The BBC has produced Blue Planet, the movie- renamed DEEP BLUE for the cinema audience.
The BBC series The Blue Planet, the natural history programmes about life under the sea, has spawned DVDs, CDs and even a £15-a-head Prom concert in Hyde Park.
Now David Attenborough’s award-winning investigation of the deep, first broadcast three years ago, is going global on an even bigger scale.
To widen the audience and add to the estimated £30m revenue generated so far for the series, which cost £7m to make, the BBC has produced Blue Planet, the movie – renamed Deep Blue for the cinema audience.
But where the original was a natural history series in the classic BBC mould, its detailed commentary by Sir David Attenborough has been replaced by the briefest of narrations from the actor Michael Gambon for the movie, leaving the focus firmly on the pictures.
The repackaging seems to have worked. Miramax Films, the American company owned by Bob and Harvey Weinstein behind some of the biggest independent hits in world cinema, has snapped up the distribution rights for North America.
The film opened in Spain at Christmas, then in Switzerland and Austria, and in France last week. And more than 200,000 people attended its opening weekend in Germany last month, producing a screen average (based on the number of prints in the market and box office sales) which was higher than the critical and commercial big-hittersLost in Translation, Finding Nemo and Freaky Friday. The film was awarded a Bogey – the award given in Germany to big box office successes.
A deal has been struck in Japan while Australia, Poland, Russia, Italy and Latin America are on the point of signing up. And an agreement for the British public to catch the big screen version could be settled within the next 24 hours.
Alix Tidmarsh, whose job at BBC Worldwide involves identifying commercial opportunities for capitalising on the BBC’s programmes, said she had the idea for a movie as soon as the first footage of the deep-sea epic began to roll in.
The thought had also occurred to Alastair Fothergill, the director, and George Fenton, the composer whose score won Ivor Novello and Bafta awards. It was also the first movie soundtrack recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
A small test-run was arranged on a big screen – the audience was a group of children – and when results proved encouraging, the team went “hell for leather,” Ms Tidmarsh said.
“We thought there was something in it and we had a vision in our mind. But we didn’t really know whether it would work until the film was delivered in September, when we all sat down and saw it,” she said. “We thought we had a winner of our hands.” The premiere, a couple of weeks later at the San Sebastian Festival, confirmed that.
The recent successes of documentary films such as Bowling for Columbine and the recent Spellbound, about a spelling contest, had paved the way, Ms Tidmarsh believed, in America. Agnes Mentre, Miramax’s vice-president of acquisitions, certainly raved about the project. “Deep Blue is a breathtaking film that is, at once, entertaining and emotionally involving,” she said. “Groundbreaking photography and a fantastic score make this real-life undersea adventure an epic cinematic experience.”
The BBC suspected it might go down well in countries such as France and Germany as well. “Audiences there don’t get the type of documentaries we get on free-to-air television in this country,” Ms Tidmarsh said.
But she stressed it was a very different experience from the television series. The commentary was reduced to just five minutes out of the 90-minute sequence and Sir David Attenborough, who is so closely connected with the project in Britain, was replaced.
“It’s a sound and visual feast, a beautiful piece with fantastic music from the Berlin Philharmonic rescored by George Fenton. It’s perhaps more for a younger audience who don’t necessarily want the facts and figures you get with the television series but want an intense, entertaining night out,” she said.
It did, of course, have the benefit of one of the most extensive lists of locations in the history of filmmaking. There were more than 200 in all, from the Maldives to the Falkland Islands via the Galapagos, Papua New Guinea, Australia and Russia.
More than 7,000 hours of film were shot over five years. The cost of turning the footage into a film, carried out in conjunction with the German production and sales company Greenlight Media, was just short of £5m.
The television series was already in the editing suite before the idea emerged. But Ms Tidmarsh said that if the big-screen version proves successful, future projects could ensure sequences were filmed specifically for a movie version – or a DVD.
The Blue Planet has been one of the most successful factual programmes produced by the BBC. Although rivals are critical of the BBC’s commercial activities, a spokeswoman said it was successive British governments who had encouraged the corporation to maximise its assets to supplement the licence fee. “BBC Worldwide adds more than £5 per year to the value of every licence fee in the UK.”