These days, the small private broadcaster ServusTV is celebrating the anniversary of its “Terra Mater” series. It regularly features nature and animal documentaries that Terra Mater Factual Studios, the company behind the films, produce and sell all over the world. For a long time, the documentaries have made a significant contribution to creating a good image for ServusTV. The films also ensure high ratings, in Germany the series achieved an average of 0.6 percent market share of the total audience last year (14-49: 0.4 percent), in Austria it was even 3.9 percent (12-49 : 2.4 percent). In all cases, “Terra Mater” is well above the average values from ServusTV.
“Terra Mater” is more than just a visually high-quality channel series with feel-good documentaries about cute polar bears, cats or the Alps. Terra Mater Factual Studios was founded in early 2011 as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Red Bull and also produces documentaries for the cinema. Things are then less peaceful there. In “The Ivory Game”, for example, the subject of ivory smuggling in East Africa is. “Sea of Shadows” is about how Mexican drug cartels and the Chinese mafia poach a rare fish in the Gulf of California and exterminate the world’s smallest whale.
© Terra Mater Factual Studios
Walter Köhler said in an interview with DWDL.de that one wanted to ensure a “political impact” for these films right from the start. He is the managing director of Terra Mater Factual Studios and founded the company in 2011 under the Red Bull umbrella. In the two cases mentioned, he succeeded: The legal market for ivory in China has meanwhile been banned – thanks in part to “The Ivory Game”. And the alliance between Mexican drug cartels and the Chinese mafia has been largely broken by the political pressure of the “Sea of Shadows”, says Köhler.
“It is not harmless”
But the company doesn’t just make friends with the investigative documentaries. For the shoot in Mexico, risk training was carried out for the entire team for the first time, but the shoot was stopped prematurely. You had to leave the country within two hours because the threats from the cartels were too strong. “That was no longer justifiable,” says Köhler, who also says the following sentence about the filming of such documentaries: “It is not harmless.” An IMAX documentary about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is currently about to premiere. The Trump administration wanted to drill large oil reserves there at the last minute. The Champion Foundation then collected 6.5 million signatures against this project; the current US President Joe Biden has meanwhile stopped the drilling project.
© IMAGO / ZUMA Wire
Over the years, Terra Mater Factual Studios have won many awards. From Emmys to the Sundance Audience Award to the Jackson Wild Media Awards and Wildscreen’s Golden Pandas, both of which are considered the Oscars of nature films, everything was there. “The Ivory Game” even made it onto the shortlist of the traditional Oscars. The fact that Leonardo DiCaprio had a hand here and there certainly helped in the global perception of the films. Walter Köhler told DWDL.de that he supported the marketing of “The Ivory Game” because the topic was close to his heart.
And the US actor was also on board for “Sea of Shadows”. Köhler and his team didn’t even have the topic on their screen until DiCaprio called and pointed it out to him, says the head of the production company. Köhler didn’t have to think twice about that. He sent a team out and filming began. DiCaprio again accompanied the marketing, especially in the USA, so that this film was also a worldwide success. The fact that the US actor is no longer likely to travel to Mexico in public for security reasons is also due to the film and its effects.
From ORF it went over to Red Bull
The fact that the Terra Mater Factual Studios are now one of the big names in the documentary film business was not a foregone conclusion ten years ago. At that time, Köhler was in charge of the “Universum” editorial team at ORF and at that time wanted to found a sub-company for nature films, but for several reasons that did not succeed under the umbrella of the public broadcasting corporation. And so Köhler and the entire “Universum” team moved to Red Bull and built something completely new. “We have always seen ourselves more as producers and less as television editors,” says Köhler today.
At Red Bull himself, he had no concerns, says Köhler. Now the company, known primarily as a manufacturer of an energy drink, is neither famous nor notorious for its commitment to nature and environmental protection. Among other things, you have your own Formula 1 racing team. But he, says Köhler, knew early on that Red Bull was at the forefront when it came to the environment, at least when it came to the production of beverage cans. “It was clear to me that the market was not going to stay calm when I reported it. But I also knew that we would not face any disadvantages.” The question remains, how much influence does the parent company have on Terra Mater Factual Studios? At ServusTV, Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz is said to have a say again and again, one hears. “There is no influence. What there is are conversations that I don’t want to miss,” Walter Köhler told DWDL.de.
More and more fictional materials
Since the start ten years ago – during that time the company has grown from 13 to 40 permanent employees – there have always been isolated fiction projects at Terra Mater Factual Studios. Four such productions have since been shown in cinemas. Some of them are close to nature, others less so. The drama “Like Brothers in the Wind”, released in 2016, was the most successful Austrian film in 2016. Currently, work is being done on a series on wildlife crime and on two feature films with nature themes. And then the filming of the bestseller “Hummeldumm” had been announced (DWDL.de reported). The book by Tommy Jaud is about a group of nine who go on a fourteen-day round trip through Namibia. “This offers a great opportunity to get people excited about nature conservation through comedy,” says Köhler with regard to the film adaptation.
Koehler will probably not run out of ideas for fictional material anytime soon. By researching the documentaries, you sometimes know a lot that you can’t show. Because the risk is great, these stories can only be told fictionally. “And because we can also inspire audiences who are not typical documentary consumers for the cause of nature conservation in a fictional way.” The start of the fictional projects a few years ago was not without problems. When the company launched in 2011, the DVD market was still intact – and thus an important source of refinancing for many theatrical films. Today it looks very different due to the many streaming providers. But Terra Mater Factual Studios has held its own here too, of course always with a financially strong investor behind them.
“We don’t benefit from climate change.”
And then there is also this one topic that you have to talk to every producer about these days, because it has a big impact on pretty much everything: Corona. The pandemic is hitting nature filmmakers hard, who are used to traveling all year round and filming all over the world. That’s why Corona doesn’t make him particularly happy, says Köhler in an interview with DWDL.de. But: “Fortunately, the effects of Corona on our company are not as great as one might assume.” So they started to produce on site with local crews at an early stage. In addition, the company’s projects are usually very tedious to produce anyway. There have been interruptions in the past, for example due to changes in the weather. Customers are more used to delays than a broadcaster that only produces all of its formats in the studio.
But of course Corona has also left its mark on Terra Mater Factual Studios. For example, work on two large documentaries had to be stopped temporarily because, for example, one could not travel to Russia. In another case, Walter Köhler had to evacuate a team from India. The equipment did not come back to Vienna until six months later, this is where the company is headquartered. With “Corona, the Pandemic and the Pangolin”, however, a documentary out of the lockdown has also been implemented. Just like weekly new videos for the YouTube channel “Terra Mater”, which has grown to more than 200,000 subscribers in the last few months and which, according to Köhler, was most recently around 20 million views per month. Nevertheless, the pandemic is “no business,” says Köhler – by the way, just like climate change.
“We do not benefit from climate change,” said Köhler. He has been doing the job for 35 years and climate change has always been an issue. Nevertheless, the imponderables have increased in recent years. What does he mean by that? In December they finished with a two-part Alpine story – but the way there was extremely arduous. “That was one of the most difficult productions we’ve ever had,” says Köhler. Two years earlier, the snow in the Alps was twelve meters high, so shooting was not possible. A year later the snow was gone and never came back – the planned shoots had to be canceled here too.
Germany as the most important market in the world
The nature film producer describes the German market as “by far the most important in the world”. Without the USA or Germany on board, you can “hardly make” a great nature film. Köhler: “Most of the time, both countries have to be there.” But why is Germany so important? Walter Köhler attributes this to the great interest shown by German viewers in relevant content. And then of course there must also be customers who want and can afford the “gem” of nature film. With uncertainties and shooting times between 100 and 200 days, it is one of the more expensive disciplines in the industry. It pays off that there is a strong public service broadcaster in Germany.
And so the Terra Mater Factual Studios will continue to dance at several weddings in the future. On television, people continue to serve the viewers’ desire for escapism – and they are happy to do so with cute animals and large landscapes in distant parts of the world. “Especially in Corona times, the TV audience can travel out into nature on the couch,” says Köhler. And in the cinema sector, the emotions of the audience are triggered by investigative research that shakes them up. Or as Walter Köhler puts it: “At some point you have to give something back to nature after you have made a good living from it for 30 years.”