6 min read

Q&A: Charlie Phillips, Inside The Guardian’s Documentary Films

Charlie Phillips is The Guardian’s Head of Documentaries, where he oversees the commissioning of international documentaries. Previously…
Q&A: Charlie Phillips, Inside The Guardian’s Documentary Films

Charlie Phillips is The Guardian’s Head of Documentaries, where he oversees the commissioning of international documentaries. Previously, he was the Deputy Director for Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the top three documentary festivals and markets in the world. At Doc/Fest, Phillips worked across all departments — programming, marketplace, conference, digital, and year-round training. Prior to his roles there, he was the Editor of FourDocs, Channel 4’s BAFTA-winning online documentary channel.

Storyhunter: How did you become The Guardian’s Head of Documentaries?

Charlie Phillips: I’ve been here for two and a half years. The Guardian approached me and asked if I wanted to set up a documentary campaign here, a documentary department. You know it’s a very specific audience, and it was a pretty cool opportunity.

S: What does that entail?

CP: The majority of what I do is commission short documentaries — they’re all around twenty minutes or so. We take pitches from anyone in the world, any filmmaker, any production company. Basically what we’re looking for is something new about the world, something that will surprise people, that’s very contemporary, that will play to The Guardian’s global audience.

S: Cool, so how did you start commissioning these documentaries?

CP: We started out doing films that were a little bit shorter, close to ten minutes, some of them even less. Then we did quite a lot of research into the market and our audience and we kind of saw that they like slightly [longer films] when you treat them like proper releases. I used to work for a film festival, so I know lots of filmmakers, and people just come to me with ideas.

S: You said the docs are generally short. Do you ever commission full length documentaries?

CP: The films we do are the length that they should be. If you mean feature length docs, then no, we don’t. We don’t have a platform at the moment where people are going to watch ninety minute films. And also it costs more.

S: That makes sense. How do you choose the documentaries? Do they get submitted, do you have a team that helps you choose them?

CP: I get over a thousand pitches a year — like well over a thousand. It’s quite [complex] to work out what we’re going to do, but I’ve got an increasingly good sense of what works for a Guardian audience…what looks good, what sounds good. Just the kind of global story, that maybe it’s in a place you didn’t know much about, but it feels kind of mainstream and populist in that you don’t need to know loads about that place [to watch] the film.

Our documentary unit now is basically two people. We’ve got a supportive team of fellow commissioners here. We’re a pretty small, lean team.

Gun Nation is a recent short documentary commissioned and published by The Guardian about America’s deadly love affair with the gun.

S: Are you just publishing them monthly, so only taking twelve a year?

CP: We’re doing up to twenty. It’s mostly one a month, but sometimes it’s more. We want to have a bit of a window of opportunity, so we don’t crowd the market with too many films.

S: Do you publish the documentaries on social media as well, or is it just on the website?

CP: Yeah, we do. The main audience is on The Guardian site and YouTube. We also put them out on Facebook, Vimeo, to try to get as big an audience as possible. Primarily, we want people to watch them on The Guardian website.

S: I noticed that The Guardian produced weekly short docs in the first few months of 2016. Did the monthly schedule grow out of that?

CP: Yeah, when I was first here, we were trying something quite new and putting the docs out quickly…[then] we went down the path of trying to do more substantial, really ambitious films. The length was one facet of that. We also thought let’s put less out and then we can do a proper promotional campaign around them rather than just trying to be like the hamster in the wheel when we got them out and after a day of promotion, they disappeared. We didn’t want that.

S: What do you look for in the pitches or what advice would you give documentary filmmakers that want to produce video for The Guardian?

CP: The main thing to start with is to watch our films. Watch the docs we’ve already put out. That will give you a sense of the kinds of things we’re looking into doing. We’re always evolving what we want so I don’t want people to just slavishly follow the style they see on the site, but they can get an idea generally.

I want as much as possible to know about the on screen story, so tell me as much as possible about what’s going to happen on the film, what’s the arc of the film, what’s going to take it beyond just being a portrait…Look at what The Guardian has done in terms of video stories, photo stories, podcasts. If we’ve done something recently, we aren’t likely to do it again. So just because you’ve seen something on The Guardian, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Probably just the opposite is true. We want the docs to be different from the news, so really try to be original. Give us something we wouldn’t be able to do ourselves. We’re very much interested in access driven films. If it’s based in the UK, or its subjects we’ve covered a lot in video, then we’re not going to go for it. We want stuff that’s based around access to things that’s difficult to get access to.

S: Is there a film you commissioned in particular that you think had really great access?

CP: All of the latest ones have that identity. Gun Nation has good access, Internet Warriors…We don’t really do stuff that’s not based on access.

The Internet Warriors is about the way that people use the internet to harass and threaten people, and stretch the freedom of speech to its limits.

S: Do these docs have a life beyond The Guardian? Do they go to festivals or anything?

CP: Yeah, some of them do, and it’s awesome when they do. But that’s not the thing I think about first. I’m more about getting it in front of our audience. We’re often editing them right until the time of release and festivals often want them two or three months ahead of time. So yeah, it’s good, but it’s not something I stress about.

S: You edit them? Do you do all the editing for them?

CP: We executive produce all of them. We editorially control all of them. We’re very involved in what the narrative line of the film is.

S: So how long does this process take for the regular doc from pitch to publish?

CP: It really really depends on the film. It could be anywhere from three months to a year. Three to six months seems to be the average, really.

S: And what is this process like for you?

CP: It might not sound like a lot, but it is a lot. It’s labor intensive. We’re looking at multiple cuts for each film and having long editorial conversations. So a lot of our time is taken up by just getting our film to be absolutely perfect. Twenty or twenty-five minutes is a really long time to make good, and we have to really engage from the first minute to the last. So it’s pretty intense. And a lot of the filmmakers aren’t used to working at that length, so we have to help them do it. Most of my time is taken up by speaking to other people in the building to make sure they help promote the films, seeing what stories people are working on in the building, going to festivals around the world and promoting the films, and talking to partners like Bertha about how we can work together.

S: Do you have any docs coming up that you’re particularly excited about?

CP: I’m excited about Fish Story, Pitching Up, and Dearborn, Michigan.

Fish Story is about the search for truth behind the fishy tale of Caspar Salmon’s grandmother once invited to a gathering on the Welsh island of Anglesey, attended exclusively by people with fish surnames. Watch this latest documentary below:

By D. Simone Kovacs, Storyhunter Editor