy nature shows, another school accuses Pat Mitchell, grumbling that she favors genres other than nature in her master plan for the new PBS. And then there’s the conspiracy theory that finds a nemesis in the global trend toward mega-mergers and corporate takeovers. This school points its fingers at the evil Fox empire as it tightens its death-grip on National Geographic and at the greedy titans of Granada, gleefully leading the sacred cows of Survival, Itel and Partridge to the slaughterhouse.

Yet while theories like these may enliven an otherwise dull evening in a pub, they fail to take stock of the revolution that has been growing for the last decade—a technological and social sea-change that is impacting not nature alone, not even television alone, but everything we do. The reference, of course, is to the digital revolution and its most powerful byproduct, the personal computer plugged into the Internet. As McLuhan, among others, noted, new technologies feed on the remains of the old and, while presenting us with new methodologies, they instill new mindsets, new ways of relating to the world. For better or worse, the computer has bequeathed to us a culture of rapidly rising expectations, a world in which we expect—and demand—gratification now.

In such a world there is diminishing tolerance for the old “analog” forms of entertainment, whether in the form of the sitcom, dramatic series, theatrical film, documentary, news report or nature show. In the brave new age that is dawning upon us, the playgoer is thrust into the play; the proscenium arch is bulldozed away; the old model of entertainment, with its one-way flow of information, is supplanted by a new model of communication that is participatory, immersive, visceral—and aggressively real.

In terms of nonfiction, the model of the lecture has been replaced by the model of the adventure. While we may not all line up in support of Fear Factor, Weakest Link or Survivor, it is easy to see that the same nervous energy that propels these shows drives such breathless and taut dramatic series as ER, West Wing and NYPD Blue, as well as such brash sitcoms as Will & Grace, Just Shoot Me and Dharma & Greg. In all of these we may perceive the expressionistic energy of rap music, graffiti, the anime-style cartoon and the energy and urgency of e-mail. And in the face of this cultural tsunami, the nature genre has no choice but to respond. To survive—and nature is all about adaptation and survival—the genre must abandon the safe confines of the classroom and embrace the edgy world of adventure. It must adapt to the age we have entered; it must take hold of the reins and, by rediscovering its core strengths, regain its relevance to an audience it is rapidly losing.

But it is not simply the restless energy of the times that dictates this cultural change. It is the exponential proliferation of claims on the audience’s time and attention. The day of the captive viewer has long since passed and with the dawn of true video-on-demand, even brand loyalty is likely to become little more than a wistful memory. We have arrived at Dodge City, at the edge of the digital frontier, and, thanks to the Net, anarchy in entertainment is poised to assume its reign. It is a thought that strikes fear in the hearts of some, but to others it is irresistibly exciting. For, in their view, in a world of clamoring voices, those with the skills to communicate most successfully, those who move their listeners most, will be heard and will be rewarded.

But how do the makers of nature programs accept the mandates of this new meritocracy? In my view they must do so by seizing the new tools they’ve been given—–camcorders, lenses, camera mounts, picture and sound editing systems, standards of broadcast and display—and painting with bold, broad strokes on the new canvas that is spread out before them. In fact, many nature filmmakers are beginning to do just that, and the first signs of change can be seen in the nature/adventure and science/adventure programs that, during the past two years, have begun to appear on the BBC, NHK, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, in addition to other international broadcasters. From Oregon to Hong Kong the signs are clear: audiences are demanding, and filmmakers are supplying, programs with personality, energy and immediacy, programs that are not content to sit quietly in the corner, but instead reach out of the box and draw their viewers in.

In the long run the future is bright for the makers of nature programs. The bond between us humans and nature is ancient and deep and can only grow deeper as wild places progressively disappear and machines increasingly take over the task of interfacing between us and the world. Addressing the needs of an audience hungry for engagement, hungry for reunion with the world (whether that world is real or imagined), is a challenge that the best of the nature filmmakers will meet. The frontier is a treacherous place but, as always, it is where real opportunity is to be found.


Barry Clark is co-founder and chairman of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and co-founder, with Peter Guber and Al Giddings, of the Los Angeles-based production company Mandalay Media Arts. MMA produced the 3D IMAX adventure Galapagos, plus the two-hour PBS HD special Sahara, and is currently prepping the multipart series Shoot Out for PBS and the 3DHD large format film Across the Sands, the latter a co-production with Arabian Sands Entertainment scheduled to shoot in the Empty Quarter of the United Arab Emirates this coming winger.