A SHOT: Five Takeaways on Executive Producing a Special with Bill Gates for the Smithsonian Channel

It’s a proud week to be co-EP of a special that captures Jonas Salk’s race to defeat the dreaded disease of polio.

Bill Gates 4Light

Here are my Takeaways on how I became committed as an Executive Producer of A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD, which premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on Thursday October 24, 2013, World Polio Day.

Bill Gates kindly agreed to serve as the narrator of our film, and his foundation supported our efforts.

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1. Emotion: A Childhood Terror

This project hooked me from the moment I heard about it.

As a child growing up in Melbourne, I often woke from two nightmares:

  • The first was that a disaster like a bushfire would destroy my family, and I would be thrown into a horrible orphanage.
  • And, second, I was terrified of polio:
    • I often saw children in steel calipers struggling across our schoolyard.
    • But I loved to run and jump. I wanted to be an Olympic high jumper. I couldn’t bear the thought of being grounded by crippled legs.

And, then, suddenly, we all lined up for a polio shot, and my terror of the virus vanished.

I wanted to help retell this story for the CAB/SAT era!

Iron Lungs

2. Character: A Quality Partnership

Steeltown Entertainment brought the project to me, originally as a one-day consultation on international rights:

  • Carl Kurlander is a force of nature. In his Hollywood days, he was the writer of the classic St Elmo’s Fire.
  • Stephanie Dangel had clerked for SCOTUS Justice Harry Blackmun.
  • They were passionate about telling Pittsburgh’s stories, and had reasonable expectations.

Steeltown had built strong relationships with:

For my part, I wanted to work on A SHOT as a passion project:

  • One that would enhance my reputation and the DocumentaryBusiness.com brand.
  • I wasn’t in it for the money.

I recognized Steeltown as a top-notch team, and that we could be effective partners.

3. Strong Base and Momentum

Steeltown wasn’t starting from scratch.

  • Their project had evolved from a photo of rows of polio-stricken kids in a hospital ward. They were encased in steel lungs.
  • It’s such a powerful image that people wanted to invest time and money in helping Steeltown to re-tell the Salk story.

Documentary

  • Steeltown had channeled that reaction into funding a Jonas Salk film that was 1st class.
  • It was directed by Tjardus Greidanus, and produced by Carl Kurlander and Laura Davis.
  • But I felt that the film needed an additional investment to punch up the CGI and archive for U.S. broadcast.

4. A Clear Strategy

Television production is an extremely risky endeavour, and I decided long ago to only work on the diamond-in-the-rough project that is likely to be winner.

The Smithsonian Channel and PBS are the only U.S. networks that might have licensed a classic Science/History program like A SHOT.

  • I had contributed as a consultant on the launch plan for the Smithsonian Channel.
  • I was confident that they would at least take a pitch for a film about one of the great success stories of American Science.
  • And I learned from the network’s EVP David Royle that the Smithsonian Institution houses an important Salk memorabilia collection.
  • David shared my appreciation of how FDR’s campaign to develop the vaccine is a case study in the benefits of wise and forceful Science-based government.

Distributor

  • We engaged Tim Sparke, the legendary, London-based distributor to license Steeltown’s documentary to channels outside the U.S.

He added two key benefits:

  • I’m a consultant and not a full time dealmaker.
  • Mercury Media could better negotiate the fine deal points.
  • They could also take responsibility for the complex technical Deliverables.
  • Together, we planned to close the deal with the Smithsonian team.

5. Bill Gates Comes On Board

  • A challenge was that the historical biodoc is not one of Smithsonian’s proven genres.
  • I was fairly certain that Bill Gates’ commitment to polio eradication would be a decisive draw for the Smithsonian team.
  • Carl Kurlander’s relationship with the Gates Foundation was the key.
  • The Rotary connection would also be a promotion asset for Smithsonian.

Marketing Impacts

  • Growing networks like Smithsonian need all the leverage that they can get from their marketing partners.
  • The channel offered Gates’ polio program a prestigious national platform with a dedicated and upscale audience.

But what if Mr. Gates was too busy to commit to the film?

  • He had participated in only one or two documentaries before.
  • Maybe he would cancel at the last minute?
  • We could all end up with egg on our faces!

Production

  • Thankfully, Bill Gates did carve out time to sit down for an interview with Carl and Smithsonian’s Charles Poe.
  • And his Foundation offered further support for our marketing efforts.
  • Smithsonian added the Bill Gates interview and other features to reconfigure the original Steeltown film.
  • It premiered on Thursday, October 24, 2013, which is World Polio Day.

polio

Postscript

  • The Gates Foundation generously funded a reception to be held at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
  • Our event was cancelled due to a recent shutdown of the U.S. Congress.

BBC Storyville

  • Tim Sparke successfully licensed our special to the BBC’s Storyville strand.
  • (Tim Sparke was later stricken with cancer, and he passed away in August 2016. We lost a dear friend and champion.)

More

iron-lung

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Speaking Engagement

New York Television Festival

Developing Unscripted Series
The demand for original, attention-grabbing unscripted formats and series has reached an all-time high.
This panel will provide insight on the buyers, the players, the rules of the game, and, most importantly, how non-fiction and documentary storytellers can find long-term artistic success in the industry.

Dave Mace, Vice President of Non-Fiction and Alternative Programming, A&E
Meghan O’Hara, Co-Founder and Executive Producer, HonestEngineTV
Ethan Goldman, Executive Vice President, Development, Warrior Poets
Peter Hamilton, Moderator

Saturday, October 26th, 2013, 3:45 PM
Tribeca Cinemas, 54 Varick Street, Manhattan