The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. Case Study of an inspiring theatrical documentary that blends Wildlife & the Archive

It was standing-room-only at the East Village premiere that I attended for The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.

The Q&A that followed resembled a celebrity speaking tour: the star in the spotlight was the sparkling 87-year old, Anne Innis Dagg.

This Canadian feature combines several of my favorite genres:

  • Archive-based History
  • Wildlife
  • Science
  • Plus a bit of Travel / Adventure.

It is also an Investigative documentary that reveals an injustice experienced in the academic world by a young woman scientist… a wrong that is recognized late in her life.

And its a love story about a woman’s passion for giraffe from the age of 3.

Here is my Case Study…

The Story

  • Anne Dagg was the first scientist to study giraffes in the wild.
  • Her observational studies preceded by years the work that brought recognition and celebrity to Jane Goodall and Diane Fosse .
  • However, her story was relatively unknown due to the gender discrimination that she faced from Canadian academia when she returned home.
  • Roadblocks to tenure denied her access to the funding that she needed to continue field research in her beloved Africa.
  • She dealt with her loss by becoming an activist for the rights of women in science and academia, and a prolific author.
  • In the film, Anne re-traces the steps of her ground-breaking 1956 journey to South Africa.
  • Now in her Eighties, Anne sees a startling contrast between the plentiful world of giraffes she once knew and the one it has become where the species is threatened by loss of habitat as well as being killed for bush meat and the trade of giraffe parts.
  • Weaving through the past and present, her harrowing journey gives us an intimate look into the factors that destroyed her career and the forces that brought her back into the giraffe community.
  • The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is a heartbreaking and inspiring story of an unsung and resilient hero, a woman scientist who is finally being recognized decades later.

“This warm documentary uses one woman’s singular passion to fuel a tale of zoological discovery, blatant sexism and environmental alarm.” The New York Times
“A fascinating story stunt coordinator-turned-filmmaker Reid patiently approaches from various captivating angles… It’s simply a thrill to witnessVariety

Anne Dagg and Alison Reid

How the Project Originated

  • In 2012, Alison Reid, director and writer for the film, heard Anne interviewed on CBC Radio about her book Pursuing Giraffe, a 1950’s Adventure.
  • Alison read the book and got in touch with Anne to see if she would be interested in having a narrative film made about her life.
  • Alison optioned the book and secured Anne’s life story rights.
  • She then discovered that Anne was going back to Africa for the first time in over 50 years.
  • Realizing this would be a historic moment, Alison gathered a small crew together and followed Anne to film her 2013 African adventure.

First Pitches

  • Sunnyside of the Doc Pitch competition, La Rochelle, France in June 2017.
  • World Congress of Science and Factual Producers 2017, San Francisco.
  • The working title was “Smitten By Giraffes” after one of Anne’s book titles.

Key Producers

  • Alison Reid is a director/producer with a background in narrative film and TV. Her first feature film The Baby Formula (2009) won many awards and was sold internationally.
  • Veteran producer Joanne Jackson joined Alison in 2016. Jackson produced the award-winning feature doc The Messenger (2015-16), a Canada/France co-production.  It had theatrical release in the US, Canada and the UK. TV versions were commissioned by broadcasters in Canada (CBC/Canal D) and France (ARTE).
  • EP Paul Zimic joined the team in March 2018, adding expertise in distribution and marketing.

Intended Formats

  • Feature documentary
  • TV hour
  • 4K

Development

  • The film’s early development was self-financed by Alison Reid through her company Free Spirit Films.
  • She created a 6-minute pitch reel: Here is the Vimeo link.

Archive

  • Alison was happy to discover Anne had a well preserved stash of 16m film that was shot by Anne in 1956/57.
  • A few years later Alison discovered a 2nd batch of 16mm footage in her attic.
  • Alison digitized and viewed the archive, discovering a treasure trove of scenes of the 23-year old field biologist doing the world’s first observational studies of giraffes in South Africa in 1956-57.
  • Anne’s archives also included many old letters, some home video and Super 8, hundreds of still photos, and her original giraffe notes.
  • They were combined to showcase the stories Anne wrote home about during her year in Africa.

Return to Africa

  • An opportunity came about for Anne to return to South Africa for a giraffe conference in 2015.
  • Coincidentally the conference was happening near Kruger Park which is very close to Fleur De Lys where Anne did her pioneering work in 1956.
  • Alison decided to capture this trip, too.
  • She hired a local fixer to find the locations of Anne’s original research filming so she could film present day ‘mirror shots’ of Anne in the exact same locations.
  • Free Spirit Film’s 2013 and 2015 trips to Africa documented invaluable events in Anne’s life, adding to the richness of the archive and shaping the story.

Field Production

  • Principal photography for the film, including interviews and a couple days for dramatic recreation is filmed in Canada in 2017-18.
  • Dramatic recreations with a ‘Young Anne’ photo double were filmed on a vintage 16 mm Bolex film camera in southern Ontario.
  • African Lion Safari, a drive-through wildlife park outside Cambridge, Ontario provided a great venue for scenes simulating Anne’s 1956/57 field observations of giraffes in Africa. These scenses enriched the story telling.

Funding Partners

  • Ontario Creates was the first in with development funding in 2017, and then a production advance.
  • Film Distributor Kino Smith came on board in 2017.
  • They helped the secure funding from Telefilm Theatrical Documentary Program in 2018.
  • Bell Media Canada: The film is a CRAVE (movie channel) original documentary.
  • Rogers Documentary Fund provided a production funding grant.
  • Rogers Telefund provided interim financing.
  • Private funding secured by the producers completed the budget.

Total Budget Estimate

  • $895,000 CDN ($670,000. USD)

Funding Contributions:

  • Private Funding 34%
  • Ontario Creates Film Fund 11%
  • Bell Media Broadcast License 8%
  • Telefilm Canada Theatrical Documentary Fund 8%
  • Distribution Advances 9%
  • Rogers Doc Fund 6%
  • Producer’s Investment & Government Tax Credits 24%

TIMELINE

Production & Post

  • Free Spirit films starts to develops concept
  • Pursuing Giraffe Adventures Inc. incorporated as the single purpose company to produce the film
  • August 2016. Producer Joanne Jackson joins
  • Development with Ontario Creates Film Fund supports project
  • April 2017-April 2018. Principal Photography
  • June 2017. Sunny Side of the Doc Pitch
  • Mike Munn, hired as the lead editor
  • December 2017. World Congress pitch, San Francisco.
  • March 2018. Executive Producer Paul Zimic comes on board
  • Spring 2018. Voice recordings for the archive letters, with Tatiana Maslany and Victor Garber, included in the film.
  • Funding completed
  • July 2018. Picture Lock
  • June-August 2018. Sound editing and music composition
  • June-September 2018. Visual Effects, On-line editing, Color Correcting
  • August-September 2018. Sound Mixing

Delivery & Distribution:

  • October 2018. Delivery to Distributor Kino Smith
  • September 2018. World premiere, FIN Atlantic Film Festival Release, Halifax
  • Fall 2018-2019. Film festivals, Canada/USA
  • Fall 2018 and after. Theatrical Release in Canada
  • October 2019. European Festival Premiere.
  • Canadian broadcasts on CRAVE and Canal D.
  • First broadcast on Crave on March 8, 2019 celebrated International Women’s Day.
  • Fall 2019 – ongoing in 2020. American theatrical release with Zeitgeist Films.
  • KinoLorber for US Broadcast, SVOD, DVD, Educational and other platform sales.
  • The feature film and a 1-hour version are with Off the Fence for distribution outside of North America.
  • Since Covid-19, distributor, Kino Lorber created Kino Marquee  – a virtual theatrical exhibition initiative with US art house cinemas. Through this initiative the film has over 20 new bookings: TWWLG Kino Marquee Bookings.

Digital / DVD Distribution

  • USA digital/home video release launches April 7th.
  • Click on KinoNow for info and direct links.
  • Streaming Platforms include ITunes, InDemand, Google Play/You Tube, Vudu and Fandago Now.
  • Blue Ray & DVD available on Amazon, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, Deep Discount etc.

Canada Makes Amends

  • Since the film was released in Canada, Anne has received apologies and personal accolades from academic institutions that were instrumental in her lack of recognition and gender discrimination.
  • She is now being celebrated and recognized in similar ways to the Hidden Figures’ mathematicians.
  • In 2020 Anne will be appointed to The Order of Canada – the highest Canadian civilian honor.
  • Other recent awards include: Honorary Doctorate, University of Toronto; Lifetime Honorary Membership, Canadian Society of Zoologists; Laurence J Burpee Medal of Honour, The Royal Canadian Geographic Society; Honorary Doctorate in Science, University of Waterloo.

Producers’ Key Takeaways

  • A very useful tool for building interest in the film early on was a beautiful 6-minute demo reel that showcased Anne, other characters, the tone and the amazing 16 mm archive film. (Temp actor voices, temp music, no sound mix or colour timing.)
  • Segments of it first debuted in the Wildlife Pitch competition at Sunny Side of the Doc.
  • Local promotion and Q&A’s at screenings have been really helpful to build audiences.
  • The film resonated with audiences on the large and small screen.
  • We earned the top audience award at 4 film festivals.
  • Press coverage has been excellent.
    • Media gravitated towards Anne’s unsung hero story, as well as the timely topics of gender equality and giraffe conservation.
    • Positive reviews from Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Variety, The Wrap, The Washington Post, Toronto Star and others have made the film 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Alison and Paul are currently in development with a narrative (scripted) project about Anne’s story.

Box Office

  • Successful theatrical box office in Canada paved the way for a successful US release.
  • Zeitgeist Films has already booked it in 90+ US Independent cinemas.
  • It was held over in NYC’s Quad Cinema for 3+ weeks.
  • This is a film that works well in feature broadcast slots, SVOD, wildlife strands, and for women’s and educational programming. (World Giraffe Day, World Wildlife, International Women in Science days, etc.)

Impact

  • Giraffe Conservation is benefiting from Anne’s urgent conservation message about the plight of the species.
  • Anne supports three giraffe conservation organizations which are listed at the end of the film, and on the film’s website. These organizations have all benefited.

AWARDS

  • Winner, Trailblazer Award, New York Wild Film Festival
  • Winner, Best Feature Film – Global Science Film Festival, Zurich
  • Winner, Best Documentary – Sonoma International Film Festival
  • Audience Award, Best Documentary – Sonoma International Film Festival
  • Audience Award, Best Feature Documentary – Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival
  • Best of Festival Documentary Selection – Seattle International Film Festival

Press

  • “A bright spot in the middle of this dark month, Alison Reid’s unabashedly sincere documentary offers gentle comfort even when it brushes up against tough subjects…. Despite some grim ecological statistics and a conservationist message, the movie is so inspirational it feels like the sort of old-fashioned family film that can now be excavated on Disney+.  The Wrap, Elizabeth Weitzman,
  • In her perfectly made documentary ‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes’ Alison Reid paints a flawless portrait of the giraffes and the woman who is responsible for all the scientific knowledge we possess today about these incredible looking animals — the great Anne Innis Dagg.” EninaRothe.com
  •  “This is an inspiring and well produced documentary that should be at the top of everyone’s list of must-see films” Alliance of Women Film Journalists
  • “The ‘Jane Goodall of giraffes’ lived most of her life in relative obscurity.  At 86, Anne Innis Dagg is getting her moment in the spotlight.” The Lily
  • “She has led a curious life of extraordinary scientific firsts “  Canadian Geographic
  • Rotten Tomatoes
  • Recent Media Reviews

Case Studies

My original DocumentaryBusiness.com Case Studies are published in collaboration with Sunny Side of the Doc.


Documentary Production Roadmap