It’s all about options

Sheffield Doc/Fest's Charlie Phillips offers his take on the ins and outs of online distribution, from the big video portals to the boutiques.
August 26, 2009

We live in revolutionary times. But like all periods of revolution, we don’t know how the dust will settle and that’s part of the fun. The UK’s Digital Britain report released this past June was a milestone for government policy on online distribution of visual media. It acknowledged that viewers of films want, and expect to see them online. The crux of the report was that it recognized the radically changing nature of film-watching.

However, the report didn’t explain what this means for filmmakers and whether anyone is paying for the films that are being so voraciously viewed. Brutally, if filmmakers want their documentaries seen by millions, it needs to be online, and filmmakers need to facilitate that themselves; an exciting, but for many terrifying reality. It’s important that filmmakers retain their Internet rights so they can mix and match distribution strategies to suit the specific film.

So, who’s making it easier for filmmakers to make money? There are the ’boutiques’ such as UK-based Joining the Docs (, a documentary-specific and intelligently curated platform, which charges a small fee for viewers to watch features and shorts. Although it won’t generate millions in revenue, filmmakers can gain respect from being part of a quality platform.

Doc Alliance is a cross-European destination launched by five key European documentary festivals, including Germany’s DOK Leipzig and Switzerland’s Visions du Reel. Similarly, viewers pay a small amount to watch the film and for filmmakers, it’s a good specialist place to be seen by a caring community, not unlike most documentary festivals themselves. The same can be said of Docs Online from Germany.

The benefit of online distribution is that filmmakers don’t need to be restricted to one channel. The ‘multiplexes’ shouldn’t be neglected. Snag Films ( has developed a model whereby their films can be ‘snagged’ and redistributed by the viewer wherever they like (more or less), with a small profit made by filmmakers. Viewers develop the filmmaker’s distribution strategy and often do it far better. Of course, the same can be said for YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion and all other video-sharers, where letting a film loose on the Internet can reap big audiences, if not money. Snag is dedicated to highly original films and maintains an independent film ethic.

There is a middle ground between the willful abandon of YouTube and the considered snaffling of Snag, in the form of Babelgum ( The website is increasing its spend on original films, to be displayed in an upmarket arena. Online broadcast network VBS (, which also shows its wares on Babelgum, has steadily grown to entertain large young and hip audiences, with a business model that seems pretty sound. Its policy is to invest in quality and talent, but not in mindless and populist quantity.

The world has changed in terms of what it means to talk of a single documentary. It has become strange to think in silos of medium (radio, TV, cinema), form (word, picture, noise) or slot/genre/schedule; it is interchangeable stimulation. For any creative person or media company to survive, they’ll need to think in terms of co-operation and consolidation, rather than protecting their own private space. There’s an opportunity to build a creative economy of ideas, built through collaboration.

Is this a good or bad situation? I think it’s liberating. This is a time of freedom to mix and match how documentaries get made and seen. The ability to make crowd-sourcing or alternative-sourcing pay dividends is genuinely revolutionary, as we’ve seen with Franny Armstrong’s award-winning documentary The Age of Stupid. It’s hard, but freedom and indeed revolution always is.

Charlie Phillips is the marketplace producer for the Sheffield Doc/Fest.

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