New day rising

British doc champion Peter Dale is re-emerging with his own production company, Rare Day. Realscreen discussed with Dale his new venture, and what he sees in the cards for some friends of factual.
March 1, 2009

As head of documentaries at Channel 4, and then as the founding controller of More4, Peter Dale has been one of the UK’s greatest factual champions, steering a wide range of innovative films to broadcast. These include the campaigning series Jamie’s School Dinners, the Wife Swap and Supernanny formats, genre-busting docs such as Feltham Sings (in which actual prisoners sing their life stories) and masterfully made docudramas such as The Government Inspector.

After a decade at Channel 4, Dale left in September of last year to set up his own production company, Rare Day. He is adamant that the venture will begin small and focused. ‘I didn’t want to replace one set of responsibilities at Channel 4 for another set of responsibilities, running another company with lots of people and lots of business in it,’ he says. ‘I want to use it as a vehicle for the things that I’m keen on doing, and bringing in people who share those kinds of passions.’

Dale says that his efforts at Rare Day will focus on two areas he feels particularly committed to. The first is to steer high-quality documentary and drama productions to the screen.

‘They are becoming more and more desirable,’ he says. ‘As television becomes available on lots of different platforms and in different ways, what stands out is the really high quality piece of commissioning.’ Dale cites The Government Inspector and Brian Wood’s documentary The Chosen as examples.

He is currently looking for feature doc propositions that have international appeal. ‘My mission over the next 10 or 15 years is to ensure that for my part I can keep offering those kinds of projects, programs and films to broadcasters who really need them, the BBC and Channel 4 amongst those,’ he maintains. ‘There’s a danger that if you don’t offer those kinds of things, they won’t be made.’

The second focus will be finding new ways of funding and distribution, working with individuals, charities and third sector organizations interested in social change.

‘One of the things that excites me about other people wanting to come in to what they call long-form narrative is that they don’t have the preconceptions and the desires that television has adopted over the last few years of having to make fairly large returns,’ he says. He will also work with for-profit companies. ‘Already a lot of commercial companies are starting to discuss how they can get into long-form narrative, and I bring quite a lot of experience to that.’

Dale’s current passions are the same which drove his work with Channel 4. While there he managed to preserve space in the schedule for prominent doc filmmakers such as Kim Longinotto (Rough Aunties; Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go). But he also recognized the increasing difficulty in bringing international documentaries to a channel dependent in large part on commercial pressures.

In 2005 he set up the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation to allow the Channel to foster issue-driven doc-making, which didn’t necessarily need to have a home on television. The Foundation has succeeded in helping steer films such as We Are Together, Afghan Star and Black Gold to international acclaim, and to Channel 4, which maintains an option on all Foundation-funded films.

Britdoc is particularly vulnerable to the Channel’s belt-tightening, which worries Dale. ‘Britdoc is a long-term investment; it’s about changing the culture,’ he offers. ‘I hope that they don’t cut to the point where it becomes difficult [for it] to exist. The reason we set it up was to say there are other ways of thinking about incubating, seeding, mentoring and funding documentaries that may not apparently be necessary for a television schedule in the modern age. However, when those films are made, they are absolutely wanted by broadcasters. It’s important to stick with it.’

While at Channel 4 Dale also launched FourDocs, a pre-YouTube online web resource which allowed doc filmmakers to upload their films to the Web. Sadly, the initiative recently shut down. ‘A lot of people have started their filmmaking careers by making a little four-minute film for FourDocs, and we’re tremendously proud of that,’ he says.

And while he says he’s taken a vow of silence with regard to his former employer, Dale does admit that Channel 4 is navigating some difficult waters. ‘What I will say is it’s quite a dangerous time for Channel 4 because the reduction in programming budgets may not necessarily affect the schedule now,’ he says. ‘I think it will start to show towards the end of this year and certainly next year, and I’m not convinced that the advertising money is going to come back to the same extent that it did. It’s a watershed moment for Channel 4 and that gives me some cause for concern.’

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