From ‘Life on Our Planet’ to Mars, Amblin TV Dives into Documentary Production

Amblin TV has built its reputation over the past three decades as one of the industry’s busiest boutiques, producing scripted series across all major platforms that range from popcorn (“Bull,” “Falling Skies”) to prestige (“The Americans,” “Into the West”).

But in recent years, there’s been a new storytelling target for Amblin TV chiefs Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey, who have headed Steven Spielberg’s TV production banner (previously DreamWorks TV) for more than 20 years. Amblin TV has moved aggressively into documentary feature and docu-series arena. It’s a development motivated by business necessity but also the desire to add more colors and canvases to the overall Amblin TV palette.

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This year, the company fielded a surprise hit with a nature documentary for Netflix, “Life on Our Planet,” which topped the streamers’ domestic viewing charts for multiple weeks after its release in late October. Amblin also delivered the well-received feature “Good Night Oppy,” from director Ryan White about the demise of two Mars Rover probes for Amazon Prime Video. And director-producer RJ Culter helmed the four-part docu-series “Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul,” which also bowed on Netflix in October.

In short, the evolution of documentary content, particularly the advent of the docu-series, made the Amblin TV chiefs feel they were missing out on great opportunities.

“What a lot of the platforms have done over the last few years in documentary has just been incredible,” Frank tells Variety on the latest episode of the “Strictly Business” podcast. “So it started with passion, but it also was an important business move for us.”

Some of the same factors that drove the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes have come into play for production companies like Amblin TV. The shift to shorter seasons and fewer episodes hits the bottom line hard for those who are paid by the episode.

“When (the norm) went from 24 episodes for network to 13 episodes for basic cable to 10 or eight episodes for streaming — and then we looked around and saw backends disappearing and no real syndication market – we said ‘Wow we’re really turning into a business where episodic fees are really driving everything,’ ” Frank said.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 12: (L-R) Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank attend the  "Good Night Oppy" Premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at Scotiabank Theatre on September 12, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Mathew Tsang/Getty Images)
Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank

The move into documentary content was also accelerated by the pandemic. During the down months, research and other work was done on projects such as “Big Vape” and a slew of projects on tap for next year. The roster at present has more than a dozen projects in various stages of development and production, including two feature-length projects for HBO and a look at the career of prolific composer John Williams that is about to land at a streamer.

“The pandemic really forced us to scale up the nonscripted businesses because all the scripted stuff really came to an end for some time there. And then we were very well positioned in this last year to just continue to scale up,” Falvey tells Variety. Falvey notes that even before the WGA strike shuttered scripted production as of May 2, the market for scripted series was already experiencing a sharp contraction.

Amblin’s reputation as a place that prizes resourceful and responsible producing helped paved the way for them to attract top-tier documentary filmmakers. Frank and Falvey’s deep industry connections and long tenure at Spielberg’s TV partners also made it a compelling call to take. R.J. Cutler, the executive producer and dynamo behind “Big Vape,” has known the duo for years, which also helped.

“It was just an A-plus experience for me,” Cutler tells Variety of working with Amblin. “I tie it directly back to the company’s strong foundation and clear principles that begin with the artistic values of storytelling. They called me and said, ‘It’s a complicated story and we’re interested in the complexity. We’re interested in the resonance that you find here and we’re excited about the way you want to confront those challenges.’ That’s a great phone call to get.”

For “Life on Our Planet,” one of the biggest challenges was telling a compelling story about the earth’s evolution to lay the foundation for the urgency at the heart of eight-part series around the galloping pace of climate change. For “Good Night Oppy,” the crux of the story was the relationship that the engineers at Pasadena’s famed Jet Propulsion Lab and NASA developed over a 15-year time frame with Mars rover devices named Spirit and Opportunity, who defied the odds and remained operational far longer than any of their creators expected. For both projects, Falvey and Frank were impressed at how much the storytelling and information was enhanced by visual effects and animation from Lucasfilm’s ILM and others.

“What’s amazing is that it’s all based on science facts and hopefully it brings a very photo-real experience,” Falvey said.

Netflix brought “Life on Our Planet” to Amblin TV specifically because they knew it was an ambition production that would need strong storytelling to break out of the pack as a nature doc.

“In the realm of nonfiction storytelling, Amblin consistently pioneers innovation and best in-class execution,” Adam Del Deo, Netflix’s VP of documentary and film series, tells Variety. “From the historical documentary series ‘Five Came Back’ to the VFX-driven driven nature series ‘Life on Our Planet,’ Amblin sets the gold standard.”

As Amblin TV braces for the post-Peak TV era, the move into the documentary world has not only expanded the horizons of talent relationships, it’s also a potential boon to the scripted business. True to form, Frank and Falvey are unfailingly creative when it comes to spotting potential series opportunities.

“The upside of nonscripted and documentary being able to move quicker is that we can use it as a platform to help launch scripted shows,” Falvey said. “Truth is stranger than fiction. We often find a backdrop or a character or something out of our documentary production that can inspire something on the scripted side as well.”

“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. (Please click here to subscribe to our free newsletter.) New episodes debut every Wednesday and can be downloaded at Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Google Play, SoundCloud and more.

(Pictured top: “Life on Our Planet”)

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