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Remembering Jess Search

web pioneer, force of culture

by Nic Wistreich, photos by Tom Fogg, from his 2001 interview with Jess.

The death of Jess Search at 54 left me stunned and sad. Obituaries rightly focussed on her huge contribution to documentary and social impact filmmaking – but miss something key: Jess was also a web pioneer.

Shooting People, the digital community she co-founded with Cath LeCouteur 25-years-ago this year, did some groundbreaking things in the curious times between the implosion of the dotcom crash at the start of 2000, and the explosion of Web 2.0, some five years later.

It was this Jess that I knew and worked with for several years as Shooting People's first hire. I've not written about that time before, but the lack of reference to it in her many obituaries, pushed me to start writing, and once I began, I fell down a rabbithole of memories from a short and special time in the web's history: post-web, but pre-smart-phone.

The decisions Jess and Cath made over two decades ago, seem more relevent than ever, as the web looks again towards small and human-run communities across the fediverse, grappling with questions of moderation and sustainability, while trying to chart a different course to the web monopolies. This post-crash and pre-2.0 era that Shooting People exploded in, wasn't so much about a business model, it was a period of post-web/pre-tech-dystopia, open, queer-punk peer-to-peer culture I'd largely forgotten, until I started writing this.

As I started I couldn't stop, so I'm sorry it’s a long-read as I'm not sure how to trim it. But there's chapters –


Why do we write these things after a death? To stand under the tree of a superstar, shaking its branches in the hope a leaf or two lands on you, so you can say “I was there”? It feels like something else.

Shortly before she died, my sister June said she felt humans are like crystal glass in that we have many facets. We shine through it like a light, but everyone we know sees a different facet; no one sees the same refraction of us.

Reading the Isle of Thanet News tribute to Jess I learned of a different facet to the person I knew. A mother, deep-rooted in, and loved by her neighbourhood, fighting for housing rights, caring for the ill. She appears soft-edged and gentle-eyed, de-Londonised and now beloved citizen of Margate.

I write instead of the facet I was privileged to know of her 20 years ago, working from her spare-bedroom in a high-rise over Bethnal Green. This facet is from the early days of her first startup, Shooting People, until around the start of her second, BritDoc (later Doc Society). It’s different to the local-hero mum of Thanet News, or the Skoll World Forum Closing Speaker next to Al Gore. That's why I write this.

There’s no humblebrag here - I regret both how our friendship ended, and of the years that passed without meeting for 'that drink'. Even when the news came through a few months ago that she was ill, asking us to send our love and rocket fuel, I wrote something but didn’t send it, biding my time, unable to believe the invincible Search wouldn’t be here any more.

My eyes leak as I write this, again, as they have a good few times since the news. I'm not good at ‘butching it out’. I knew her for such a small fraction of her life, I have no idea how those closest to her, her family – fill the Jess-shaped hole in the universe that’s left. I understand it's be following her wishes and keeping alive the joyful 'lucky f**ker' spirit she possessed in her final weeks.

A long-since destroyed Banksy in Haggerston (between Dalston & Hoxton, Hackney). Photo CC-BY-NC-SA, 2003, Chris Lightfoot

Inbetween time

Try to imagine if you weren’t there, or remember if you were – the brief window between when the web had arrived mid 90s and landed on the desks of most people with a computer, and when everyone carried the web in their pocket. There was web for those of us who wanted to connect, but nothing had been gamified to keep us hooked stroking our phones, getting upset by strangers, for five hours a day. We still had that five hours.

When there was no Facebook or YouTube, no influencers, vlogging and selfies – and only a third of homes were connected to the Internet. When 'memes' were a Richard Dawkins concept, discussed in the New Scientist. When, post dotcom-crash, most of the money and VCs had shifted focus away from web. Between the arrival of the first film for cinema shot on digital video, and the conversions of cinemas to digital projection. Between Hoxton being a centre of digital creativity, and it being a Nathan Barley reference.

This is the space where Shooting People was born in 1998, and it’s right in between the dotcom crash of 2000 and the founding of Facebook and YouTube in 2004 that Shooting People decided to convert from free email list run by volunteer labour, to a sustainable business.

Driving this is Cath le Couteur, who was part of the UK’s first internet cafe, which started in 1994, the women-run Cyberia. She worked at the BBC as an imagineer, while finishing studies at NFTS as film director. Stu Tily, was part of the brains behind ‘Fax Your MP’ (turning emails to any UK politician into faxes to them) and then CTO of, famous for novelty email addresses. And Jess, then the assistant commissioning editor for Independent Film and Video at Channel 4. Her main broadcast documentary credit was a film about Bruce Lee for the Channel’s Bruce Lee Night.

In 1998, in a pre-GDPR-gambit, Jess and Cath had taken "sixty email addresses that we poached from various places like the New Producers Alliance book and also people that we knew" (ref) and sent them an email.

Jess, Cath and Stu used Mailman (aka, an open source email list manager overseen by the Free Software Foundation's GNU project, that bundles emails received at an address into a single email digest. It lets list moderators accept or reject emails and send messages to those they’re rejecting. There were (and still are) 1000s of such lists, mostly in the tech and academic sector. Cath and Jess decided to launch one for indie UK filmmakers and within a year, they had 4,000 members.

Sculpture from 2001 of a family walking, the front one with a badge that says "I love Hoxton"
Abandoned building in Hoxton with cyan grafiti.

Pitfield Street, Hoxton, CC-BY-NC-ND, Martin Deutsh x

'Another photoshoot in Hoxton', CC-BY-SA, Campbell x

Shooting People culture

I arrived at my first Shooting People meeting at the start of 2002, with Jess, Cath and I think Stu too. We nestled around the long wooden kitchen table of Henrieta, Jess’s mum, in the nicer end of Islington. Jess was living with her mum after a breakup, I was living in the Hackney side of Islington, Cath lived in the middle – the three of us in walking distance. Stu lived between Prague and Brighton. They had a plan to introduce a subscription for the then free daily email.

An important point: just as Jess Search later would often be the star keynote, alongside Beadie, Maxyne or the directors she championed, in the Shooter’s heyday “Jess-and-Cath” was a kind of singular phrase (sometimes also ‘Cath-and-Jess’). Many assumed they were partners, which they weren’t – but they were inseparable, a ‘bromance’ in Cath’s words. Jess produced Cath’s films, they’d founded Shooters together and no Shooters event positioned one of them ahead of the other; they were a pair. Both moderated the email lists and both cooked dinner for the meetings.

Jess dressed mostly monochrome, in crisp Saville Row shirts with tall collars and broad cuffs. She rode an old land rover jeep with canvas sides, and the first to jump out of it would typically be her lurcher Yuri. He was never far away, with the patient/friendly balance that makes cat-people like me, like dogs.

Jess was clearly from a different world. In a media industry filled with fine-polished shades of cool that tried to imitate each other, Jess had shaped her own seemingly simple, sensual-yet-genderless, smart-but-relaxed style that still feels recognisably hers.

Jess, Cath and their circle of friends seemed very different to the older feminist lesbians I’d known around my mum while growing up. They went to Peaches private parties, lived in warehouses, and had a punk-queerness closer to Vice, not Spare Rib magazine.

Look at what I think was the first film Jess and Cath made together - Starched - staring pre-American Detective / Britania / Yellowstone Kelly Reily, a power-play between maid and hotel guest about ironing bed sheets.

There's a tender bizareness that stops something potentially fetishistic from being objectifying; it doesn't try to button up and hide desire, but clearly isn't for a male gaze either.

I sometimes found this confusing - J&C proposed advertising the funding book we brought out together with a cover of sensual lips eating a banana, side-profile – or ‘rollergirls’ handing out copies at a trade fair; photos of slim and suntanned, bikini’d beach bodies lined Jess’s staircase. But the early noughties were this time of multiple between-states, not only post web1/pre-web2. It was post-90s ladism, pre-incel/#MeToo. Web-porn had arrived, but so had the Teaches of Peaches. The arrival of Labour in government in 1997 had equalised the age of consent between straight and gay couples in 2001, and in 2003 repealed the homophobic Section 28 clause. The percentage of British 16-44 year olds thinking same-sex relationships as ‘wrong’ fell from 60% in 1990 to 27% in 2010.

This vibe is very much entangled in Cath and Jess's second film - Spin – nominated for Golden Bear at the Berlinale, and which they shot (if I remember rightly) the same week of Shooting People's relaunch as paid service.

The indie film culture that bubbled at the edges of the 'coffee with 20,000 filmmakers every morning' community that Shooting People built, is against this backdrop of shifting sands.

The soundtrack is the first albums of Peaches, the Streets, Ms Dynamite, Gorillaz, and 2 Many DJs; the breakthru albums of Franz Ferdinand and the Knife. The White Stripes are recording Elephant and the Seven Nation Army in Dalston in 2002. 2003 playlist gets even better - the year starts with the release of The Knife’s Heartbeats and Electric Six’s Danger! High Voltage, then the summer comes with Beyonce’s Crazy in Love and Outkast’s Hey Ya, finishing with the Darkness’s I Believe in a Thing Called Love and Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out.

This is Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry music video box sets by Res Magazine. The Straight8 Short film contest and Cinema 16 DVD series. Raindance and the Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook. Halloween Film Society, Rocliffe Writers Forum and Johnnie Oddball’s 48-Hour Film Challenge.

While some of this early noughties Dalston/Hoxton spirit goes on to become the Nathan Barley cliché – coke-addled plastic-cool trying to get rich or score – some underpins the early web video punk culture. This seemed both less anxious and judgemental than the traditional TV+film world of Soho Square we felt we were rebelling against, and so far from the hard-graft, high-anxiety demands put on YouTube/TikTok/Instagram influencers, with a livelihood dependent on maximising ‘engagement' and 'eyeballs’.

Jess and Cath, glowing, at one of the first Shooting People parties

Web pioneer

Shooting People’s switch to subscription happened right in between the web industry’s crash in 2000, and its rebirth as Web 2.0 from 2004iwh. Shooters’ innovations were neither bridge nor gateway drug to Web 2.0, but afterwards felt a bit like a routemap with several steps, where those who followed seemed to stop at the first street.

The main difference with those who came after: the motivation for Jess and Cath to enclose the free-to-use mailing list wasn’t to build a business or become rich, it was driven by filmmaker solidarity.

Jess and Cath were filmmakers, and helping each other out was how indie filmmakers, on breadcrumb budgets, begging and borrowing from one film to the next, got by. Shooter's culture (influenced by Chris Jones / Genevieve Joliffe's Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook culture before it) was, and remained, ‘by filmmakers, for filmmakers’.

Perhaps because of 'by filmmakers, for filmmakers', none of us really noticed Shooters was introducing a number of quite radical business ideas – as being a business wasn’t the vision. All of us, other than Stu – including the three next main list moderaters after me – were aspiring filmmakers (the moderator of the Casting list an actor, the Screenwriting list - the Script Factory). Helping each of us get our projects done, with the help of a stable salary, was enough of a goal. An added benefit was the social capital from the digital benevolence / filmmaker solidarity – when I came to make my first short fiction film during my second year at Shooters, I was overwhelmed with offers of free kit and help, right down to drink sponsorship for the also free premiere at Curzon Soho (credit also belongs with producer Jane McGee – whose 'coffee with 26,000 filmmakers every morning' quote I overused on Shooters flyers, much to her embarrassment).

Shooting People Productions Ltd, Jess and Cath’s production company, had in 2001 borrowed ~£30k from family and the bank. The plan, following an in-depth survey of list subscribers, was to introduce a charge for posting to the list. Those who paid could post to the list and read it the day it came out; those who didn’t would get the same digests three days later, so it wouldn't exclude those looking for work, training or events. Paid ‘Full’ members could also access a bunch of free resources, discounts, and if they were an actor, have a public profile to get work from (later expanding to all members).

It may not sound very radical, but this subscription model was built around ‘free’ content that Shooting People was moderating, not creating. Jess and Cath demonstrated indirectly, and unintentionally, to an audience of filmmakers and emerging media influencers that you can build a legal and stable business just by facilitating and curating ‘user-generated content’, Web 2.0’s Newspeak for ‘unpaid people’s work’.

Furthermore, they showed you could sustain this business with only a quarter of users paying a subscription, in return for some extra benefits, so you didn't need to gate everything off. This model wouldn’t be named as ‘Freemium’ until 2006, yet has become part of the social media giants revenue models in the last 10 years – Jess and Cath had this in their business plan in 2001.

The Web 2.0 monopolies who began to emerge from 2004 onwards, had found that – like Web 1’s unicorn, Google – you can get rich from content you’ve not created. But rather than using content from the open web like Google, you could gate the content and benefit from the network economics that Kevin Kelly had argued in 1998 exists around networked tech. From the phone to the fax to the first signup on a new social platform, networked tech is expensive but valueless with one user, but cheap and valuable with many. Unlike conventional economic theory – value goes up as scarcity decreases.

Shooting People was just such a network – content created inside the network for the network – and the more users it had, the greater it’s value – the more people who could see your job advert, call for help, technical question or event listing. But this is where the similarity with the Web 2.0 that would follow ends.

The Web 2.0 monopolies of today, got rich by using lock-in and non-portability of your acount. This lock-in has allowed them to not just monetise but gamify and manipulate our desire to communicate and connect with each other, through reinforcement of fight/flight emotions such as rage or fear, and 'purposefully addictive' user experiences, all to maximise the profit engine of 'engagement'.

Jess and Cath however used an open universal protocol - email. Email lists, and before that Usenet had been the decentralised glue for the earliest Internet communities, and Jess and Cath brought that to a non-ICT crowd. With the relaunch we skinned the email list to look fresh and modern. Stu then modified Mailman to let mods categorise emails so they could be grouped in the daily digest - Paid Jobs, Q&A, events, Pitches, etc. But unlike Web 2.0 we weren't demanding people use a Shooting People app to read the emails, or stopping them from forwarding the emails to non-members. They could signup to other email lists and read them in the same inbox.

Furthermore, while Web 2.0 sees human moderation as an expensive task that could be replaced by ‘the crowd’ flagging issues, and some keyword/ fingerprint filtering (and now machine-learning/'AI') – human moderation was the centre of what Shooting People did.

Jess and Cath would regularly point out that they were reluctantly introducing a charge because they needed to find a way to pay moderators. They wanted their evenings back, after a long day at the BBC and C4. Not having moderators or not paying them was never considered for a moment, so instead they needed a way to justify charging people for subscribing to a free (and easily forwarded) email.

Out of the stability a regular income brought came a community and culture which published books, threw big events, expanded to America, created a streaming platform, and eventually released and distributed documentaries, before Jess stepped back to focus on BritDoc.

Shooting People might have just been a network of indie and struggling filmmakers, writers, cast and crew – but as campire for a community of trans-Atlantic English-language media makers, they had soft influence across a spectrum of old media, as well as those on the up.

Jess Search
Reverse of Shooting People flyer. It reads "It's a bit like having a great 10 minute discussion every morning over coffee with everyone in the independent film community… all 26,000 of them"
  • 1993

    CERN makes web free

  • 1998

    Shooting People launches

  • 1999

    Netribution launches

  • 2000

    Dotcom crash

  • 2002

    Shooting People launches paid subscription

  • 2003

    MySpace launches

  • 2004

    Facebook launches

  • 2005

    YouTube launches

  • 2006

    Twitter launches

  • 2007

    iPhone, Netflix streaming & BBC iPlayer launches

  • 2008

    Spotify launches

  • 2009

    WhatsApp launches

  • 2010

    Instagram launches

  • 2014

    YouTube Premium launches

  • 2016

    TikTok launches

  • 2017

    Mastodon launches

To recap, Jess and Caths' plan for Shooting People demonstrated:

  • A new type of web business built around freely licensed ‘user-created content’, beyond web 1’s Search and Hosting/GeoCities-type businesses. Shooters’ product was not its own content, but the curation, moderation and categorisation of other people's content, within a closed community.
    This is the heart of Web 2.0.
  • You can build this business from premium subscriptions (aka Fremium) where users get value for free, but more value if they pay. Since the successful launch of ad-free YouTube Premium in November 2014, all the web titans have offered freemium subscriptions: Twitter/X Blue, Meta Verified, Snapchat+, Tumblr Ad-free, TikTok Lemon8, etc. It seems Musk's gamble in buying the already loss-making Twitter was largely about believing he could make paid subs work.
    This is a major part of Web 2.0 since 2014.
  • You can do this on an open protocol (email), with an open source tool (GNU Mailman). Lock-in and patented tech are not required. What’s unique is your brand (which Jess and Cath worked really hard on), culture, and the quality of your curation. Web 2.0 ignored open protocols, but it's the heart of the push to protocol-based social networking, aka the ‘fediverse’ of the W3C’s Activity Pub (aka Mastodon, Pixelfed, Lemmy, PeerTube, etc), BlueSky's AT, Matrix, Scuttlebut and others.
    This is the post 2018 'Fediverse' web, offering an alternative to the social web monopolies.
  • You can’t avoid paid and professional human moderation. Paid moderators who can apply the same posting guidelines to all content, not letting the crowd (aka privileged, ‘time-rich’ / privately-funded) dictate what is and isn’t problematic. Web 2.0 also ignored this and continues to try to automate / crowd-delegate moderation, even in the aftermath of genocide in Myanmar or countless dead from Covid disinformation.
    No-one's doing this yet at scale.


Back to Henrietta’s kitchen table and my first Shooting People meeting, as we discussed how to turn a community of 10,000 non-paying and empassioned subscribers into a stable income.

We’d met a few times before - most notably in 2000 when an idea had formed to merge Shooting People, the New Producers Alliance (a since closed producer’s guild for indies) and Netribution (which I’d founded with Tom Fogg and Wendy Bevan Mogg in 1999) into one large entity to get Film Council (the precursor to BFI Funding) support. Getting Film Council support was a regular discussion in those days after the Dotcom crash had finished off all online support for filmmakers in the UK, other than SP and Netribution.

Netribution owed its existence to Shooting People in a way, as it was conversations in the bar at their first birthday party in November 1999 at Hoxton Square’s Lux Cinema – where Mike Figgis demonstrated his ‘fig rig’ for handheld DV camera operation – that I’d discovered how much interest there was for a new filmmaker website. Back then there was Nick Walker's Six Degrees, which published monthly and was really slick, and Shooting People, which was only in email, published seven days a week, and felt like a typewritten zine stapled onto a community noticeboard each morning. We launched two months later – our first news story was about the merger of Time Warner and AOL and two months after that Tom and I quit university off the back of some half-cooked promises of millions in funding. The dotcom crash came a few weeks later, and we lasted for almost another two years. In the final days, a ‘what are you doing next?’ call with Jess led to a coffee with Cath, and a new job as Shooter’s first hire just after they'd secured their loans. After two years of unfunded startup-poverty I was over the moon.

Jess cooked dinner, as she and Cath always did at these weekly, then fortnightly, meetings – normally stuffed tortelini and jarred pesto, with garlic baguette and salad. Simple but always tastier than I when I made it at home. They’d already made the business plan, Stu was doing the coding, another designer was creating the site layouts – so my job was to take over moderating the list, implement the designs as a working site in HTML, write some content, design flyers and help plan the launch. The main challenge was how to deal with the list members who would likely be upset and vocal at the introduction of charges.

As well as a special time culturally, 2002 was a turning point for indie film, nestled between the birth of cinema-standard digital video and the launch of YouTube. Mike Figgis, Oscar winner for Leaving Las Vegas and first patron of Shooting People – had released in 2000 Timecode, shot not just on DV, but exploiting the technology, shot in one take, four times. For the first time, using an affordable video camera, editing on a computer and getting the film in a cinema was a possibility. This removed the huge costs of shooting, editing, processing, printing and replicating film, which had long been the barrier to entry for the masses.

Shooting People were moving to a paid model just as the DV indie filmmaking revolution was starting to explode. Filmmakers were used to spending much of their money on kit and shoots, no matter how poor, so being connected to people who could help you choose between Premiere and Final Cut Pro, or a Canon XL1 and Sony PD150, solve technical problems, and cast and crew, was valuable. The cost was one thousandth the budget of a Film Council funded short film.

The approach was to emphasise how the move to subscription was coming out of necessity; Jess and Cath couldn’t keep moderating for free seven days a week, and the Film Council had said no. A paid model would allow for other improvements and a bunch of free legal and advice resources after login. We also would:

  • not deprive Part members from the email list or events;
  • offer some of the more active and loyal community-minded members free lifetime memberships,
  • be liberal with giving out free memberships or publicity to organisations who gave more than they got from the list or whose work was important.

As I took over moderation after that first meeting, I began to learn how short-tempered people could get when they disagreed with moderation discussions. Often half or more of our weekly meetings was just discussing the weekly list dramas, and moderation/tech changes this might need.

Hoxton Square full of people, CC-BY-NC by Stowe Boyd

Hoxton Square, CC-BY-NC, Stowe Boyd

Screengrab of Netribution Issue 47, first week of 2001
The Fig Rig - by Mike Figgis

The Fig Rig, designed by Mike Figgis.

Year two

But much to our relief, after the service relaunched in May 2002 around a quarter of the ~20,000 email list subscribers agreed to pay the £20 a year. Employee #2 George Graham arrived in the autumn, he was of course also living in Islington/Hackney.

At our first Away Day that Christmas in Brighton, working from the sea-front flat of Stu Tily, Jess, Cath, Stu, George and I brainstormed goals for the year ahead. Small things like expanding the casting profiles to all members became a bigger vision to become Britain's Sundance for indie film – supporting, distributing, exhibiting film. We headed to Brighton's amusement arcade, bubbling with excitement and potential.

Things went from strength-to-strength. By the end of year two there were around around 40,000 subscribers, with still a quarter paying. The loan was repaid, more staff could be taken on board, and Shooting People was financially stable, without needing a VC (continuing to this day on largely the same model). New email lists were launched; a dedicated casting email list, a script pitch list, and a documentary list, initially moderated by Andy Glyne of the Documentary Filmmakers Group.

We finally got Film Council funding. Henrietta Search had written government funding applications through her work at Marie Stopes International and walked Jess and I through deciphering the applications' language one Sunday round her kitchen table. It was the first government grant I think either of us had applied for, but Jess's mum's advice on how to get into the headspace of the person grading the application, and being explicit about clear goals, targets and deliverables, stayed with me long after.

We got ready to self-publish the film funding book, that had started as the funding section of Netribution, before I'd been offered a tiny advance to turn it into a book for Focal Press. When Netribution had closed, Jess and Cath offered to treble the advance, give me half the profits and offer it to their members for near half the price.

As the publication date pre-Cannes 2003 grew nearer I became ever-more anxious. My two previous books were media business books for execs paying £500+ and it seemed far easier to write corporate-speak to people who’d skim-read the executive summary over lunch, than those who’d take to the Shooters lists to flame every mistake. 

In a sadly long-since gentrified pub on the edge of Dalston, Jess put my fears to rest over beer and darts. The Perseverance was an old-school East End pub that still smelt part-cat, part-Krays, and where every evening after sundown, an old woman would arrive with a basket of cockles in polystyrene pots to sell.

Jess didn’t seem to mind about the details that were troubling me; instead we focussed on something that could be included in a press release. She wanted to have a specific number for the size of a film budget and give it a name - we went with 'micro-budget' - that could be associated with Shooting People.

This was a time where a few tiny budget digital films like Blair Witch Project and Open Water had made their budgets back over hundred-fold and she wanted to clarify this is as a new type of feature filmmaking below low-budget. It said something about her that her priority wasn’t typos (tho she somehow found time to, with others, proof-read the book) but instead to have something headline-worthy associated with the book's release.

Her instinct here was spot on. Within a few months of the book's publication, Gill Henderson at Film London approached asking for some consultancy as they were now considering creating a new fund for 100% financed micro-budget features, later called Microwave.

When it came to the cover we wanted something yellow – I’d been designing the Shooting People publicity materials since the relaunch and the brand could be anything provided it contained 'Shooters Yellow': a fried egg, a rubber duck, a hoody, some graffiti, a plastic toy. (I still remember the horror in getting the shade wrong in a print order, with some greenish ducks). So what about a banana, for finance is the food of guerrilla filmmakers? (Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe's Guerrilla Filmmakers Handbook was at that point the top book for indie filmmakers worldwide by a long shot).

We brainstormed how to launch it at the Production Show in Earls Court, where we had a free stand in return for list promotion, and decided to give out free bananas. Jess and Cath went to Cannes with Spin, leading to Cath getting accepted in the Cannes Cinefondation programmeThe rest of us: George and one of Jess’s friends and photographer for Shooting People parties, Jet (also Hoxton/Dalston) – went to Olympia for the Production Show, with three crates of bananas and boxes of books to sell.

No-one flamed the book on the daily digest, the bananas were a hit compared to the sugary snacks most stands were handing out, and the first 2,000 copies were gone in six months. Few people querried the covers ('just look at it!'), and it became 'the banana book'.

Then the unforgettable experience of launching Shooting People in New York, a tight-knit gang with Jess, George and the NYC list-moderator, moving between lunch at a diner with Lucy Walker (Jess’s university best friend) to meeting the heads of the indie film powerhouses, while Mike Myers lurked in the background, to a launch party with Rooftop Films in Manhattan with Cath, and a photoshoot in Brooklyn for a double page spread in Res Mag. It was far from my previous two years of web startup life, sleeping-bag on the floor of the office in Clerkenwell to avoid the two hours journey home to Wembley.

At the time I thought the buzz and open door culture was New York, but years later I realise it was Jess. She was like a celebrity who had no interest in being famous. She was herself, but radiated stardom, and everyone gravitated around her. Doors opened because she was there.

The Shooting People home page, late 2004
Flyer for the Shooting People book Get Your Film Funded
Shooting People NYC Flyer reverse
The three wizened monkeys - Simon Tzu, Ben Blaine and Nic Wistreich

Still with hair, besides Simon Tzu (left) and Ben Blaine (centre), two list-members-turned-moderators, in Hoxton Square for the launch of the Shooting People T-Shirt 2003 or 2004.

Year three (2004)

I don't remember much of the second Christmas away day other than slowing subscriber growth leading Jess to announce that the goal for the next year would be to 'make more money from existing members'. 'British Sundance' wasn't mentioned.

My mental health was worsening on a number of fronts. Dropping me home one week in the jeep after the meeting (one of Jess's many blessed qualities was always dropping George and I home after meetings, even tho we lived nearby) she suggested I ‘butch it out’. But I couldn’t. The next year was a rollercoaster.

To get out of my bedsit I asked for an office and Jess converted her spare room into one. By now she’d left her mum’s and was living in a stylish concrete high-rise overlooking Bethnal Green, designed by National Theatre architect Dennis Lasdun. Like much I associate with Jess, it was a taste of a different world, which soon became normalised.

I felt like I spent more time in her home than she did – she was now Commissioning Editor for Independent Film & Video at Channel 4 and home late. Her after-work energy never slowed: she’d move from planning a 1500 person party at the Scala for Shooting People, to reviewing pitches and first cuts, to DJing at a friend’s birthday, to cooking dinner. I never saw her tired and continued to get an invaluable insight into the world of TV commissioning editors: the fury and chaos at Channel 4 when they’d adopted an open plan office, or the spritely response of Mark Thomas (then C4 CEO) to the resignation of Greg Dyke as BBC Director General, knowing he was favourite as next in line.

The last action point she gave me at maybe my last Shooters meeting was to (paraphrasing) 'go research and find a clever online address book that we can use to manage our contacts and send invites, emails and press release to sub-groups of them'. We didn't know of CRMs then – CiviCRM which I've spent the last 14 years learning, wasn't released until the following year – but Jess's instinct was 'something must exist for this'. She could always see around two corners ahead.

One of my last memories is Jess returning home after holiday in 2004, where a week on the beach had helped her clear her head and she’d decided two things. She wanted to bring out her own book on making documentaries; and wanted to see if Channel 4 would fund a documentary organisation to replace her department, Independent Film and Video, which they wanted to close. Which, they did.

Shooting People flyer
Get your documentary funded book cover

The cover of Jess's Documentary book, featuring Albert Masyle's glasses, which she somehow had been given.


A few years before they were axed in 2010, an executive from the Film Council asked me, straight-faced, ‘do you want to be outside the tent pissing in, or inside the tent pissing out?’.

I wonder if this is why I found it so hard at first to write of my sadness, shock –and deep, loving memories– after the death of Jess? At Netribution, Tom and I had been standing outside the tent for years - at our demise, getting 100 Netribution readers to write to the Film Council CEO asking them to support us (I was eventually invited into their office for a meeting, the purpose of which was only to ask us to stop sending the CEO emails). But Jess had another tent and it was wonderful to be in it, just as it was also difficult to stand outside it in the first years afterwards.

The challenge was that Jess’s tent was more a collective of ‘tent pissing in-ers’  than ‘out-ers’. She was always committed to tackling power, pomp, ego and injustice where she saw it, and this only increased with time. The time of my life from leaving Jess' tent in 2004 feels a bit of a crashed spaceship of ego and promise that marouned me for some time after.

But as I moved on (helped by getting back to work, relaunching Netribution and bringing out more Funding Books) my feelings were replaced with respect and awe. Watching her go from strength to strength, reporting on it here sometimes, it didn't feel like there was a limit to what she could do. That's why I didn't believe illness could hold her back.

So that’s my facet (™June Satya Watkins).

But with all that said she seemed to make it clear she didn't want to be mourned, quoting Marcus Aurelius on "a disposition glad of whatever comes". In her final weeks she "continued to send late-night voice memos, order rounds of margaritas, and bring together an amalgam of global comrades around the shared mission of vital system-shifting narrative work to change the world for the better".

Most importantly perhaps, she left a to do list: “to deal with the climate crisis and realise a just transition, the world needs more democracy”.

Her last mass email ended with these words by the poet-ecologist Gary Snyder, which seem worth repeating:

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

Thanks for everything Jess.

Portrait of Jess Search, out of focus
Portrait of Jess Search