Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Terra Mater Factual Studios looks back on an eventful decade that made its name synonymous with high-end nature and wildlife productions, while also embracing the ever-expanding opportunities offered by the growth of streaming platforms.
The Austrian company’s productions include Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani’s acclaimed “The Ivory Game,” which exposes the dark world of ivory trafficking; Ladkani’s “Sea of Shadows,” about the efforts to save the smallest whale species in the world from extinction; and Myles Connolly and Florian Schulz’s upcoming “The Arctic: Our Last Great Wilderness.” CEO Walter Koehler, the former head of Austrian broadcaster ORF’s nature and wildlife unit, Universum, established Terra Mater as a subsidiary of Red Bull in 2011.
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“When I opened the company 10 years ago, we started with 12 or 13 people; now we have more than 40 employees,” he says. The figure does not include the many freelance personnel that also work on Terra Mater productions. “Was it planned like this? I would say no. I never thought that we would want to have more than 20 people, but it was necessary to grow like this.” In the past 10 years, Terra Mater has produced more than 350 hours of television programming, and some 10 feature films, about one a year, Koehler adds.
With a focus on nature, science and history-related content for TV, multimedia platforms and theatrical release, Terra Mater is built on a broad foundation, he says.
The company has benefited from the growth and expansion of streaming platforms in recent years. “It opened more opportunities,” Koehler points out, stressing that Netflix, in particular, has driven demand for feature documentaries. Terra Mater first partnered with Netflix on “The Ivory Game” in 2016. “Sea of Shadows,” which, like “Ivory Game,” was produced with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, and is streaming on Disney Plus after airing on National Geographic.
It’s really an outstanding time in which you can choose between the streaming platforms and regular TV, Koehler says. Terra Mater faced time constraints from broadcasters in the past with programs of unusual lengths, but those kinds of programs easily find homes on streamers, he adds. “If there’s a film which is 40 minutes long, it can be too long for a 30-minute slot and too short for a 60-minute slot, but it can be perfect for streaming.” Indeed, the company had to previously shape its projects and ideas to the requirements of television. Streamers, however, have encouraged innovation in narration and storytelling, says Dinah Czezik-Müller, Terra Mater’s COO.
This has led to changes among the broadcasters.
“They have to be a little bit more flexible and think wider instead of just sticking to their slots and thinking about programming.” This new reality has only cemented Terra Mater’s broad focus that encompasses scripted, non-scripted and hybrid feature films, serial formats and other types of TV and video content. The company last year launched its own YouTube channel, which has since attracted more than 220,000 subscribers and 25 million views.
Amsterdam-based Off the Fence, a subsidiary of ZDF Enterprises, handles Terra Mater’s TV catalog, which includes such nature and science titles as “The Witness Is a Whale,” “Rare Survivors: China‘s Iconic Wildlife” and “The Neanderthals’ Dark Secret.” For all of its success, the company has, in recent years, increased its efforts to reach a wider audience, and in that too, it is succeeding.
Terra Mater’s main focus at its core has always been on the health of the planet, Koehler says. “After our big feature doc successes, you had the feeling that you are more or less preaching to the converted and therefore our idea was to broaden our audience.
We want to spread this belief that we have, I would say, 20 years left to really save the planet as we know it.” Czezik-Müller points to “The Ivory Game” and its marketing campaign as an example, noting that it succeeded in reaching people’s minds and hearts. “This is how I think change can be triggered, because it’s emotion. When we started Terra Mater we were very focused on the classical way of documentary storytelling, with great pictures and great music.
The intention was to take people along on the trip to these places.” Instead of just taking audiences on a journey, however, the Terra Mater team is now aiming to move its audience to take action.
“We want to make them feel in their heart how important it is to take a very personal step to do something,” Czezik-Müller adds.
“The Arctic: Our Last Great Wilderness,” Terra Mater’s first Imax production, focuses on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and the threat to the unique habitat by oil and gas developers.
The film was co-produced with the Campion Advocacy Fund, which aims to protect public lands and the climate. While its planned release via Cosmic Picture was postponed last year due to the pandemic, the campaign was still unbelievably successful and even went so far as to petition Congress, says Koehler.
“We got more than 6.5 million signatures.” Koehler welcomed President Joe Biden’s efforts to protect the refuge, at least for the time being. The Biden administration imposed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing activities, reversing former President Donald Trump’s decision to allow drilling in the pristine wildlife region that is home to polar bears, caribou, birds and other animals, as well as the native Inupiat and Gwich’in tribal communities that continue to live off the land.
“ANWR hopefully will get the highest security status as a national monument soon,” Koehler adds.
“The Arctic: Our Last Great Wilderness” is set to premiere on May 28 at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
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