Guest Blog: Pitching to Guardian Docs’ Charlie Phillips

Posted January 20th, 2016 by Matt Turner

In this guest blog, we hear from The Guardian’s resident doc-head Charlie Phillips about how to stand the best chance of getting a film made for the news organisation’s online documentary strand.

Until just over a year ago, Charlie Phillips was Deputy Director of Sheffield’s Doc/Fest, having run the successful ‘MeetMarket’ marketplace there for 7 years. Since then, he’s been at The Guardian, acting as their ‘Head of Documentaries’, the first person at that organisation to hold that title, and as he quipped “hopefully also the last.” While on the surface, the two organisations might seem different, Charlie has been keen to bring across the same ethos of approachability, integrity and transparency towards emergent filmmakers that he was a proponent of whilst up in Sheffield.

Charlie recently held a pitching session at the London Short Film Festival, talking about how filmmakers should frame their ideas and work when presenting them to The Guardian, then inviting attendees to pitch to him there and then.

We followed up with him after that event to get a better sense of what The Guardian might favour and what they are resistant to, so Shooting People’s members can firstly decide if The Guardian is the right platform for their documentary project, and if it is, how best to explain it to Charlie and his team.

Here’s what he said:

At The Guardian, I’ve been tasked with diversifying the telling of stories, going beyond the traditional narratives and building a platform for more ambitious factual storytelling in video. Over a year in, we are pleased with what we have built. We have a sense of what we works and what we want to put out, and we are ready to be more focused and selective. In a way, now is the best time so far to pitch to us. We understand what our platform is and can be, and we know what we want from our collaborators.

Firstly, as with any outlet it is important to know the platform, it’s essential to watch what we’ve already put out. Here’s a few of the documentaries we have online that have worked well for us, whether that’s in terms of sheer quality or because our audience have responded to them : ‘If I Die On Mars.’ about three individuals shortlisted for the Mars One programme willing to sacrifice everything for their legacy,  ‘Right to Fight‘ featuring the MMA fighter ‘G-Money,’ who is gaining prominence in the sport despite expectations people have regarding his Down’s syndrome, and ‘Quiet Videos’, about the ASMR (Auto Sensory Meridian Response) video subculture and the people who make them.

‘If I Die On Mars’

It also helps to know the people behind the platforms. Though there are a wide array of organisations funding and producing documentaries online, all of which have their merits and niches, for quality documentary storytelling for a mass audience the big players are The New York TimesField of Vision and us. Of those, I’m the only commissioner in London, so come and have a chat. I don’t see my role at The Guardian as receiving pitches in a passive way, so much as having conversations and starting collaborations. Don’t be afraid to present ideas to us, even if you are not sure they are right.

Next. some basic criteria. Shorts are what performs best online currently rather than feature length films, so that is what we are asking for. We’re looking for 5-20 minute stories, ideally that are complete originals stand but if you can make them standalone films can be a version of an upcoming feature documentary. They should feature a clear, compelling story that completes a full narrative arc by the end of the doc, tell our audience something new (however you want to interpret that), and they should be well paced and relatively exciting, not too ponderous or overly contemplative without great story.

‘Quiet Videos’

They should be led by action and actuality, not interviews and talking heads, but can of course feature these things. They should be stories for an audience that is hungry to learn new things and hear untold stories, the more inventive and unique they are the better.

We’re a standalone entity within The Guardian, so our documentaries don’t need to relate to a specific feature we’re running on the site or be about something currently in the news. They should however be contemporary, not historical and not so region-specific as to have no relevance globally. The Guardian is an international platform, and the stories we put out should reflect that.

The Guardian want to be more reactive, so we are very much open to pitches. I don’t need to know you, nor do you need to be known in the industry, but being able to demonstrate that you and your film has an audience will be beneficial. I feel that one of the benefits of working with The Guardian is our transparency, we are open about what we do and what we want, and I only commission things I believe in. Please get in touch and let me know what you’ve got.

You can write to Charlie at He recommends sending a one page treatment and some kind of trailer, video or other visual materials related to the project.

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