Selling OCTOPUS to Netflix. A podcast with executive producer and distributor Ellen Windemuth

Ellen Windemuth executive produced Craig Foster‘s beautiful film MY OCTOPUS TEACHER, a new Netflix release.

She describes the years’ long journey of her friend, South African wildlife filmmaker Craig Foster as he recovers his mental health by swimming in the icy kelp forests of Cape Town’s False Bay.

Ellen tells how her company Off the Fence developed a marketing strategy aimed to overcome the resistance of network buyers who may have felt that a slimy cephalopod is a turnoff to viewers who relate better to grand or cuddly big mammals, or that the story didn’t fit their channel remit.

Off the Fence finally secured a worldwide deal after pitching the rough cut to Netflix‘s Sara Edelson.

We conclude our pod-versation by discussing the tension between:

  • Telling great wildlife stories with more or less happy endings, versus
  • Producing hard-hitting reports on our extinction crisis that are an uncomfortable fit on platforms that are dedicated to entertainment.

Listen to Ellen Windemuth on MY OCTOPUS TEACHER



About Ellen Windemuth 

  • Ellen is the CEO of WaterBear Network, overseeing the strategy and direction of the new interactive video-on-demand platform dedicated to life on earth.
  • Prior to WaterBear, Ellen was owner and CEO of Off the Fence, having founded the company in 1994.  Under her leadership Off the Fence acquired, produced, and co-produced over 6,000 hours of content.
  • Ellen is also a seasoned Executive Producer and Distributor and has produced over 500 hours to date herself.
  • She is the Chair of the Jackson Hole Film Festival Board, Honorary President of the Sunnyside Doc 2019 festival in La Rochelle, France and is active in conservation and land development.
  • Her experience in factual entertainment programming is extensive in both production and distribution. Ellen was recently presented with Wildscreen’s Christopher Parson’s Outstanding Achievement Awards 2018. She has three children and a great passion for the outdoors.

NOTES
(by Becca Wallance)

Story Recap

  • Cinematographer Craig Foster was recovering from a breakdown when he took up swimming in the cold waters of False Bay, near Cape Town, South Africa.
  • There he met a young octopus that changed his life.
  • Capturing on film the world of his octopus became a renewed life purpose for Craig.
  • He swam with her every day, and a film was born of this relationship.

Timeline

  • Director Pippa Ehrlich is an environmental journalist who started diving with Craig 4 years ago
  • She began filming when Craig took her swimming
  • Ellen has been engaged with the project for 5 years
  • Off the Fence supported the project, and many contributors to OCTOPUS deferred their payments because they knew it would pay off in the end

Key Editorial Decision

  • The only way to authentically tell the story was for Craig to be on screen, which as a filmmaker was a huge leap.

Business Story

  • We knew it would be difficult to get the networks and platforms interested.
  • We invested in completing a rough assembly of the film in order to pitch the film
  • We took the extra step of adding a director James Reed, who has a track record with platforms and the BBC
  • James is a disciplined storyteller who is experienced with marine life
  • He created the backbone of the film: the interview with Craig

Selling Netflix

  • The team created a rough cut to pitch to potential buyers
  • The subject of the octopus was a challenge, particularly a story abut a man and an octopus, because it wasn’t a “cute” mammal
  • Netflix was a straight sell: we showed the rough cut to Sara Edelson who immediately liked it.
  • She showed it to the Netflix documentary team, getting a swift greenlight
  • Working with Netflix was a great collaboration
  • Sara came out to stay with Craig and Pippa, contributing great suggestions to improve the storytelling

Trends

I asked Ellen if there is a trend away from the giant Blue Planet-like films, and towards more intimate, long-form storytelling?

  • Giant projects are a genre that will continue and will always be successful because it’s good for channels and there is an audience for it
  • Netflix allows for a different type of storytelling because the filmmakers are not beholden to the standard narrative rhythm
  • The most fascinating natural history films involve a human element, of people interacting with nature and wildlife

Activism Versus Inspiration

I asked if it was a challenge to avoid uncomfortable issues related to conservation

  • We debated whether to include the issue of the octopus fisheries located near Cape Town- it is a complex political and policy issue that was very hard to fit into the story
  • Our primary goals were to engage people and get them to care about the natural world:
    • Make people aware that there is such a thing as the African Sea Forest
    • That fascinating and valuable species live in this forest
    • Octopuses are very intelligent and sentient, but are very different from humans
    • A person (Craig) coped with his mental illness by interacting in the sea forest with an octopus
  • The non-profit Sea Change will use the premise and success of the film to try to abolish octopus fishing and stop whale entanglement in the octopus lines

Wrap

  • WaterBear Network is an interactive app-based VOD platform dedicated to our future on this planet
  • Launches on November 25.
  • WaterBear is associated with 70 world renowned NGOs

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Notes from Descript for podcasters…