Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Broader Horizons for Short Film Distribution

I’ve met a lot of new and aspiring filmmakers in the past several years, and one thing I’ve noticed is a particular drive in many of them to jump with both feet into feature filmmaking. There are a few (very few, in fact) that due to past experiences and a passion for learning through reading and observation are able to jump into directing or producing their first feature film without the trail and error of making some short films first (though, most eventually recognize having had more experience wouldn’t have hurt either).

Now there are many reason such filmmakers list for not wanting to “waste their time” with short films. But in this entry, I want to address one particular myth that exists in some indie film circles. There’s this idea floating out there that “there is no market for short films.”

No Market for Shorts? More Like, No Market for Crappy First Features.

First of all, I want to point to any first-time filmmakers reading this blog that there’s much more of a market for well made short films than there are for first feature films that fall far short of the mark of excellence. Allow me to quote a book I’m currently reading, The Reel Truth by Reed Martin:

“Indeed, getting accepted to Sundance remains an incredible long shot, something filmmakers often choose not to acknowledge. For 2009, there were more than 3,600 feature films submitted to the festival--up from 2,600 in 2005--with only the same 120 accepted in dramatic competition, a 3.3 percent acceptance rate that is far tougher than the acceptance rates at Harvard (7.1 percent), Princeton (7.8 percent), Yale (8.3 percent), Columbia (8.7 percent), or Stanford (9.5 percent).” *

Now, consider the potential mistakes a first time director makes on that first project or two (and believe me, I know them well; I’ve made all those mistakes and then some more). In other words, unless your feature film really stands out (and there’s really only a couple of ways of standing out these days: an amazing and well told story, or big names in your cast), the chances that it will be premiering at Sundance are, well ... virtually non-existent. However, there are still many filmmakers out there every year scrapping together a few thousand dollars and shooting their digital indie feature hoping it will be the next Primer, or Pi, or El Mariachi. What these blindly hopeful filmmakers (and I was once one of them) fail to realize is that the indie film world, and Sundance specifically, has changed dramatically since Primer made it’s splash there. Not only that, but such movies are the exception. They are long shots to say the least. Feature filmmaking is already such a high risk investment of time and money and energy, that adding to that the need for your film to be an exception to a rule is asking for disaster.

So, if you’re worried that your going to waste your time making a short film or two because there’s no market for short film, let me point out that there is in fact no market for poorly made first features. Sure, you’ll learn a lot making that first feature, but the amount of time, money, and energy invested in that one project that’s all too likely to never see more than rejection slips from major festivals and a humble premiere at small festival or local screening may not end up being worth it. Sure, you may think it’s worth it, but your producer, investors, cast members, crew members--all people who sacrificed immensely to help make your dream come true, may come to think that in hind sight it wasn’t worth it. Good luck working with them again.

Add to that the fact that distribution companies are inundated every year with first feature films seeking a distribution deal. Many good indie features are not finding distribution. So, you owe it to yourself and all the people that may work with you on your first feature film to stop and ask yourself, “what separates my first feature film from all these other films that fail to find distribution every year?” And be really honest with yourself. Who knows, the answer may still be a good one and you may still find that it’s worth proceeding. But it’s always best to really stop and educate yourself about the industry and honestly asses your chances of breaking in. Let’s face it, the deck is stacked against us starting out. Making big rash decisions can be fatal to your career while it’s still in gestation.

New Markets for Short Films.

When someone tells me that they don’t want to make a short film to gain more experience because once they’re done with it they wouldn’t have anything to do with it because there is no market for short films, I want to scream, “Bullshit! Thank you for clearly demonstrating how little you know about indie filmmaking!”

First of all, and I’ve written about this before, even if you make a short film and it just becomes a learning experience that you never show anyone else because you’re too embarrassed by it, at least you took a project from concept to completion now. That’s invaluable experience. And, think of it, if you have a short film you’re embarrassed to show anyone (and I have a few of those), that could have been your first feature right there that you struggled to make only to end up being ashamed of its existence.

But, that’s not what this blog entry is about. No, this is about markets for short films. With the Internet and television merging into a new single entity, short content readily available on the web is growing in demand. With the quality of equipment available to the aspiring filmmakers, the standard for content generated by new filmmakers is also improving. This means more people are willing to take a chance on watching an indie film if they think it will entertaining and polished.

Now, I’d like to speak from experience here. Just this week, my short film, “Cold October,” was released on DVD and Video on Demand on Now, Indieflix, as a rule, seeks films that have been accepted to at least one film festival. However, they clearly state on their submission form that they will still consider films that may not yet have made it into a festival. So, it didn’t hurt that “Cold October” has played at several festivals and was honored with the Best Screenplay award at the 2009 Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia. But honestly, it seems to me that if you made a good enough short, Indieflix would still accept it for distribution. But really, chances are that if you made a short film good enough for Indieflix to distribute, than it’s bound to get into some festivals out there. Just keep scrapping the cash together and submitting.

To see what the “Cold October” distribution page on Indieflix looks like, check out:

One thing that attracted me to Indieflix is their non-exclusive contract for distribution as well as their net-profit percentage they keep verses what goes back to the filmmakers. They do a 30-70 split of the net profit generated by a film. They keep a 30 percent fee, and 70 percent goes back to the filmmaker. They track the sale of DVDs and VOD (video on demand) streaming payments, deduct expenses involved with DVD creation and shipping, and calculate net profit. Under this model, the filmmaker actually stands a chance of recovering some, if not all, of the money invested in making his or her short film. On top of that, it’s a non-exclusive deal, so the filmmaker is free to seek out other avenues of distribution in tandem with Indieflix.

Another opportunity that drew me to Indieflix is the possibility of gaining exposure for “Cold October” on Hulu. We are seeking to go forward with distribution on Hulu, but as of this time we are still working on the details of that branch of distribution through Indieiflix. Maybe, once that has gone through I may have more to report about that here. However, the point remains that VOD on sites like Indieflix and Hulu is a growing means for filmmakers to find an audience for their short films. There are also a whole lot of other new websites out there focused on distribution for short films and webisodes, many with means to generate income from the content you are creating.

More opportunities are bound to open up in the near future as places like iTunes and other online video providers continue to look for new content to present to their customers. There are already distribution companies focused on gaining exposure for indie films, shorts and features, on places like iTunes, Netflix, AmazonVOD, as well as print-on-demand style DVD sales.

But be careful to do your research before signing on with just anyone to distribute your short film. There are some places out there that charge fees for setting up the distribution. Places like Indieflix, that require no money upfront but only make a profit when your film actually make sales, seem like a much better idea to me. So, be sure to read up on what you're agreeing to before you jump in.

A while back, Raz Cunningham (who has his own film blog worth checking out) passed along to me a list of possible distribution companies for short films. Here's that list:

Shorts International
Fans of Film
Ingroves Pure Digital Media
So there you have it. There is a real market and demand for short films. Think about it, you can make a short film which affords you some great opportunities: First, you gain valuable experience in the craft and business of taking a project from concept to script to set to editing suit to distribution. This experience will be invaluable! Second, you actually stand a chance of recovering the money invested in making such a short film, which shouldn’t be more than $30,000, and honestly should be made for a fraction of that cost if you know what you’re doing and can work with people on deferred payment (which if you show them these distribution possibilities they may be more open to). And third, when you’re ready to make a feature film, you are able to show potential investors that you know something about taking a film from start to finish and that you can market your idea in order to reach your audience.

Now, start brainstorming. What do you want to tell the world in 10 to 30 minutes? And if you feel like supporting this particular indie filmmaker, pick up a copy of "Cold October" on DVD or stream it on the web. My cast, crew, and I certainly appreciate the support!

End Notes:

* The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn't Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film by Reed Martain. Faber and Faber, Inc. New York, NY. Published 2009. Page 33.

For more Info on the short films Mikel J. Wisler has made, see:


Mikel J. Wisler said...

I had a comment from David Ellis, which I accidentally deleted (while I was dealing with some spam). Sorry, David. I'll it post here.

David asked me, "So, have you made any $$ yet?"

I know of several sales of "Cold October" on DVD so far. But, seeing as the film was released on Indieflix just this past Tuesday, January 12th, I haven't gotten a check yet. However, we fully expect to be receiving our cut of the film's profits from these and future sales. We are also hopeful for more exposure through Hulu in the future as well. The big trick is to get creative about marketing your short film. Cause it can be available everywhere, but if no one knows about it, then it'll never sell at all.

I can certainly post more in the future about this as we asses the success of this type of distribution. But it certainly seems to me that if one can (1) make a great short film people like and (2) market that short film effectively, one can make some money. Now mind you, this is no means to get rich. But it is a means to recover some or all of the money invested in making a short film, and hopefully allow one to cut some deferred payment checks to crew and cast.

Mikel J. Wisler said...

Further evidence of the market for short films ...

I just learned that Canadian cable station, Movieola, has purchased the rights to air "Cold October" some time later this year. This sale was brokered by Ouat Media, which represents "Cold October" for international TV sales.

Since this deal is a very fresh thing, no further details are available at this time as to when the film will be shown or the exact amount Movieola has paid. All the same, I'm honored and excited and proud of this short film and my cast and crew!