On May 4, 2007, Greensburg, Kan., a small town of 1,500 inhabitants, was annihilated by a tornado. Ten people were killed and 95 percent of the town was destroyed, including the local hospital. Before the dust had settled, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had declared Greensburg would be rebuilt ... as an ecologically and economically sustainable town.
At the same time, in Los Angeles, Pilgrim Pictures founder Craig Piligian, whose production company has a 10-year relationship with Discovery Communications, was thinking about producing a TV show related to the environment, in response to the events of Hurricane Katrina.
"Katrina was so huge, you didn't know where to start," said Piligian, whose shows for Discovery include "American Chopper," "Dirty Jobs," "American Hot Rod" and "Really Big Things." "Greensburg was manageable, and the people of Greensburg wanted to do it."
Mr. Piligian pitched Leonardo DiCaprio, who came on board as production partner (with his production company Appian Way) and executive producer (along with Mr. Piligian). "We knew that Craig and Leo had partnered to bring a project to TV, something that advanced Leo's amazing work in the area of environmentalism," says Planet Green executive VP Eileen O'Neill, about being pitched "Eco-Town."
"The town was very welcoming," she said. "They're enthusiastic with having not just pure financial resources but products, services and expertise that can enhance the rebuild they want to do. They're covered by FEMA, but the high profile of the TV exposure is going to be a terrific opportunity for us and them to celebrate a green community."
The 13-part series is already in pre-production, with "boots on the ground," says Mr. Piligian, who said an advance team of 15 people is in Greensburg. One of their first tasks is casting. "The show takes the point of view of the mayor, the city planner," he said. "We're asking what does it take to come back after a devastating tornado wipes out your city? How do you restart from there?"
Ms. O'Neill emphasized the importance of "Eco-Town's" characters. "The series is really going to be along the line of a docu-soap, which takes an impartial view of documenting something from a character-based perspective," she said. "The viewer will see the evolution of the town from a personal perspective and get terrific insight as to what green information, products and services are part of the community."
Shooting has begun with Sony HDW-F900 high-definition cameras. When school started Aug. 15 in Greensburg, Mr. Piligian's crew was there.
But it's still the very early days of a project that Mr. Piligian said could last anywhere from six months to a year (or, as he put it, "until the job is done") and will have to deal with the vicissitudes of a documentary shoot. "There's no real plan book for this," he said. "The idea is to get smart people in the right place."
When production picks up in earnest, Mr. Piligian expects to have a crew of 30 people, who will stay in rented homes, hotels and trailers outside Greensburg.
Ms. O'Neill said Planet Green is in the process of lining up sponsorship partners, but could not yet announce any of them.
She also confirmed Planet Green would turn "Eco Town" into a multiplatform product. "We will expect blogs and content in advance and throughout production before it premieres," she said. "We'll also have pre-purposed mobile content."
As a TV series, "Eco Town," which is "most likely" slated to air next summer, will evolve along with the rebuilding of the town.
"It's a very large undertaking from a production standpoint," said Ms. O'Neill. "An army of production staff will be in the middle of Kansas for a long time. It's really more like a feature film undertaking, and that should be interesting."
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