Case Study: ‘BESA: The Promise’ – An Established Nonfiction Producer Carries off a ‘Passion’ Theatrical Project (1/2)

By Alex Watson
Associate, DocumentaryTelevision.com

In our 2-part Case Study: An established, commercial nonfiction producer works for seven years on a ‘passion’ documentary project.

  • The Project: BESA: The Promise.
    It’s an inspiring documentary about how a sacred, wartime promise is fulfilled across decades and faiths.
  • The Producer: JWM Productions

I spoke with Jason Williams, president of JWM, in the midst of BESA’s successful U.S. festival run:

  • His documentary reveals the never-before-told story of how Albanian Muslims bravely sheltered Jewish refugees from their German occupiers during WWII.
  • The story is told from perspective of Norman Gershman, a renowned Jewish-American photographer who was determined to shine a bright light on the bravery of these Albanian guardians.
  • In the process, Gershman meets Rexhep Hoxha, a man who is bound  by an unbreakable promise to return three books that belonged to a man his family had sheltered.
  • When he finally hands over the books, “an extraordinary and utterly unexpected personal drama is set in motion – one that bridges generations and religions… uniting fathers and sons… Muslims and Jews.”

Here is the trailer:

In Part 1, we take a look at JWM Productions and the decision to detour into the creation of BESA.  Next: the budget, funding sources, production process and more.

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JWM PRODUCTIONS

  • Located in Takoma Park, MD.
  • Established in 1996.
  • Produced over 350 hours of television series, docs and specials.

Principals / Co-founders

  • Jason Williams is the President. He previously worked with Time-Life Video & Television and TBS Productions.
  • Bill Morgan is the MD.  He previously worked for Nat Geo Television.

JWM’s Mission

  • According to Jason Williams: “At JWM we really try to find that niche between specialist nonfiction and reality TV, in a sense keeping a foot in each camp.”
  • “In our nearly two decades as a company, we have been associated with blue chip non-fiction specials, but we’re also well tuned to other markets. This flexibility allows JWM to tell stories in “formats beyond traditional content-driven programs.”
  • “We believe that there is no point in making television if you can’t capture the audience’s attention.”

Notable Past Productions

  • Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom – Produced multiple seasons. (Animal Planet).
  • Saving JJ – Recipient of the 1998 Emmy for Outstanding Coverage of a Breaking News Story. (Nat Geo, BBC).
  • Digging for the Truth – Produced four seasons of this series, which explored various historical icons and mysteries (History).
  • Ghost Town Gold – Brit Eaton and Scott Glaves hunt for cowboy treasures in the abandoned goldmines and ghost towns of the Wild West (Discovery/NGCI).

Current Projects

  • Catfish Curry – A comic pilot that updates Mississippi Marsala for the reality age (A&E).
  • Cellblock Psychic – An attractive psychic tackles a maximum security challenge: can she bring closure where all that’s left is pain?

Pipeline

  • “Over the last 10 years, we’ve averaged 20-30 hours delivered per year.”
  • “Normally 1-3 series are on-air or in development each year.”
  • Currently in funded development: series for Nat Geo Wild and PBS.
  • Jason says: “If producers don’t have something in the pipeline & cannot regularly produce a series that scores strong ratings, then we can quickly find ourselves in serious trouble.”
  • “It is important to constantly keep something in development that targets what networks and audiences are looking for.”

BESA: THE PROMISE

Concept

  • The never-before-told history of how Albanian Muslims sheltered Jewish refugees during WWII.
  • Astonishing Fact: “The only Muslim country in Europe was the only nation whose Jewish population increased in WWII.”

Why Besa?

JWM has typically targeted cable channels – so why the shift with this doc?

  • “We initially thought it would be a great one-time production for PBS or another niche network.”
  • “But as we probed the story more, it became obvious that we could follow a more nuanced, dramatic narrative.”
  • “I had no idea this hidden history had occurred – and at such a critical juncture.”
  • “We saw that a Class A documentary about an interesting footnote to WWII history could be made into something bigger than that – a genuinely universal story of relationships, survival, promises, and common humanity.”
  • We found this to be particularly appealing, especially “given the relationship between Muslims and Jews today.”

Key Credits

  • Rachel Goslins, Director & Producer – Rachel has made films for Nat Geo, Discovery, PBS, A&E, and History, and is currently the Executive Director of the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities.
  • Philip Glass, Composer
  • Tom Schmidt, Art Director & Graphics Supervisor, Percolate Digital
  • Christine Romero, Editor & Producer. Her film career includes award-winning programs for domestic networks such as PBS, NBC, Discovery, Nat Geo and History.

COMING UP NEXT: BESA: The Promise 2/2

  • Production: A Seven Year Timeline
  • Budget / Funding
  • Success
  • Takeaways / Postscript

Where’s Alexander Watson?

  • Edinburgh University, on an exchange from Georgetown.
  • Send me an email if you’d like to extend a Scots welcome to him.
  • He was our summer associate in 2012 and 2013.

Virtual Assistant

  • DocumentaryTelevision.com is seeking a part time Virtual Assistant with proven organizational and writing skills.
  • Familiarity with e-publishing tools like Word Press and Constant Contact is a plus. Powerpoint also.
  • Prefer North American location.
  • Please send bio to Peter@DocumentaryTelevision.com