The Development History of NATIVE AMERICA, a $3-4 million Signature PBS Series

NATIVE AMERICA is a premium PBS series that explores the world created by America’s first peoples.

  • It describes their foundational belief systems that synthesize science and spirituality.
  • The 4-part series captures the incredible diversity of the expressions of these beliefs across North, Central and South America.

Providence Pictures President and Executive Producer/Director, Gary Glassman is preparing for a panel on Cultural & Arts programming at Sunny Side of the Doc when he shared the development history of NATIVE AMERICA.




You can listen here to Gary’s account of the 17 years it took for NATIVE AMERICA to reach the screen (18 min:

Concept Development

  • In 2001, Providence Pictures produced THE LOST KING OF THE MAYA for the PBS Science strand NOVA.
  • According to Gary Glassman: “Filming in a royal Maya tomb that was dated to 400AD and investigating the ancient city of Copan, I was overwhelmed by the complexity and sophistication of the culture. Carved and painted murals and artifacts that depict a Maya pantheon of Gods, beautiful monumental architecture and city planning, one of only a handful of writing system ever invented, advanced astronomical knowledge, all indicated a level of cultural sophistication that matched any in the world.”
  • “I became intensely curious about when all this started. And I wanted to know how the Maya world was connected to Native American societies to the north!”

Initial Pitch

  • Glassman put together a paper pitch and took it on the road.
  • He was encouraged by Yves Jeanneau, then a France 2 commissioner and now executive director of Sunny Side of the Doc.
  • Thomas Schreiber of NDR also showed serious interest.
  • “But no American broadcaster came on board, and a committed US broadcaster is key to launching most specialist factual series.”
  • “Despite the disappointment, I never abandoned the core concepts of that original pitch.”
  • “New ideas kept on sprouting up, and I continued to develop them as the years passed.”

PBS Pitch

  • “I met Beth Hoppe when she was leaving NOVA to go to WNET New York to work on the PBS series SECRETS OF THE DEAD. We always stayed in touch.”
  • “In 2013, Beth moved to PBS to head up PBS National programming, bringing in Bill Gardner as her #2.”
  • “I pitched Beth and Bill, and the subject and concept immediately resonated with them.”

Development Deal

  • “PBS funded us to develop an expanded treatment.”
  • “They wanted to feel confident that such a big project was built on a solid thesis and had major scholars involved.”
  • “It was critically important to establish the authentic participation of Native American communities as advisors, producers and production personnel, and as talent.”
  • It was 3-6 month project for a “small fee.”
  • 100-page deliverable
  • There was no video in the expanded treatment.

Inclusion Process

  • “We began a search for a series producer who was familiar with PBS’s entertaining, informative and curated programming standards.”
  • “I was fortunate to find Julianna Brannum, a member of the Comanche Nation and an experienced producer who we felt sure that we could work with.”
  • “Together we visited many Native American communities to gain their confidence and support.”
  • “We particularly committed to respect their rituals and ceremonies, giving them final editorial control over these scenes and involving them through the editorial process.”

Style Guide

  • An extensive Style Guide included examples of cinemagraphic styles, portraiture of participants, animation examples, and more.


  • PBS fully-funded the series with a grant from the Anne Ray Foundation.
  • The foundation had prioritized Native American culture, and was looking for qualified projects with PBS and other potential partners.
  • There is no co-production partner.


  • After PBS gave the greenlight, the contract was signed in only 3 months.

Project Budget

  • $750,000 – $1,000,000 / episode.
  • Includes promotion and outreach costs.

Creative Shift

  • Through the production process and collaboration with Native participants, Glassman and the production team decided to abandon dramatic recreations, which they determined were inauthentic, and instead create animated ‘sacred stories’.
  • They tested and then committed to a hand-drawn animation solution realized by Oscar-nominated Daniel Sousa of Handcranked Productions.

Editing / Post-production

  • “It was such a key role that we gave our chief editor, Rob Tinworth, a producer credit.”


  • There were many working titles – Lost Worlds of the Americas, America Rediscovered.
  • “NATIVE AMERICA as a title came to me nearly at the end of post. Like any good title it’s simple and obvious.”


  • September, 2017
  • Version: 53’45”
  • No International version

First Public Screening

  • An episode was screened to great applause at the Native Crossroads Film Festival at Oklahoma University to a 95% Native American audience.

PBS Premiere

  • October 2018.

Budget Breakdown (estimate)

  • Staff: 35%
  • Pre-production: 1%
  • Talent: 5%
  • Archival, music and animation: 20%
  • Field production 20%
  • Post: 10%
  • Admin 8%

Timeline: Chronology

  • Original concept: 2001
  • Pitched to PBS National (Beth Hoppe / Bill Gardner): November 2012
  • Contract to develop treatment: September 2013
  • Delivered treatment: January 2014
  • Signed production contract: December 2015
  • Commenced production: January 2016
  • Delivered series: September 2017

Timeline by Phase

The total series timeline: 90+/- weeks, which includes:

  • Development: 3 months
  • Pre-production: 26 weeks
  • Location photography: 53 shoot days over 22 weeks
  • Edit: 9+/- months

Providence Pictures

  • Providence has produced 50+ hours of documentary programs for PBS, Discovery, History, Nat Geo, BBC, and Arte since 1996.
  • Gary’s films have won and been honored with nominations for the industry’s most prestigious awards – six Emmys, two Writers Guild Awards, the AAA Science Journalism Prize, the CINE Golden Eagle Special Jury Award, and more.
  • Links: Providence Pictures / Facebook / Instagram

Credits (Selection)

  • Executive Producer/Director – Gary Glassman
  • Series Producer – Julianna Brannum
  • Producer/Directors – Scott Tiffany, Joseph C. Sousa
  • Producer/Editor – Rob Tinworth
  • Editor – Sean Sandefur
  • Music – Ed Tomney
  • Animation – Handcranked Productions – Bryan Papciak
  • Narrator – Robbie Robertson

History Case Studies

Original research from


PBS Ratings 2017

My Upcoming Markets & Conferences

SUNNY SIDE OF THE DOC La Rochelle, France. June 25-28
Panel: “The Future of Pubcasters: Adapt or Die”

NEWF: Nature, Environment & Wildlife Filmmakers Congress
Durban, South Africa. July 16-18.
Director Noel Kok has organized a great program that combines conservation and wildlife film-making. Make it your reason to come to South Africa. More to come….