APOCALYPSE ’45: Discovery’s powerful WW2 documentary in virtual theatrical release. A Case Study for the COVID Era

Discovery Channel and distributor Abramorama teamed for a virtual theatrical and broadcast rollout of Apocalypse ‘45.

This powerful documentary from Oscar-nominee Erik Nelson recounts the harrowing end of WW2, using unseen archive and the eyewitness accounts of 24 veterans who lived through the Pacific campaign.

My Apocalypse ‘45 Case Study and podcasts capture the development, production and distribution of a premium theatrical documentary under COVID restrictions.

Part 1. Development & Production

Part 2. Distribution

  • Listen to my podcast with Abramorama COO Karol Martesko-Fenster.
  • Learn about a new VOD right: TH-VOD!

Title / Tagline

  • APOCALYPSE ’45 A Time of Terror and Glory

Elevator Pitch

  • First 20 Minutes of Saving Private Ryan meets Apollo 11

Trailer

Concept / Inspiration

  • World War 2 never really ended. It made our modern world, and we are still defined as a nation by its consequences.
  • “In APOCALYPSE ‘45, I wanted to present the last, most brutal year of this war as it actually was, in the raw words and rawer images from the time.
  • “As the last men who fought in that war — the men who literally saved the world — leave us, I felt it was vital that their voices be heard one last time.
  • “These voices need to be heard as a reminder, and as a warning, of what America as a nation is capable of, in both our finest moments, and in our darkest ones.
  • “The events of 1945 can still provide us with a road map, guiding us in our uncertain present, and pointing us into the equally uncertain future.
  • “But these events need to be seen as they really were: as history, not just restored, but resurrected.” (Erik Nelson)

The Apocalypse ’45 Case Study and podcast are sponsored by Footage.net, the world’s premier online video stock footage search platform providing instant access to millions of online screening clips and text records from the world’s top footage collections on a single site.

Intended Formats

  • Theatrical big screen version
  • Potential DTC streaming for theatrical version.
  • Blu-Ray release
  • Basic Cable airing of “Cut Down” 9-Act version

About Producer: Erik Nelson

  • Erik Nelson has continually pushed the boundaries of the “archive” documentary.
  • Apocalypse ‘45 is the latest in Nelson’s series of these “re-imagined” and resurrected feature documentaries.
  • In 2005, Nelson produced Grizzly Man for the Discovery Channel, bringing in Werner Herzog to direct an entirely new film based on the footage left behind by the late naturalist and filmmaker Timothy Treadwell. This was one of the first, if not the first of Discovery’s original theatrical documentaries.
  • In 2008, he produced Herzog’s Encounters At The End Of The World, again for Discovery, garnering their first and so far only Academy Award “Best Documentary” nomination for an originally produced for basic cable special.
  • In 2017, Nelson produced and directed  A Gray State for A&E Independent Films, a feature doc comprised of footage entirely filmed by David Crowley, a Minneapolis filmmaker who documented his own descent into madness and murder.
  • In 2019, he produced and directed a 3rd project in this unique “Art Archive” genre, The Cold Blue, a documentary which was ultimately purchased by HBO in 2019. This film was created from footage personally filmed in 1943 by legendary director William Wyler, as Wyler flew actual WW2 combat missions.
  • Nelson has produced other acclaimed feature documentaries, including Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), Into the Abyss (2011) and Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia (2014).
  • He also directed 2008’s Dreams With Sharp Teeth and co-directed the feature length animated film, Dinotasia (2012).
  • His company is Creative Differences Productions.

Commissioner

  • Discovery Channel

Initial Pitch

  • “I never formally pitched the project! I screened a reel during a social call with Discovery’s Howard Swartz.
  • “The reel had been produced for another network who had rejected The Cold Blue as being “too meditative in tone”, and after that film’s success, I thought they might want to rectify that earlier decision. No such luck.
  • “When Howard asked what I was working on, I screened this 10 minute “pull reel” of unrestored footage. As Howard has seen The Cold Blue, he could see where the material could go.
  • “The looming 75th Anniversary of VJ Day and of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an important part of the order.” (Erik Nelson)

Project Course Corrections?

  • “There were none! What was first discussed became the final product with zero course correction.
  • “There was never an edit script submitted, nor a rough cut, just a 20 minute or so reel of “meditative” footage over temp music, and five months later, a “Fine Cut”.
  • “Howard bravely agreed to screen that cut in a small “socially distant” LA screening room in late May. The project was locked one hour after that screening ended.
  • “It’s been an astonishing — and ongoing — leap of faith from the network, the likes of which I am certain I will never see again!” (Erik Nelson)

Team

  • The production team behind The Cold Blue and A Gray State.
  • “Small, but mighty.”

Timeline

  • First accidental “Non-Pitch”: August, 2019
  • First shoot (before funding!): October, 2019
  • Film restoration began: November 1, 2019
  • Editing began: January, 2020
  • 20 minute “Assembly Reel” of footage highlights screened for Discovery: January, 2020
  • Production complete: February 26, 2020.
  • Final footage extracted from National Archives one week (!!!) before they closed for COVID in late March of 2020. (They have not reopened)
  • Fine Cut Screening: May 22, 2020
  • Delivery of masters: August, 2020.

Research

  • Producer/Researchers Peter Hankoff “curated” the 24 veterans…
  • Elisabeth Hartjens uncovered the National Archive footage.

Working with the National Archives

  • “Co-Producer Elisabeth Hartjens knows the National Archives intimately, and as they were thrilled with the outcome of THE COLD BLUE, they allowed us unparalleled access.
  • “More importantly, they allowed us to remove their precious original film reels and take them to one of their preferred vendors, Colorlab.
  • “After sifting through 700 or so reels, we boiled our “ask” down to 140 reels – over triple the amount of material than what we used for THE COLD BLUE – and transferred and partially restored each reel to 4K.” (Erik Nelson)

Archive Restoration

  • “Once the film was locked, Ernest Savage and editor Paul Marengo restored the 100 or so minutes of final footage, frame by frame, removing dust, artifacts and color correcting.
  • “Unlike the Peter Jackson film, NO footage was colorized.
  • “With 4K, we were able to bring the footage to wide screen, with no loss in quality, removing the need for “bars” on either size, distortion or that “squashed” look, which is so often the case in historical documentaries.” (Erik Nelson)

Restoration: Before / After Clip

  • https://vimeo.com/454010833

The COVID Challenge

  • “Due to the stripped-down nature of both the production and the production team, we were confident the film could be produced in “COVID Lock Down.”
  • “But many of our veterans were in retirement homes, and as February wore on, we were more conscious that their time was running out, and not just due to their advanced age.
  • “As of this writing, four of our subjects have passed on, including one who died from Covid 19.” (Erik Nelson)

Field Production

  • 4 “field” trips to meet veterans
  • 1-4 interviewing days on each trip

Process in Field

“Producer Peter Hankoff and I would fly/drive to meet the veterans in their homes or ‘home.’ The two of us would interview them for no more than one and half hours, which was the limit of their endurance. Afterwards, we would film brief on-screen introductions, which we used at the end of the film. I would also take black and white “head shots.” Peter did location sound, I concentrated on the interviews, as we felt that too many people “on set” would impact the intimacy of the interviewing process.” (Erik Nelson)

Post

  • “Post began once the first 4K transferred reels arrived in late October 2019.
  • “As I mentioned earlier, every single frame of footage in APOCALYPSE ‘45 was digitally restored and “cleaned up” by a team spearheaded by restoration expert Ernest Savage, and the film’s sole editor, Paul Marengo.
  • “This process, while time consuming, allowed for a crystal-clear window into the past, using the vibrant natural colors of the original footage, with absolutely no “colorization” or animation.” (Erik Nelson)

Music

  • Original score by Mark Leggett, with whom the director has worked for 30 years.

Delivery

  • A “Cut To Clock” HD CAM “Virtual Cinema” master
  • 4K “Big Screen” and Blu-Ray master
  • All share an elaborate sound design — a process executed by David Hughes, an artist most noted for his work as the sound designer on BLACK PANTHER.

Production Budget

  • “I can’t disclose the exact budget. It was equal to the normal budget one-hour Discovery Shark Week special.” (Erik Nelson)
  • (Discovery budgets are covered in my Sweet Spots 2021 guide.)

THEATRICAL DISTRIBUTION

Abramorama

  • For 20+ years Abramorama has been a leader in theatrical distribution and global rights management for documentary and music films.
  • Richard Abramowitz (CEO) and Karol Martesko-Fenster (COO) are the principals.

Distribution Highlights

  • Discovery, Abramorama and Erik Nelson arranged a series of special partner virtual screenings of Apocalypse ’45, on September 2nd, marking the 75th Anniversary of the end of WW2.
  • Apocalypse ’45‘s virtual world premiere was a live event on August 6th, featuring a Q+A from the deck of the USS Intrepid, and from Pearl Harbor.
  • Following that event, the Intrepid Museum hosted a special screening on August 16th, the 77th Anniversary of that ship’s commissioning.
  • Virtual screening events were hosted by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York, Pacific Historic Parks in Hawaii, The Air Force Museum Theatre at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force™ in Dayton, Ohio and the Center for Contemporary Arts in collaboration with the New Mexico Military Museum in Santa Fe.
  • The combined potential audience was more than 2 million.
  • A’45 was initially launched through virtual cinemas on August 14th as a two-week exclusive run.
  • Due to popular demand, A’45 is being held over for an extended run.
  • The film will later air on Discovery Channel, allowing the campaign of virtual theatrical screenings, and the anticipated big screen traditional for your consideration screenings, to build momentum for award nominations.

More on Abramorama & A’45

  • This post focuses on the development and production of Apocalyspe ’45.
  • Listen to my interview / podcast with Erik Nelson.
  • Don’t miss my upcoming podcast and post with Abramoramas Karol Martesko-Fenster for a deeper dive into theatrical distribution.

Poster

Discovery Promotion
(Screenshot: Discovery.com, September 1)

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Erik Nelson, Director

I asked : “What does the project’s success say about archive production / factual television today?”

  • He quoted his friend, the writer Harlan Ellison: “Of all the liars, the smoothest and most convincing is memory,” and continued:
  • “How then is it possible to tell the truth about our shared past? Nostalgia for a lost past has never seemed so vital, which perhaps says more about the dysfunction and demoralization of our current life and times then we might care to admit. As for myself, I have long been fascinated with the secret history of the 20th Century. Not what is in the books, but what really happened behind the scenes and in the margins.
  • “All too often, history has been reduced to cliché, or black-and-white images that immediately distance us from the past, with the quotidian details that bring history to life obscured.  Both The Cold Blue and Apocalypse 45 were designed to spray Windex onto the murky window of the past – and give it a good big-screen, immersive-sound-design wipe. In the words of the great jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie, “The professional is the guy who can do it twice” – and I felt this was a worthy successor to The Cold Blue, and our other groundbreaking feature documentary projects we had produced for Discovery.
  • “Now that this genre of “big-screen History” documentary has been populated and popularized, what comes next? What can we still learn from the past? What lessons do we need to learn? And most importantly, are we running out of time to learn them?”

Clark Bunting, Executive Producer 

Clark Bunting is a Discovery veteran whose cv includes GM of Discovery Channel, the launch of Animal Planet and much more. He is a great friend of this newsletter.

I asked Clark: “Why Apocalypse ’45?”

  • “For the most part, network executives look at this one through the lens of awards and enchancing the brand.  The restoration and quality of the images make you forget the source material was shot many decades ago – it feels like yesterday.  The technical achievement is quite remarkable and Erik’s partnership with the National Archives punches through the clutter of a standard historical film.  As does his storytelling – not the traditional VOG narrating historical events, but actual voices of the veterans and never before seen images makes for a much more compelling film.  I knew it was going to be an impactful film, but after watching the first rough cut, I was stunned.  It’s unlike any war film I’ve seen and that speaks to brand.”
  • “We’re in an era of almost infinite viewing choice: what makes a viewer decide to watch one service/network over another?  I’d argue brands still matter.  The brand builds a relationship with the viewer and, over time, that relationship implies certain promises.  This film will surprise viewers because it is so much more than another WWII historical documentary – the images are remarkable, the voices of the vets still resonate and the overall impact reminds us of the absolute horror of war.  In these uncertain times, its’s a postcard from our past with a strong underpinning of what our future could hold.”
  • “Erik’s last film, Cold Blue was a very well made historical documentary, a genre he’s helped pioneer.  Apocalypse 45 is that and so much more.  He’s more than delivered on the underpinnings of brand and (I hope) awards for Discovery.”

REVIEWS

CREDITS

  • Production:
    An Abramorama, Discovery release of a Creative Differences production.
  • Producers:
    Peter Hankoff, Elisabeth M. Hartjens.
  • Executive Producers:
    Clark Bunting, Nancy Daniels, Dave Harding, Howard Swartz.
  • Crew:
    Director: Erik Nelson. Editor: Paul Marengo. Music: Mark Leggett.
  • With:
    George Boutwell, Ittsei Nakagawa, George Vouros, James Blane, William M. Braddock Jr., Abner Aust Jr., Delbert Treichler, George Puterbaugh, Charles Schlag, Nazareth Sinanian, Ivan Hammond, Harold Wheatley, Joseph Wing, Duane Tunnyhill, Al Nelson, Johnny Dean Page Jr., Kenneth Erger, Hershel Woody Williams, Richard Spooner, Monroe Ozment.