The unit will be based in France under the leadership of Jean-Francois Camilleri, the former senior vice president and general manager of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures France who was an early and vocal supporter of the Oscar winning documentary March Of The Penguins.
Camilleri attended a lavish press conference at Disney headquarters in Burbank to introduce the inaugural slate of mostly original productions as well as a couple of acquisitions.
Given the time-consuming process of nature shoots and Disney's preference for a leaner slate these days, the unit will aim to release one, maybe two, films a year in North America and one a year overseas. Camilleri declined to go into specifics but said the films would be made for 'modest budgets'.
Disneynature's first domestic release will be Earth on, appropriately enough, Earth Day on April 22 2009. The feature will track the early lives of a polar bear cub, an elephant cub and a humpback whale and was shot by Alastair Fothergill and co-director Mark Linfield during production on their acclaimed television series Planet Earth.
Fothergill said Earth filmed in approximately 200 sites and the team spent 2,000 days in the field - a record for a nature film or television shoot.
Disneynature acquired Earth, which Camilleri said had already been released in Germany and Japan with notable results. BBC Worldwide and Greenlight Media hold international rights although Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International will handle in Latin America. Disney has hired James Earl Jones to narrate the domestic release.
The first international release will be Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward's The Crimson Wing: Mystery Of The Flamingos. Filming began approximately 18 months ago after Disney chiefs greenlit the feature with Disneynature in mind. International roll-out will commence in December 2008.
Another acquisition, Oceans by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, will launch in North America in 2010 and is being handled overseas by Pathe.
The remainder of the inaugural slate are original productions. Charlie Hamilton James' Orangutans: One Minute To Midnight is expected to open around the world in 2010, while Fothergill teams up with co-director Keith Scholey for Big Cats and reunites with Linfield on Chimpanzee, which are scheduled to open around the world in 2011 and 2012, respectively. 2011 will also see the worldwide release of Louie Schwartzberg's Naked Beauty: A Love Story That Feeds The Earth, about flowers and pollination.
Disney chairman Dick Cook said the new brand would also 'touch publishing, theme parks and educational outreach.'