Lured away from Sheffield Doc/Fest, where he was Deputy Director and ran the extremely successful MeetMarket, Charlie Phillips is now the new Head of Documentaries at the Guardian. As a huge Guardian and documentary fan it’s a job that sounds pretty good to me. But as newspapers aren’t normally in the business of commissioning documentaries, I went to the Guardian to find out more about what Charlie’s up to:
Head of Documentaries is a new position. How was it pitched to you and what are you doing with it?
I was recruited because the Guardian wants to make a push into documentaries. We’ve always had a lot of video on the website and made lots of video. Sometimes that has been documentaries, but more often it has been news and current affairs, or sometimes virals. This is a very specific thing – pushing into documentary proper. The basis for doing that is that documentary is increasingly popular. It’s being regarded in an institution like this as a really great way of doing journalism, of getting people to reflect on the news and absorb new information and be surprised. People here think that documentary is doing that better than any other art form, which of course I agree with.
I was approached to work out what we should be doing with documentaries, and then commission lots of docs for our website and also ideally our YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook platforms — in terms of commissioning documentaries for “the Guardian” that basically means for all of our platforms. So that is my remit, basically, to get the Guardian known for supporting documentary. It’s been four months now. We’ve started commissioning them and getting them out. We’re not at the point where we have one going out every week but we aren’t a million miles away from that. We’ve got a lot of possibilities, a lot of irons in the fire. The ones we’ve put out already have done very well. So there’s definitely a hunger there.
How are you commissioning? Are you doing it through contacts or is there an open process?
It’s primarily through contacts at the moment, and obviously through people directly approaching me. From my time in Sheffield I know lots of people; I know the documentary industry. So it’s not that hard for me to reach out to them. I’ve also been doing talks and have been to a lot of festivals. The word is generally out that we’ve been commissioning docs, and the films have been going out as well…Maybe once we’re up and running and have everything going out we might have some section on the side which says how you pitch to us. I’m very aware I’m not connected to everyone.
How does it work in terms of Guardian journalism? Is anything driven initially by print or are you just free to go where you like, content-wise?
We’re pretty free to commission anything regardless to what is happening in the rest of the building. And it’s very important that the video leads. What we want is for people to watch documentaries on our website regardless of whether there’s a tie in to anything else. That has to be the first thing…Although we’ve always had a lot of video up, it’s not always been that easy to find, and has not been done as consistently as we would have liked. So we have not really built up that audience like we could have done. That’s our ultimate priority – get really good stuff up there and get people watching it, and maybe don’t worry so much what other people in the building are doing. With that said, there are some subjects that are so brilliant and are such a focus of the organisation that we will coordinate, and we will commission a doc, and someone will write a piece, we might do a podcast, and we might do a data led explainer.
Can you give me an example?
We did a big focus on the Guantanamo Diaries. That wasn’t one that I was directly involved with, because it is more news than documentaries anyway. But it’s a good example. So there was coordination across publishing the diaries, a really beautiful animated doc that my colleague Laurence (Topham) made, there were readings from famous people which went out in the audio department. That kind of thing can be great but it’s not practical to do week after week.
It must be very labour-intensive too — and has to be the right type story I would imagine.
Yes, it has to be the right kind of thing. And also the kind of things I’m doing, they are not news videos. We have a separate news commissioner who does news. So I am looking for things which are maybe reflective and story led, not necessarily things that the writers here are going to want to write about. It needs to feel contemporary and relevant now but that doesn’t necessarily make it news.
Can you give me another example?
If I Die on Mars was a film about three people who want to be on the first manned mission to Mars – the Mars 1 program. And that did really well for a number of reasons. One of them was people didn’t really know about the Mars One programme. It had been reported a bit but it was quite under-reported. We knew it would intrigue people. It’s from a production company called Stateless Media, a guy called Peter Savodnik. He was quite clever – he framed it in terms of why do these people want to leave earth on a one way mission, that is effectively a suicide mission. It’s quite a melancholy piece, so it had that human element.
Another thing that we have coming up in a totally different way is we’re doing a version of They Will Have to Kill Us First, which is a new film by Together Films about music being banned in Mali a few years ago. So this is effectively what happened since the ban – and the human effects on these amazing musicians. It is also about Mali music becoming very popular at the moment.
Presumably you are aiming at people on tablets and phones – is there an ideal length you go for?
It definitely has to be under 15 minutes. Generally things are going to be the 10-12 minute mark. You could say that is quite long for online – the wisdom is that people don’t concentrate for more than 30 seconds. But we’re doing things which are very story and/or character led. So I really feel like if it hooks you in from the start, and it takes you on a journey, and it looks beautiful, and you feel like you’ve had an experience watching it, you will stick and watch it. And if people don’t watch the whole thing but they watch five minutes but really like those five minutes, that’s okay as well. You can’t assume everyone is going to watch the whole thing, but as long as a good proportion do, and also as long as they share it and tell other people about it — it’s about building up the audience.
It’s a tough model.
It’s a new model and a form a lot of filmmakers aren’t acquainted with. So it’s hard graft getting something going out…It’s not a grammar that to be honest loads of filmmakers understand, because they are used to a longer form. And that’s fine because that’s been their main thing. But increasingly people are going to have to learn how to make something that is shorter and is going to work online and get attention. It’s a medium that people should use more. But it’s different. In the same way that doing something for TV is different than the cinema – it’s a different art form.
Do you have a model that you are following from other newspapers or media?
The two big influences are definitely the New York Times in the sense of doing short documentaries, working with filmmakers, having a commitment to high quality docs, and not doing any random old thing. Vice are definitely an inspiration, especially in terms of how they’ve built up that audience. Which they’ve done very cleverly, working across different platforms.
What kind of budgets are we talking?
The range is anywhere from at the lower end, a low point of £1000 if we are acquiring ten minutes or just chopping ten minutes with very little editing, up to an original commission that we really really want where it’s all being shot up front in a far off country, then it can be up to like £8-10,000. Most things at the moment will be something in the middle of that range. We’re doing both original short commissions and cut downs of longer docs.
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