(Originally published, September 21, 2014).
The PBS/NGCI documentary The Fidel Castro Tapes caught our attention with its compelling and unseen footage of the Cuban revolution and the Cold War drama that followed.
We wondered about the challenges of creating an archive-based film about an 88-year old Spanish-speaking personality who can be dangerously controversial, and who is the founding father of a government whose people are still blockaded by the US.
Castro‘s producer Tom Jennings earned a Peabody with the Smithsonian Channel for MLK: The Assassination Tapes. We covered in depth his ‘no narration, no interview’ approach at last year’s MIPDOC.
Here is our Fidel Case Study in which we explore with Tom my favorite genre, archive-based History. Our coverage of the archive is sponsored by ITN Source.
- The original concept came from Hamish Mykura at National Geographic Channel International.
- “I met with Hamish at MIPCOM in Cannes to explore ideas. It turned out that he liked my style of using archival footage to tell stories – shows that have no narration and no interviews, but that let the edited archives tell our stories. Hamish wanted to tell the life story of Fidel Castro in the same style.”
- Jennings did some basic checking to be sure there was enough footage, especially English-language clips that could tell the story.
- There was a concern that telling Castro’s 70-year political career would be too much to realize in the ‘no narration’ approach.
- “We considered adding interviews. In the end, we decided to try the ‘no narration’ style, and if it didn’t work we would use a narrator. “
- NGC International negotiated the U.S. rights with PBS.
- NGCI would be the lead network.
- “We then had to find a balance between how NGCI and PBS wanted the story told.”
- PBS had U.S. broadcast rights, while NGCI had international rights.
- “There were a few sticking points – mostly regarding rights in the Caribbean. I’m told this is a common sticking point for copro’s these days.”
- Jennings regains rights to the international program after 10 years.
We asked Tom to describe his ‘Big 5’ challenges:
- Fidel in English
“Finding as much footage as possible where Castro speaks English. It’s out there, and we found it from NBC, CBS, Critical Past, Yale University Archives, CBC Canada, and other sources.”
- Partner Balance
“Striking a balance between NGCI and PBS. The PBS show is 56 minutes. The NGCI program is just under 45’. This was one of our most difficult issues, especially regarding licensing footage. The additional footage in the PBS version would be for U.S. rights only.”
- Editorial Approach
“Halfway through the production, after the first rough cut, the networks agreed that narration would be needed – Fidel Castro’s story was too vast to rely solely on news reporting. This required a fresh approach, which slowed us down a bit. However, once we turned that corner and each network was happy with the narrative style, the process moved smoothly.”
“Sometimes the cost of footage is prohibitive. We found an amazing interview with Castro by the CBS talk show host Ed Sullivan—it was recorded just days after the revolution, and in Havana! It was remarkable and I very much wanted it in the show. However, not only was the CBS fee for the footage extremely high, but its use required clearance from Ed Sullivan’s estate and perhaps additional fees. In the end, my team talked me out of the Sullivan footage. We would have spent 20 percent of the footage budget on 30 seconds of the show!”
- … And More Cost
“Cost again came into play as we finished the edit. Rare archival footage can be expensive. And even though we were using a lot of footage from Cuba, the U.S. network footage was adding up. This led to awful moments when we had to decide – ‘do we keep this shot and cut something else? Or do we cut it so we can use three times as many other shots in the show?’ It’s never an easy process, but to stay within budget it has to be done. “
Key Sources / Costs
- More than 40% of the footage came from Cuba.
- “Their footage is inexpensive. We paid $200 a minute from one archive in Cuba – compared with anywhere from $50-100 a second for similar US footage.”
- “You must work with Cuban archivists to access their material since their logging system is not the best. Everything was on three-quarter-inch tape. We would pull the reels from which we wanted footage, and one of their editors would cue up the shots and then make 1-to-1 copies onto a Beta tape. It took time, but it was worth it.”
- “We used several other footage sources. We believe NBC has the best archive of news material of the major US networks. They have worked with us on several footage-only shows, and once again unearthed material in their vaults that no one knew existed. “
- “AP Archive was terrific in finding stills of Castro that had long been dormant. They had hundreds of great images, many of which had not been seen in decades.
- “Finally, one surprising source was the State of Florida archives. Florida has collections from residents who gave their personal photographs to the archive. A man from Key West donated hundreds of photos taken during the Mariel Boat Lift.”
- “These photos were free, so long as we credited the State of Florida. It was a great resource and the unpublished photos made the show feel that much more unique. “
Complete List of Sources
- ITN Source; AP Images; The Associated Press Corporate Archives; George W. Bush Presidential Library; CBS Television Archive Sales; CNN ImageSource; Corbis; Critical Past; Cubavision Internacional; Getty Images; Historic Films; ICAIC; John F. Kennedy Presidential Library; Los Angeles Times; National Archives and Records Administration; National Press Club; NBCUniversal Archives; NewsHour Productions; LLC Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; Roberto Salas; Andrew St. George; State Archives of Florida; T3 Media; United Nations Photo Archive; University of Maryland Special Collections; Cuban Revolution Collection; Yale University; WAMU 88.5.
4. DOING BUSINESS IN CUBA
- “Going to Cuba as a journalist takes time. The U.S. requires a visa, as does Cuba through the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. They need to know as much as possible about your project – concept, key points, materials needed in Cuba, etc. Juan Jacomino is the helpful second secretary.”
- “Once you’re in Cuba – as an American – everything has to be paid in cash. American credit and debit cards do not work — hotels, meals, taxis AND the cost of the footage all had to be paid for in cash. We took $15,000 in cash. To make things more difficult, we could not pay in $U.S. for the footage. We had to transfer our dollars to Cuban pesos. The exchange rate varies wildly depending on your location, so we were constantly looking for places that had the best rate.”
Fixer / Translator
- “Also, I highly recommend hiring a driver/ fixer for transportation and help with getting things done. There are several who assist U.S. news organizations and one was available for our trip. Our guy, Jaime Robles made life much easier.”
- “One of my AP’s Elka Worner, had been to Cuba many times and is fluent in Spanish. Bring your own Spanish-speaking translator to Cuba — and don’t rely on the Cuban translators, who may not understand American English.”
- “I can’t share the budget: it was competitive for a one-hour cable doc.”
- (That’s in the $275-325K range. See our DocumentaryTelevision.com Sweet Spots Study.)
- “When we do these footage-only shows, nearly half of the budget covers footage costs.”
- “The footage drives the show, and since there is no shooting involved, every frame of footage has to come from an outside source.”
- “Underneath a lot of that footage we had to put recordings of radio and TV reporters. The images were rare, but we couldn’t use just VO underneath the entire time to tell the story. Hence, the need for radio and TV reports, which we had to pay for.”
- Travel & production: 10%
- Post: 20%
- Footage & production elements: 40%
- Staff / overhead: 30%
The entire process from first meeting with NGCI to Delivery was 18+/- months.
- Six months to negotiate the contract between the two networks.
- “This can take longer than just dealing with one network. Producers are responsible for any discrepancies between the two contracts, so a good lawyer is needed to ensure that everything agreed upon is correct.”
- A few weeks talking with image vendors to get screeners of what they had.
- “It took a few months to work things out with the Cuban archivists. Once we had all the footage in house, the rest was editing. Our editor worked on the first rough cut for six weeks.”
- “Once we decided to re-tool the show with narration, it took about another six weeks to get it up to speed. The main difficulty with the edit was trying to keep as much of the NGCI version in the PBS version. We didn’t want to wind up doing two separate shows for the price of one. While we came close to keeping both versions the same, it was difficult. Each network had their own preferences, so we did our best to deliver two “very similar” versions of the show.”
- PBS: Sumner Menchero was the assistant director for PBS providing day-to-day oversight and editorial notes, while Bill Gardner was VP of Programming and Development with ultimate oversight on the project.
- NGCI: Hamish ‘got things going, and Carolyn Payne was our EP and who guided us through their end of the process.’
- PBS: The Fidel Castro Tapes
- NGCI: Fidel Castro: The Lost Tapes
- PBS broadcast their version on Sept. 2, 2014.
- NGCI has not set a date.
- Reviews for the program were very positive, including here by Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe.
- PBS website
And More on Archive-based History
We have researched and published several detailed Case Studies, from development through funding and production to delivery, including:
- The LOST Kennedy Home Movies – Unlocking an Archival Treasure
- The Plimpton! Kickstarter Crowd-funding Case Study
- We covered in depth MLK: The Assassination Tapes at MIPDOC 2013.
- A SHOT: Five Takeaways on Co-EP’ing a Special with Bill Gates for Smithsonian Networks and the BBC
- Should a Content-driven Producer Attend MIPCOM?
My Upcoming Markets (2014)
- MIPCOM, Cannes, October 12-15.
- South Africa: Workshops & meetings in Joburg, September 28-30, and in Joburg, Cape Town and Durban, October 30 – November 4.
- DISCOP, Johannesburg, November 5-6
- WCSFP, Hong Kong, November 18 – 21. I will be supporting the 14-strong delegation of South African Indies, ‘taking exciting South African content to the world.’