Magic Lantern Productions, Channel 4: Fourdocs Web Site

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Documentaries are enjoying a renaissance these days, at least on cable and in theatrical release, but that wasn’t the case a few years back in Great Britain when the concept of the Web site FourDocs (www.channel4.com/fourdocs) was formed.
There was a feeling that “documentaries had become marginalized on mainstream TV even as the means of production had become more democratized than before,” with the spread of low-cost, high-quality camera and editing technology, said Andy Grumbridge, managing editor of Channel 4 New Media, one of the partners in the site. “There was a weird disconnect.”
Eventually the organizers of FourDocs saw an opportunity to fill in that gap with a Web site. “We had reached the tipping point where there were enough people with broadband to make it viable,” Mr. Grumbridge said.
The site—which cost about £700,000 ($1.39 million) to set up and receives an annual investment of about £150,000 ($297,000) to maintain—finally went live about two and a half years ago. It was created and is curated by Channel 4 and Magic Lantern Productions, a London-based broadband media company, working with filmmaker Patrick Uden, who is also the site’s executive editor.
At its heart, FourDocs is a showcase for four-minute or shorter original documentaries, which are submitted by viewers, “anyone with a story to tell, or an opinion to voice,” according to the site. But to get carried, films must first be selected by the editors. “Not all of them are good enough,” said Mr. Grumbridge. “People expect a certain quality when they come to us.”
A recent “Film of the Week” on the site, rating four stars from users, was the three-minute “Flora and Thieves,” by a filmmaker who used the name of Xantheh. As the camera zooms in on gloriously colored flowers, the filmmaker’s grandmother, who is arranging an elaborate bouquet, recounts a harrowing episode when armed robbers broke into her home looking for money. “The disharmoney between what we see and what we hear is remarkable, an effect amplified by the filmmaker’s simple framing and unfussy editing. Very good, very moving,” wrote the site’s editors.
Other recent films included “Lark,” a stylized portrait of a philosophy student who is also a stripper; a conversation with a garbage man called “Somebody’s Got to Do It”; and “The Mild Bunch,” featuring interviews with bikers who defy the tattoo and tough-guy stereotype. The archive of several hundred submissions is grouped by theme, from animal rights to crime to the Iraq war and terrorism.
FourDocs was put together pre-YouTube, before the concept of user-generated content or user ratings was widespread. “We didn’t know how many people would send us material,” Mr. Grumbridge said. Submissions started at “a trickle” of about a film a week, but the pace grew as word got out. In April, he said, the site received about 30 films.
The site was created “to connect with people who were fond of documentary but weren’t being catered to” on the mainstream channels, Mr. Grumbridge said. It was specifically designed to be broadband only. But because of the high quality of the material and positive feedback from users, some of the films have ended up on the More4 channel as well as Channel 4. They also have been sold abroad, many to Canadian TV. New filmmakers have been discovered and have gone on to receive commissions from other documentary outlets.
Some tens of thousands of viewers check out the site each week, and stay for varying lengths of time, creating what Mr. Grumbridge called a “lively, buzzy community.” For those who don’t know how to make films, FourDocs provides a free tutorial on getting started, including basic lighting, editing and directing tips and a discussion of the legal issues. The site also includes a history of documentary making, a discussion forum, interviews with filmmakers and a separate section for quirky 59-second “Microdocs.”
For inspiration, the site has available several dozen full-length classics of the genre, including everything from a 1905 promotional film for Peek Frean cookies to Albert Maysles’ first film.


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