The web as a distribution tool for documentaries

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There have been more than 40,000 documentaries released on the web according to Internet Movie Database and of these 40% are carried by Amazon.com. It was therefore appropriate for the MIPDOC conference, which ran the weekend prior to MIPTV, to examine the new opportunities the web offered documentary filmmakers in a panel discussion.

Tim Sparke, founder and managing director of the broadband documentary channel, joiningthedots.tv said he decided to start the channel when broadcasters rejected a 9/11 film, “Loose Change’ that he was trying to distribute. He put the film on the Internet and had “an amazing reaction’. Twenty million downloads later, channels around the world were clamouring for the film. “It proved that the Internet was a good way to profile a programme.’

Sparke said that he saw the new broadband channel as a platform where intelligent debate could thrive. “It’s all about what you can’t get on TV. We think we can produce something phenomenal, something that is not being used by TV or commissioners.

Only the best quality movies are accepted on joiningthedots.tv. The Internet is all about democracy, says Sparke. It can free us as voters and citizens and by allowing us to interact, we will be able to make informed choices.

According to Gideon Summerfield, managing director of the indie production company, Pioneer Online, the decision was taken to launch on the Internet to see if there was an interest in science documentaries. The FirstScience.tv channel from Pioneer now gets 500,000 unique users per month.

Summerfield said that science programmes tended to be drowned out by traditional broadcast material. “Unless one has the marketing bucks, your documentary will not be found.’ Commissioners are also inclined to go with more popular subjects because that were less risky. “We wanted to find new life for old quality material. Pioneer’s science documentaries have achieved 15% of UK audiences.’ The FirstScience.tv channel which started in December 2006 with limited material is already showing that audiences are prepared to pay to watch science programmes. “It won’t ever become mainstream as the Internet is not the ideal way to watch programmes. But the Internet is a natural place for people to go to look for information.

The UN-backed Green.tv, an environmental film channel was launched at MIP last year, said Mark Thomas. “We have noticed that (Internet) audiences are not so interested in long form documentaries. Our experience is that it is a great promotional tool. It’s a great catalyst for driving traffic to documentaries. The Internet has made it possible to build an ideologically based channel that promotes a green debate. That couldn’t happen on TV.’

Magic Lantern’s managing director, Paula Le Dieu, is responsible for Channel 4’s FourDocs broadband documentary channel. She said FourDocs helps the broadcaster fulfil its mandate to nurture and support new talent. The channel accepts programmes from people who have never used a camera to more experienced filmmakers. “We will accept anything as long as it is right technically.’

When they created FourDocs, they realised they were getting to first timers so they created a whole range of guides, from how to hold a camera, how to do an interview to lighting and the business of filmmaking. They also compiled an archive that would allow people to move into specific documentaries.

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