National Geographic Films (NGF) burst into the spotlight in 2005 when it partnered Warner Independent Pictures on March Of The Penguins, which grossed more than $77m in North America and won last year's best documentary feature Oscar. But NGF, under the guidance of former Disney senior vice-president of production Adam Leipzig, was not about to rest on its laurels.
Leipzig, who joined NGF and sister company National Geographic World Films as president in 2003, heads a small Los Angeles-based team that has been working to expand brand awareness, establish more partnerships and build a slate. He is well aware of the responsibility this entails, given the century-old National Geographic Society's reputation in research, publishing, broadcasting and production.
"When National Geographic is involved as a producer, financier or partner, we bring not only our expertise, but our audience," Leipzig says. "The brand talks to about one-third of a billion people around the world through a wide range of media. We're in 146 countries and we speak 28 different languages. When we get involved in a movie, we take all our media and spread it before our distribution partners and integrate our assets with their marketing strategy to reach the most people in the most intelligent manner."
This month NGF and Newmarket Films are partnering on the domestic release of the Sudanese immigrant documentary God Grew Tired Of Us, and the company will work on the international release with various partners. Later this year comes the nature documentary Call Of The North with Paramount Vantage, which holds English-speaking territories, while Wild Bunch has the rest of the world. Leipzig is producing with Keenan Smart.
So far the company has been involved in one or two releases a year, and credits have included The Story Of The Weeping Camel with ThinkFilm, and Kekexili: Mountain Patrol with IDP Distribution and Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia. Leipzig says the plan from this year is to have three to five annual releases, be they acquisitions, partnerships or original productions, rising beyond that to four to six.
"We're a mini-studio," Leipzig says. "We have all the parts of a major studio except a distribution set-up, which is why we partner with studios. We have about 30 products in development and we're working on projects in five business verticals."
One of these 'verticals' or categories is what Leipzig calls "movie movies", the first of which is the $5m Apartheid-era surfing drama Zulu Wave, set to go into production in South Africa this year in partnership with Seattle-based Shadow Catcher.
The other verticals are: acquisitions, feature documentaries, "nature fiction" in the vein of March Of The Penguins, and family movies. Also in development is The Trudeau Vector, a thriller about a scientist who goes to an Arctic research lab to solve a series of murders.
"Every movie we make will in some way inspire people to care about the planet," Leipzig says. "Our movies may be true stories, but they don't have to be. We could have made Cast Away or Apollo 13 or Whale Rider. We care about authenticity. When we say something is a true story it has to be, because people cite us as a reference."
LOWDOWN: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC FILMS
President: Adam Leipzig (joined 2003)
Biggest hit: March Of The Penguins ($77m domestic gross)
Upcoming 2007 releases: God Grew Tired Of Us (with Newmarket Films) and Call Of The North (with Paramount Vantage in North America; various partners overseas)
Slate: $5m Apartheid surfing drama Zulu Wave (pre-production); On The Wing, a nature drama set to star Robert Redford (development); epic romance Krakatoa (development); western Across The Medicine Line (development); thriller The Trudeau Vector (development).