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The Time is Now to Make a Short Film

The Time is Now to Make a Short Film

Articles - Directing

"SHORT SUBJECTS," AS THEY
were once known, have made a powerful comeback, and for indie moviemakers
the trend is getting harder to ignore. Not only are shorts gaining
acceptance as a unique art form, commercial possibilities for shorts
are better than they’ve been in decades.  Cable television networks
are increasingly receptive to the short form, new film festivals
devoted entirely to shorts are springing up. What’s more, DVD is
a potentially large market and various internet sites are fast
emerging as viable short film outlets [See "Marketing on the
Internet," this issue, pg. 82 ed.] More exposure means more
potential for profit, and just this year several distributors have
surfaced who specialize in the promotion of short films. It’s literally
been generations since makers of shorts have had this much support.
And many filmmakers who would previously have waited until their
budgets were "feature fat" are now considering the short
format, as well. Shorts still serve their traditional purposes,
of course. They’re great calling cards, learning tools, and testing
grounds for ideas and techniques. But for movie­makers who have
just made, or are thinking of making a short, aspirations are usually
higher. They want their work to get seen, but these days they also
want them to generate a bit of cash. Toward that end, the following
is a brief primer on short film marketing.

YOU WON’T GET RICH BY making shorts. Not yet, anyway.
While cable channels and distributors are notori­ously tight-lipped
about amounts they’re paying and amounts the films are generating,
with rare exceptions the range seems to be between $5,000 and $50,000
during the film’s commercial lifespan (which can be as long as
five years, though the highest royalties will likely come early
in the distribution phase). Still, because shorts are so comparatively
cheap to make, those amounts are not insignificant. As more moviemakers,
including some who have Academy Awards to their credit, turn to
shorts, the competition promises to get increasingly fierce. Making
the film takes guts but, as always, that’s only half the battle.
The glory comes in being able to crack the market.

AtomFilms

If you’ve ever tried to self-market a movie of any
kind, you know how time-consuming and expensive the process is.
Not only is it dif­ficult to find and submit to hundreds of potential
buyers worldwide, it’s very costly to even make the calls and send
the tapes. What dis­tributors have that you probably don’t are
connections and time. They know who’s acquiring shorts, what their
tastes are, and how to posi­tion the product so that it gets noticed.
Perhaps most importantly, they have ongoing relationships with
buyers-and they get their phone calls returned.

If you’re working with a distributor of short films,
like AtomFilms, Apollo Cinema, Forefront Films or Big Film Shorts,
you can expect them to devise a marketing strategy aimed at the
usual suspects-cable and network television, airlines, colleges,
broadband, etc. What you may not know is that they’ll also work
to get you exposure over the internet, put together a promotional
package including synopsis, bios, and pro­duction stills, and will
often help with a festival strategy. A typical path for a high-quality
short might go like this: First, major national and international
cable channels (Sundance, Bravo, Encore, IFM, Canal Plus, Channel
4, The Independent Film Channel, Bravo, the newly launched Short
TV, BBC, etc.), which will expect an exclusive license on the film
for a period of one to three years. Simultaneously, your film can
be broadcast on the internet and, in some cases, the cable channel
will allow you to license the film to a venue such as an airline.
Companies also license short films for video and DVD compilations
(Short Cinema Journal by Polygram is a leader), or sell them to
various other secondary exhibition venues. Essentially, you can
expect these distributors to work to sell your short and have it
shown anywhere possible, worldwide. After the first license expires,
the distributor can then take your film to regional programmers,
where the contracts are typically not exclusive.

Big Film Shorts

These companies are in business to sell short films,
and they have a vested interest in seeing that your film makes
money. If you’ve sub­mitted a copy of your short to a distributor,
and it believes the film has potential in the marketplace, the
distributor will attempt to acquire it. Sometimes it will even
pay an up-front sum for acquisi­tion. Most commonly, though, there
is no advance; as with many feature distribution deals, the moviemaker
is paid a percentage of the royalties from sales the distributor
makes.  AtomFilms has added a new twist with their "Artists’
Fund" that grants stock options to their moviemakers and gives
them a stake in the entire company.

If you’re about to begin the hunt for a distributor
for your short, do your homework. Familiarize yourself with the
outlets each typ­ically sells to. Can you name some of the films
they’ve acquired? Does yours fit the bill? Be sure you have a clear
idea of the aes­thetics you need to achieve to succeed in the marketplace.
Short film distributors and the buyers are very selective, so the
more infor­mation you have, the better prepared you’ll be. Watch
the Sundance Channel, IFC and ShortTV so you’ll know if your short
film will be suitable for a particular outlet. This will also help
you understand the marketing strategy your distributor develops,
and will help you make an intelligent assessment of sources of
royalties.

The four major short distributors mentioned above
are beginning to carve out niches for themselves. Forefront Films
has been licensing shorts since 1992, and as such was the first
American company to spe­cialize in licensing shorts around the
world. Forefront generally acquires 15 shorts a year and currently
has close to 120 in its library. Its "goal in representing
short films is twofold-to promote and license shorts for sales
around the world, and to develop relationships with talented film
makers to produce feature films, and to manage their careers," says
Harold Warren, president of Forefront. In 1997, it produced its
first feature film, Relax, It’s Just Sex.

Apollo Cinema

Forefront Films began to focus on
shorts because of the sheer quality and the bulk of material available.
They take pride in discovering tal­ented, up-and-coming directors.
Some of their filmmakers include Mark Christopher (Miramax’s 54),
Alex Sichel (Fine Line’s All Over Me), Chris Eyre (Miramax’s Smoke
Signals
) and Lisa Cholodenko (October’s High Art). They
boast a long list of festival award winners. 

Megan O’Neill, vice president of sales, said, "Most
short filmmakers have no idea that they can receive thousands of
dollars over time for their work." To achieve this, Forefront
markets films to 55 broadcasters around the world, including North
America, Australia, Europe and Asia. They also license shorts to
DVD and video compilations, air­lines, education markets and occasionally
to theaters. Traditionally, the bulk of revenue for a short film
comes from television distribution.  This is starting to change
with emerging markets such as DVD’s, and will shift further when
the internet becomes a source of revenue for filmmakers.

Forefront works with its filmmakers to ensure they’re
informed about distribution, and helps each plan a festival strategy.
The company prides itself on being selective, but it will look
at any film under 30 minutes. If it believes in a film strongly,
it will also assist with clearance issues when necessary. To submit
your film, email to: forefront-films@sprintmail.
com

AtomFilms burst onto the short film
dis­tribution scene on March 1 of this year and already occupies
a unique position between the online and offline worlds. Mika Salmi’s
decision to launch AtomFilms is rooted in his love of short AtomFilms
and a desire to work with film­makers. This affection for the medium,
combined with his strong internet back­ground, has helped build
a company committed to bringing the best in short entertainment
to every conceivable audi­ence. AtomFilms uses the internet to
get wide exposure for its works and is trying hard to get short
films to mainstream theaters by using the traditional media to
increase consumer awareness about enormous body of entertaining
work that exists. It distributes shorts across a broad range of
media, including television, the internet, broadband services,
home entertainment companies and airlines. Its website offers a
proprietary catalog of short films and animations. Atom’s distribution
partners include HBO, @Home, Go Network/Infoseek, Sundance Channel,
Warner Bros. Online, Continental Airlines, Air Canada, RealNetworks,
Reel.com, Mr. Showbiz, Broadcast DVD, Film.com, College Broadcast
Network, Air New Zealand and SonicNet. It also works with film
organiza­tions to make its content more widely accessible, including
the American Film Institute, the Australian Film Commission and
the Norwegian Film Institute.

Atom’s belief in the internet stems from Mika Salmi’s
belief that fans of short and independent film tend to be a widely
dis­persed population, and the internet is the one medium that
allows this audience access to material that traditional channels
haven’t. Salmi thinks consumer tastes in general are shifting to
more independent, thought-pro­voking films. Because the marketplace
offers no clear model for this approach, Salmi knows he’s taking
a big risk with AtomFilms. He also knows he’ll be OK as long as
his company continues to be as cre­ative as its filmmakers.

AtomFilms

Initially, Atom solicited films, but it now receives
hundreds of submissions per month. Its titles are diverse, distinguished,
and growing, and include Academy Award nom­inees, Hollywood stars,
festival favorites, and animations of every genre and style. It
now has four acquisitions executives who screen submissions and
scour the festivals. The acquisitions team works closely with the
marketing team when consid­ering a movie.  Decisions are  based
on overall quality and the film’s market­place potential. If the
company rejects your film, it will still send a letter of explanation
with details.  It also keeps track of submissions in the event
that a future opportunity develops for the film. A note of caution-clearances
are key. You need to have releases for actors, contracts for music
rights, and clearance rights for product placement. As opportunities
for short films increase and the stakes get higher, so does the
risk of legal action for buyers who air shorts that aren’t properly
cleared.

Motivated by a strong desire to give back to the
artist, the company recently estab­lished the AtomFilms Artist
Fund, designed to give AtomFilms’ artists a stake in the company
and provide incentives for continued working relationships. This
is a broad-based stock option program designed to build a solid
community of filmmakers and to demonstrate Atoms’ support for the
artists. The idea for this program came from Salmi’s experience
in the music industry, where too often he saw artists getting the
short end of the stick. His goal is to make filmmakers feel like
they’re a part of the company’s effort and give everyone a stake
in the business.  Atom also puts a strong emphasis on communication
and a desire to work closely with its filmmakers. It encourages
its filmmakers to communicate openly and provides quarterly updates
on the sales figures.

Big Film Shorts has been in the
business of distributing films for two years. While working in
production, it saw a lot of great short material and had a suspi­cion
that short film would take off as new technology began playing
a bigger role. David Russell, one of the partners at Big Film Shorts,
sees short films as "great gems of truth and enjoyment." As
a company it tries bringing that same sense to the general public.

Apollo Cinema

Like AtomFilms and Forefront, Big Film Shorts distributes
to cable, nationally and internationally, as well as regional shorts
programs and airlines, and via video and DVD compilations. BFS
also exhibits short films and accepts submissions on its website, www.bigfilmshorts.com.
They now receives about three submissions per day and reviews all
the films they receive, acquiring only a small percentage. Big
Film Shorts also scours film festivals in search of new material.
Their cri­teria is much the same as AtomFilms. First, does the
film work as a great short? And is there a market for it? BFS will
acquire films that range from the most experimental to the most
mainstream, in drama, comedy, gay or animation, and shot on film
or video. They will not consider acquiring shorts that are bogged
down with clearance issues.

The other recent entrant into the distribution arena
is Apollo Cinema, formed by former acquisitions
executive and MovieCorp President Carol Crowe in July of 1998 "in
response to the burgeoning global marketplace for the short film
genre." Apollo, which makes Apollo Cinema the worldwide sales
of shorts its exclusive business, seems to be an aggressive advocate
of short film­makers, and counts commercial director Spike Jones
and student Academy Award winner Chris Sheridan among its clients.
In April, Apollo sold The Robber, the first short ever to
appear on HBO’s Cinemax. It has also formed important ties to distributors
abroad, and negotiated the first television sales agreement for
a foreign short film on Japanese television. Contact apollocinema@earthlink.net.

Once you’ve turned your film over to a dis­tributor,
be sure to stay involved. It’s tempting to just sit back and let
royalties pour (or trickle) in, but it’s best to check in with
your distributor from time to time. Being obnoxious isn’t nec­essary,
but being a bit of a "squeaky wheel" never hurts. Of
course, you may not have the time if you’re busy wading through
offers from studios, agents and managers clamoring to see your
next script. Your job is to make a great film that you’re proud
of. Even if it’s not acquired by a dis­tributor, though, don’t
despair. You can take your film to festivals, post it on the internet,
and submit to programmers on your own. Perhaps your film has some
spark that the distributors didn’t see. Just be realistic about
your expectations and about the sheer quantity and amazing quality
of the work that is out there now-and be sure to keep trying. MM

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