Vision and the art of persuasion

The most expensive production in the history of documentary filmmaking, «Earth,» cost $47 million and took years of hard work to complete. The film opened last Thursday in Athens, in a triple world premiere along with France and Switzerland. Behind this giant of a film is a Greek, producer Sophocles Tasioulis, who helped convince the BBC to make the leap to the big screen from the safety of television. Having lived in Germany for the past 25 years, Tasioulis became involved in the movie production business in an unusual manner, he told Kathimerini last week, when he came to Greece for the Premiere Nights Athens International Film Festival. «I studied building aircraft,» he said, «but I had a passion for photography and at one point decided that I wanted to live by creating images. I began working as a camera assistant with a crew in Berlin and then some friends put together a small company of freelance crew members. The business went well so we decided to get into the production business and now I play the mediating role between the money and art. Our first productions were documentaries, and that is where my heart will always lie, but we are also making forays into other genres, such as fiction and animation.» What is the objective of «Earth»? «Our hope is that the audience, when they come out of the theater, will have fallen in love with our planet once more by seeing the story of the dangers faced by three species: the polar bear, the elephant and the whale. With a subject such as that of the Earth, we wanted to create a global cinematic phenomenon with the simultaneous release of the film in as many countries as possible. Unfortunately, though, this is something that can only be done with big-budget productions like Hollywood blockbusters,» says Tasioulis. How did a small production company such as Tasioulis’s decide to take on such an expensive project and how did it convince a giant like the BBC? «With the success of ‘Microcosmos’ and ‘Le peuple migrateur,’ we observed that there is an audience interested in natural history in cinema. The BBC had some trouble understanding this at first, because UK television shows the best documentaries in the world every day. So, you see, they couldn’t believe that someone would go all the way to the theater and pay for a ticket to watch a documentary. We did some research into what kinds of subjects would make someone take that trip to the movies. There are many social issues of interest, such as unemployment, but they are restricted to a very small audience. If you want to make a big production, you have to think of a big audience. The only answer was to make a documentary on natural history with the biggest producer of this genre in the world, the BBC. We approached them and proposed the project. At first they looked at us as if were crazy and told us that they had been making documentaries exclusively for television for the past 50 years. It took us two years to convince them, but we finally succeeded and made a deal for five movies.» The rising interest in documentaries shown at the movie theater, according to Tasioulis, is due to the fact that there is a new audience that is interested and a new generation of directors who «know that cinema is the realm of emotions and not information. So, they have learned how to make a documentary for the big screen.»