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Players in the doc world

Devillier Donegan Enterprises morphs from agent to investor

Originally published in Current, Aug. 10, 1998
By Steve Behrens

A small program distributor founded by two former public TV programmers — now backed with millions from Disney/ABC — has evolved into a major capital source for high-end PBS documentaries.

Devillier and Donegan in dark suitsDevillier Donegan Enterprises at the moment has about $16 million committed to original productions for PBS, says co-founder and president Ron Devillier, and last month PBS announced it had renewed a development deal with DDE through the year 2002.

The company will be focusing on nature, history and science documentaries, and is already taking the lead on a new strand of world-history programs for PBS.

DDE plays a role similar to the presenting stations that finance many primetime PBS programs, with a significant distinction: with a net influx of funds from Disney/ABC International Television, DDE has the capital to commission shows promptly, without having to make the rounds of foundations and underwriters.

Devillier, Executive Vice President Brian Donegan and their staff of 16 are based in Washington, overlooking treetops of Rock Creek Park, about half way between the Discovery Channel in Bethesda, Md., and PBS in Alexandria, Va. With National Geographic TV also operating in town, D.C. has become a major hub for the documentary trade.

While PBS remains its biggest partner for original productions, DDE also sells a lot of reruns and does about 70 percent of its business with competing cable networks and other programmers, by Devillier's estimate.

Disney/ABC also assigns the company to sell the freelance output of its corporate cousin, ABC News Productions, and develop programs with another in-law, ABC/Kane Productions.

For PBS, Devillier Donegan is doing much the same thing that the network's short-lived pact with Reader's Digest Association was supposed to do — investing in programs in exchange for certain back-end rights.

Under the DDE-PBS deal just renewed, DDE basically pays half the cost of a production that both parties want to have, says Kathy Quattrone, PBS's top programmer. Both can start projects with other partners. "It's not a first-look arrangement; it's just an opportunity to co-develop ideas," she says.

The deal may not be as sweet for PBS as Reader's Digest's, under which the publisher could invest the full cost of a production in exchange for back-end rights, but the Digest deal isn't around any more; it collapsed after August 1997, when management changed at the publishing company.

While DDE moves quickly, Reader's Digest did not, from all accounts. The publisher submitted all project proposals to extensive market research, according to PBS executives. "The turnaround was going to be so retarded that it would prevent being responsive to the market," Devillier comments.

The Digest did manage to invest the full $15 million pledge for its first year, according to Quattrone, but committed less than $1 million for the second year.

It was DDE, notably, that gave PBS and the Digest their first project to announce — the Living Edens series on the world's most gorgeous places, which ABC/Kane was already making. The first 12 films were produced with Digest help; PBS and DDE are now having eight more made, according to Devillier.

Edens was named best limited series at last year's Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, and last month several installments took 10 documentary Emmy nominations for cinematography and music.

Disney isn't investing its money just for kicks. DDE recoups largely through sales to overseas broadcasters — hence a tendency to avoid parochial American subjects. As for home video, PBS gets domestic rights for an initial period and thereafter shares them with DDE, according to Devillier.

For every program investment, the company looks to break-even by the end of its first rights cycle of about three or four years, Donegan told Current, or at latest by the time it sells domestic rights for the second cycle.

"When we invest there is a deficit," says Donegan. "The only way to get the investment back, is maintaining involvement. ... Our self-interest is not to misinvest."

The involvement with PBS projects begins in meetings between DDE and the network every two months or so, according to Devillier. "It's a two-way street. Now that we have a good understanding of how we're going to work together, we're having as many ideas flow from PBS as from us to PBS." Examples:

On the emperor's trail

David Grubin's current project also came out of the meetings. PBS wanted to give the veteran producer a chance to work in new subjects, says Devillier.

Grubin recalls: "When Devillier Donegan came to me and said, 'There's a world out there, and all these great subjects, what would you like to do?' I said, 'Napoleon.'"

The four-hour project got a $2.8 million budget from PBS and DDE. The middlemens' next step was to start whittling down the prospective deficit. Devillier himself often deals with the British, French and Germans, who can provide much of the back end. Linda Ekizian, v.p. of international sales, oversees the overseas.

For Napoleon, DDE got a quick okay from the French network Canal Plus, which provided contacts as well as funds. Instead of being offended at the thought of Yankees profiling their emperor, the French were quite cooperative, Grubin found. Though books and movies had dealt with Napoleon repeatedly, there was no significant documentary treatment.

Fortunately for the project, there is plenty of art documenting Napoleon's exploits. "He had painters follow him around like paparazzi," says Grubin.

For the filmmaker, the project was a great fit: an epic subject, a quick green light that let his staff work without a fallow period, and a schedule that let him script Napoleon, learn some French and get the visual research going while he finished a dual bio on Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln for PBS. (The Lincolns were an announced Reader's Digest project that survived without the publishing company.)

Carol Fleisher's most recent project with DDE came together differently, but in a way that left her satisified: "Chasing El Nino," which will appear on Nova Oct. 13.

"They're my heroes," Fleisher says of Devillier and Donegan. "They've made it possible to do films I'm most passionate about, done it in a way that's completely supportive of my vision. There just aren't many places you can find that in the world today."

The project took off after Fleisher and colleague Mark Hoover took 27 story ideas to Beth Hoppe, then a Nova producer, at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival last fall. The timely weather story clicked. ("El Nino waits for no man or woman," says Fleisher.) Hoppe and Fleisher immediately ran into Devillier and asked him if he'd be interested. He said, "Let's talk about it." Nova Executive Producer Paula Apsell was sold, DDE's Joan Lanigan "did a brilliant job of making the deal happen," says Fleisher, and her crew was into production by November.

She worked closely with Greg Diefenbach, DDE's main production supervisor — reviewing scripts and screening cuts for both DDE and Nova execs at every stage, while deferring to Nova for final decisions.

DDE not only has smart people, she adds. "They respect filmmakers, including the right to participate in the profits. They insist on that. As an independent, I don't really have the clout of somebody who's actually putting up money."

This instills a certain loyalty. "I take my ideas there first because I know I'm going to be treated well."

Now for something completely different

Devillier entered public TV along with Jim Lehrer — both working on KERA's Newsroom experimental nightly newscast in Dallas. He moved into production and then programming, and became an industry legend as the first American buyer of Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1975.

He moved to PBS in 1977, buying specials for top programmer Chloe Aaron, and when he moved up to v.p. of network programming two years later, his successor as acquisitions director was Donegan, a producer/programmer from WTTW, Chicago. They worked only a couple years longer at PBS before setting up DDE in 1980. The company has grown every year since then, according to Donegan.

DDE not only peddled a library of programs — it became Monty Python's distributor in 1983 — but began serving as agent for independent producers, dealing with buyers both here and abroad, and by the mid-1980s was able to inject some capital for projects including, initially, a Yellowstone nature film by Wolfgang Bayer, Devillier recalls.

As media mergers accelerated in the 1990s, and new channels became buyers of documentaries, DDE began feeling puny among the giants, he says. "We began to shop for a financial partner."

In 1994, DDE formed a limited partnership with Capital Cities/ABC Inc., giving the company capital to invest and to help it survive downturns while awaiting payback on productions.

That year, DDE began work on The Living Edens with ABC/Kane, a distant-cousin production house within the ABC empire, headed by former National Geographic Specials producer Dennis Kane. Edens led to a 1995 development deal with PBS. And in 1996, the Walt Disney Co. agreed to buy ABC, giving DDE a parent with even deeper pockets.

In the ecology of documentary filmmaking it was inevitable that something like DDE would evolve: an adaptable creature that combines investment dough, creative oversight and wide-ranging sales of backend rights. DDE became a small, nonfiction version of a modern Hollywood studio; a hoarder of rights with antennas seeking co-production money; an investing and distributing machine with taste.

Organisms without all of those functions could die off in competition with big, integrated operators like the two-headed BBC-Discovery hybrid, that can pool revenues across the oceans.

With BBC now tied to Discovery, PBS can still work with the British network but no longer has "first position in anything BBC does," Devillier says, nor can it acquire BBC programs for what he calls "relatively inexpensive prices."

"In the PBS world, [DDE] is uniquely equipped to distribute internationally," says Beth Hoppe, now director of science programs at WNET, New York. "If there's an idea they see that works in the international marketplace, and you can start with half the money, that's a big start"

But as the documentary ecosystem expands, will DDE help turn nonfiction films into a homogenized, internationally traded commodity that can play on any network — undermining the quality that PBS now touts to distinguish public TV from cable?

Program spending, and the production values and research that it buys, have helped maintain the distinction.

Donegan remembers, for instance, what Grubin did for a scene in the Teddy Roosevelt bio on American Experience: "He wanted to tell the story of the charge up San Juan Hill. He had a high shot of men in the jungle, horses whinnying under palms, a boot in a stirrup. You never saw 100 soldiers, but small pieces of the scene — reins in hand, the flying nostrils of the horse. I was right there, I was on San Juan Hill."

That kind of filmmaking costs money, Donegan adds.

Nova, similarly, goes for high-quality animation to put across complex scientific ideas, and heightens human interest by sending out camera crews to follow scientists at work around the world. For Fleisher's film on El Nino, Nova paid to send a crew to the South Pacific, where a long chain of monitoring buoys were tracking the climatic cycle.

While cable networks were once marked by low-rent documentaries, however, they can now afford to match PBS spending when they want to, as Devillier testifies.

Quattrone says PBS still can stand behind its claim of offering "the best." After letting TV critics see glimpses of Frontline's The Farmer's Wife, Africans in America and Ken Burns' Frank Lloyd Wright at last month's press tour, "We didn't have to work very hard to make the case."

She says Devillier Donegan "start with the same sensitivities and expectations" that PBS holds dear — "the thorough research, the substantiveness, the intellectual underpinnings."

"Probably one reason it's an easy partnership is they very much know the character of PBS programming, they know the stations, they're very sensitive to the kinds of service we want to provide."

DDE partners have the freedom to develop programs to their own needs, says Donegan. "We never go in which a fully baked pie," he says, though DDE proposes "good ingredients," including the filmmakers.

Devillier acknowledges that it's hardest to distinguish PBS's nature programs from those on other channels, but says its history series often reach heights of intellectual engagement, and Nova remains "head and shoulders above anyone else" doing science programming on American TV.

But public TV's noncommercial nature helps make a difference, says Quattrone. "The programs we are seeking have fundamental expectations attached to them that don't necessarily work in the commercial marketplace."

"I think PBS has a certain luxury in the style of storytelling that doesn't have to be concerned about [getting an audience that's] demographically most desirable," comments Donegan. "When we talk to people in the Discovery channels, they're clear about what research tells them about the audience demographics they're trying to reach. That's their business."

Web page created Aug. 10, 1998
Copyright 1998 by Current Publishing Committee


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