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Fertile Ground For Streaming Documentaries

Because an article in the impulse-buy Cosmopolitan magazine named him one of the 50 most desirable bachelors in all the land, Chris Jenkins received dozens of letters from admiring fans, ranging from a grandmother to a gay guy. A friend had nominated Jenkins for the honor, and while some fans were just hoping to spark a sort of pen-pal communication, other letters included photos, addresses, and phone numbers. So, in an ostensible fact-finding journey, the coveted bachelor then set out cross-country - from San Francisco to New Orleans - to meet and film several of his would-be courters.

That's the premise of Ego Trip, a 20-minute documentary written and produced by Chris Jenkins and featured on Docuweb.org. The dishy, 30-year-old Stanford film grad also happens to be one of the founders of Docuweb - a brand new non-profit streaming portal dedicated to the art of documentary filmmaking. The San Francisco-based organization is on a mission to provide the most extensive, searchable, online library of documentary films.

Through a series of informal conversations, the vision of Docuweb was laid out in the fall of 1999. An eclectic group of professionals - some with filmmaking experience (including Jenkins), others with technical and non-profit experience - were dedicated to the idea of creating an exclusive (and free) destination for documentary films. While such portals as AtomFilms and iFilm may include short documentaries, neither highlight the category or include the more standard, one-hour length films.

"We felt there was fertile ground for providing streaming documentaries on the Web," said Ian Kellett, executive director with Docuweb, whose own background includes filmmaking stints with National Geographic and discovering a new enzyme in biotechnology research while he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. "The site will offer an open venue and distribution channel for independent documentary filmmakers."

Building A Repertoir

At the moment, only three films are featured on the Web site: Jenkins' Ego Trip, The Golf War (a short film teaser, using a Tiger Woods visit to the Philippines as a backdrop, that examines the displacement of Filipino peasants in the construction of a golf resort), and Other Prisoners (a 1987 documentary looking at the life of prison guards).

But considering the fact that the entire eight-person staff is currently working pro bono (not one person is getting paid), and that the organization features full-service encoding and hosting resources for filmmakers wishing to submit a film, this is no small feat. Through an upcoming push for more user-submitted films, and by culling through thousands of documentaries that already exist in the public domain, Kellett expects the site to feature 50 films by the end of January 2001.

Admittedly, though, Docuweb is just in its infancy. The organization has only received seed funding from fiscal sponsorships with the International Documentary Association and the Bay Area Video Coalition. Its offices are housed in a box apartment on the roof of a residential building in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District. The office doubles as an apartment for Jenkins and lies in the shadow of an MGD billboard, with which it shares roof space.

Still, the folks here have high hopes for their organization. In addition to developing the most extensive library of online documentary films, Docuweb wants to help build community among filmmakers (including chat rooms and message boards) and serve as a supplement for existing school and university curriculum.

"One of the primary missions will be to make the library of films available to educational institutions," said Kellett. He says the library resources will help teachers to include documentaries in their classroom instruction, with the potential for interactivity as the site develops.

A Place to Call Home

With the development of chat rooms and message boards, Docuweb is already helping to provide community among filmmakers. Many filmmakers will be able to find resources for identifying new projects and locating musicians or other supplemental staff, or assistance in their grant writing and film distribution, says Kellett.

Such communities can be quite attractive to filmmakers. "Many freelance filmmakers work in isolation," said Will Zavala, a San Francisco-based independent filmmaker and proprietor of the media production outfit, Morsel Pictures (www.morselpictures.com). "An online community does help in the flow of exchanging ideas, getting funding and writing grants, or even just for moral support."

Docuweb also aims to help filmmakers make money from their work. By facilitating the online purchase of documentary films, either in VHS or DVD, the site could serve as an e-commerce intermediary. Educational institutions could also be potential film buyers.

Revenue Beyond Grants

But how does Docuweb plan to make money? Currently, Docuweb is soliciting funding in the form of grants from major foundations and from so-called "venture philanthropists." But the organization is also looking to create additional sources of revenue through its own e-commerce initiatives, possible sponsorships with film festivals, and even membership drives.

And in a sign of the times, "We'll be suffering through the same set of problems in terms of building an audience and securing funding as any broadband content site," said Dubie Dubendorfer, Docuweb's director of streaming technology.

Because of the difficulties of making money on the Internet, Docuweb is also hoping to expand its reach through a survival technique adopted recently by many dot-coms - offering outsourced resources in a business-to-business service. Or, in this case, a non-profit-to-non-profit service. Dubendorfer is spearheading a project to called "Docuweb Productions," designed to help other non-profits in the production of live webcasts or the development of on-demand streaming capabilities.

"For example, if an organization would like to webcast a conference or maybe a board of directors meeting, we could help them do that," said Dubendorfer. He added that since Docuweb knows first-hand the limits of the typical non-profit budget, Docuweb Productions services would likely come at a discounted rate.

In the meantime, Docuweb will slowly but surely become a destination site, not just for filmmakers, but for documentary film lovers, as well. With some recent documentaries breaking into mainstream popularity - including Waco: The Rules of Engagement and Kurt and Courtney - maybe there is an audience out there.

To be sure, says Kellett, "We want to bring a buzz back into documentaries as a valid source of entertainment."

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