Short of the Week

The Changing Game of Distribution

Article / March 4, 2013

This year marked an interesting milestone for the Oscar nominated animated short films. For the first time in recent memory, people actually watched them. On January 29th, my Facebook feed blew up with posts about a short film—that’s right, a short film! Disney kicked off a decidedly unusual trend when it released its Oscar-nominated short Paperman online. Soon, others followed suit—Head Over Heels and Adam and Dog hit the internet within the week. Suddenly, an award category usually only visible by a very select few could be seen by the masses.

Then, abruptly, a few days before the big night, the shorts vanished. But, why?

To cut to the chase, Shorts International, the world’s leading distributor of short films who distributes the Oscar nominated shorts in theaters, sent a letter asking the filmmakers to take down their films, citing a desire to preserve the theatrical experience. If you’re interested in all the sundry details, check out Jen Yamto’s piece for Deadline.

But this controversy highlights a bigger issue. When it comes to shorts, the game is changing. Over the past six years, the number of bite-size narratives available online has exploded and opened up new pathways for rising filmmakers. It’s this very influx of readily available digital content that spawned the creation of Short of the Week in the first place. So, why are short distributors—especially Shorts International—so damn scared to allow those high-profile shorts a free online release?

On the surface, the answer is simple—money. For instance, Shorts International is paying the filmmakers in exchange for the rights to distribute their movies in theaters and other avenues (On Demand, iTunes, etc.), so it doesn’t seem fair to simply release their product for free, right? Well, I’d argue that things are a bit more complicated than that. Having been to a lot of smaller festivals lately, it seems that so many short filmmakers are hung up on the idea of distribution as the end-all be-all—the glorious pot of gold at the end of the short filmmaking rainbow. I mean, if you can get distribution, you’re all set!

Yet, if you were to ask your average short filmmaker what distribution entails, most couldn’t answer you and others would be extremely light on details. So, what is it like? Most importantly, is it really even worth it? After all, doesn’t releasing your film online for free potentially expose you to the widest audience imaginable? 2012′s influx of short sci-fi films proved that amazing things can happen if you just get your film out there to the free internet audience.

Well, at Short of the Week, we figured the best way to provide transparency to the shorts distribution process was to talk to filmmakers who actually had their shorts get distribution deals. Simple, right?

Let’s Make a Deal

Vicky Mather’s live-action stop-motion short, Stanley Pickle, cleaned up at festivals from 2010 to 2011. After a screening at the 2011 Hollyshorts festival, she was approached by Shorts International about potential distribution. Since Vicky was nearing the end of her festival run, she agreed.  A long 12 months later, Shorts International made Stanley Pickle available on iTunes (where it’s still available for download).

Since Stanley Pickle was created while Vicky was a student at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in the UK, Mather had no part in the financial negotiations. However, she did agree to give Shorts International 6 months exclusivity for the film. NFTS also received some financial compensation. After the half-year period expired, Vicky did what any filmmaker would do—she released her film online, free to view on Vimeo. Shorts International was not happy. The day she uploaded the film she received an email from the distributor asking her to take it down, claiming that by having the film available for free on Vimeo, “it might keep people away from buying the film on iTunes.”

Ultimately, Vicky has mixed feelings about her dealing with Shorts International. For one, they tended to be uncommunicative. As a result, it took a long time for the film to appear on iTunes: after the initial offer in August of 2011, nearly a year elapsed before Stanley Pickle showed up in the store. Filmmaker Patrick Doyon, whose short, Dimanche, was nominated for an Oscar in 2011, shares similar frustrations over the waiting game. Although he was not personally responsible for negotiating the distribution deal (that onus went to the National Film Board of Canada), he is currently forced to wait until summer 2013 before his film can be released for free online.

So, why do it? Well, for one—prestige. Let’s face it, Shorts International distributes some of the best short films in the world, from festival darlings to Academy Award winners. Who wouldn’t want to be in that company? Not to mention, it feels damn good to see your short film up on iTunes. For lack of a better word, it makes things seem “legitimate”—you’re serving up content on the same platform as major movie studios. Vicky puts it more succinctly, “I was very pleased to be able to say the film was available on iTunes because it felt official and looked great on the posters.”

Money, Money, Money

Since NFTS retained the rights to the film, Vicky wasn’t the one who received the monetary remuneration for the deal with Shorts International. However, after five months of release—as soon as Mather posted the film online—Shorts International did reveal a total iTunes sales of $258.00. A paltry sum to be sure.

To get some more transparency on the money angle, I direct you to this 2011 blog post by filmmaker Chris Jones, whose short film, Gone Fishing, was distributed on iTunes via Shorts International. Jones breaks down the costs rather clearly—after Apple takes its 30% percent cut, Shorts International takes a 20% programming fee followed by a 50% commission. After Jones’s sales agents take an additional 30%, Jones is left with the remainder.  In cold, hard numbers, for one entire year of sales, out of £1,480, Jones receives £290.26 (that’s a meager $440). For most filmmakers, that doesn’t even get close to recouping production costs.

Regardless of your feelings about “how fair” the division process is between Shorts International and the filmmaker, I think one conclusion is clear—distributing your films on iTunes ain’t gonna pay the bills.

Money Can’t Buy Me Love… or Exposure

But, you could most surely argue that it was never about the money. After all, if you’re getting into the short film game to make easy cash, you’re seriously ill-informed. This is about exposure—getting your name out there in a positive and professional manner. As Vicky Mather related, just having the iTunes logo stamped on the poster served as a status symbol.

Yet, what about all the people who can’t or won’t see your film because it’s behind a paywall? To give yourself the best chance, isn’t it about just getting as many eyes on your stuff as possible? How many decision makers are trolling iTunes hoping that the next great Kubrick happens to have a film available for purchase? When it comes to short films, people want them easy to access and free to view.

Animator Patrick Doyon puts it best—“Pandora’s box is now wide open and it will be increasingly difficult to force filmmakers to not put their film online (Oscars nominee or not). Young filmmakers have learned to animate and developed their visual culture through viewing tons of movies on the web. Until proven otherwise, this is the best way to internationally publicize your work.”

The Long and Short of It

So, where do we stand? For one, this article isn’t meant to paint Shorts International as some sort of monolithic, evil organization with nefarious intentions. In fact, when it comes to getting your short film shown in a professional theatrical environment, they’re actually one of the good guys. In Entertainment Weekly’s recent coverage of the ShortsHD Short Awards, filmmakers were complimentary of the service, without which their films would never have hit the silver screen. Patrick Doyon relates, “I am aware of the importance to being able to see short films on a big screen in theatres. Sharing a viewing experience at the same time with a bunch of different people remains the essence of cinema and one of the reasons I am doing this job. In this sense, any initiative to highlight shorts films is welcome, but there is surely a way to be fair with everyone.”

In essence, it’s less that Shorts International is some nameless, faceless corporation hellbent on taking advantage of short filmmakers (they’re not), but rather more of a reflection on today’s media landscape. It may be almost cliché to say at this point, but it bears repeating—the game is changing. Older models are becoming obsolete. Perhaps those frustrations with Shorts International have less to do with the company itself, but rather that they are simply purveyors of an outdated model—analog curators in a digital world.

We here at Short of the Week believe that readily available online short content is a beautiful thing—it propels the art form forward, allowing for new ideas to reach a broader audience. It allows filmmakers to be seen, for their short works to get out in front of the masses and in front of the agents and executives who can help them get their career started.

Regardless of how one feels about the subject, this year’s brief YouTube release of the Oscar nominated animated shorts wasn’t some fluke. As time passes, more and more high-caliber shorts will find their way online—and it’s going to happen more quickly and reach a wider audience than ever before. And, really, there’s going to be little that distributors like Shorts International will be able to do to stop them.

In the end, they’ll be forced to do as all things must do in order to survive—evolve.

~
Ivan is a filmmaker, video editor, and motion graphic artist from the Washington, DC area. He is an avid movie watcher and podcaster. He’s also quite handsome and charming (at least that's what his Mom says). For more information about Ivan, visit Lucky 9 Studios.
  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    Really excited for conversation to coalesce around this piece. We do a bad job of telling these stories, but I constantly hear from filmmakers thanking us, and saying how going online lead directly to an incredible opportunity for their careers. If you’ve had something cool happen to you because of online exposure, I encourage you to share your story in the comments.

  • http://clickclackshortfilms.com/ Click Clack Short Films

    This is exactly why I started my short film distribution company, Click Clack Short Films. I don’t want filmmakers to have to choose between getting the largest possible audience and making money.
    The way I’ve chosen to sell short films is to put several great short films together in a collection on a theme, (like our first collection, Love Stories). It’s a non-exclusive agreement with the filmmakers, so they can continue doing whatever they would like with their short films. The filmmakers are also guaranteed a percentage of every ticket & DVD sale.
    I’ve noticed that after briefly explaining the situation filmmakers are in, and why I started Click Clack, people are happy to pay what they can for great short films, especially in a theatrical setting.
    And I don’t hide the fact that the audience is able to see all the same films for free online as well. They like that just as much as I do. In fact, if the films I distribute weren’t available online, I probably never would have seen them in the first place.

  • http://twitter.com/CorrieFrancis Corrie Francis Parks

    Thanks for taking the time to investigate this. A very informative analysis of the current shorts situation. I wonder if you’ve encountered this situation within in the festival world as well. With festivals now getting THOUSANDS of submissions and competition tougher than ever, I’m asking not just how to get it distributed but how to even get it programmed. Tradition says don’t release your film online until it’s done its festival run, but I’ve heard it’s points in your favor to have a short online with lots of views so festival programmers see it is popular. Any thoughts?

  • http://www.facebook.com/esasich Eli Sasich

    I can’t argue with any of the article. I actually agree that offering shorts for free is an amazing way to get your work in front of as many eyes as possible. So why did I ignore the trend and release my own short film for a small entrance fee? The simple answer is, I wanted to try it as an experiment. I really wanted to see if there was an audience out there who would pay for short content. Well, I’m only a week into my release via Distrify, and I must say, the answer is a resounding yes. Maybe my experience is different, but sales have already far exceeded my expectations (and those mentioned in this article). We released a trailer on Feb 25th, pushed it hard, received some nice press, and the audience came. We don’t even have that many views on the trailer compared to other recent releases, but we’re still trying to get it in front of as many eyes as possible.

    The flip side is, I have run into some folks who simply won’t support us because we decided to monetize, and I find that reaction totally strange. We were essentially punished (as independents!) for trying to do something a little different and give the film an opportunity to make a little money. Wouldn’t that be a good thing for indie filmmakers? The small amount of backlash from some influential sites has been a little disheartening I must admit.

    So I guess I’m conflicted on the matter. I am a huge supporter and fan of Short of the Week, and the free release gameplan has a powerful track record – but I can’t help but feel like it’s also setting a standard that might not need to be there. Would I have a much larger audience if I had released the short for free? Hard to say. Evidence points to probably (although my short is a longer drama, and I was nervous about people taking the time to watch it streaming). In the same breath, I have been thrilled at the results of monetizing after week one, and I’ll continue to push.

    I’m not going to spam SotW’s talkback with the name of my film. I simply wanted to offer my perspective. If people have questions, I would be more than happy to answer them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/esasich Eli Sasich

    I should also mention that Short of the Week was not one of the sites that “punished” us. I re-read my post, and I don’t want there to be any confusion. I was talking about a few of the big geek news sites – they shall go unnamed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/esasich Eli Sasich

    I should also mention that Short of the Week was not one of the sites that “punished” us. I re-read my post, and I don’t want there to be any confusion. I was talking about a few of the big geek news sites – they shall go unnamed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/esasich Eli Sasich

    I should also mention that Short of the Week was not one of the sites that “punished” us. I re-read my post, and I don’t want there to be any confusion. I was talking about a few of the big geek news sites – they shall go unnamed.

  • http://www.lucky9studios.com/ Ivan Kander

    Thanks for the perspective, Eli. That’s interesting to here. One thing that I neglected to cover in the article was how varying types of content may react to different distribution methods. It sounds like your film (a longer drama) was probably a good match for the option you chose. Kudos to you!

  • Keegan

    Hey Ivan, great thoughts on digital distribution, I agree that filmmakers should have the choice to monetize their work – paywall doesn’t fit with every piece of content.

    The content producer needs to offer the viewer added value when charging for their work. Packaging the completed short with things like multiple videos, images, a deeper connection with the filmmaker and blog updates in one unique viewing space paints a fuller picture of the story and engages the viewer to value the film even more.

    Don’t just sell the video alone, sell the entire story. This is where the value sits with the consumer.

    Like how you did here: http://www.reelhouse.org/ikander/surviverecoverlive/surviverecoverlive/info

    Love the article, look forward to hearing more on this topic.

  • Keegan

    Hey Ivan, great thoughts on digital distribution, I agree that filmmakers should have the choice to monetize their work – paywall doesn’t fit with every piece of content.

    The content producer needs to offer the viewer added value when charging for their work. Packaging the completed short with things like multiple videos, images, a deeper connection with the filmmaker and blog updates in one unique viewing space paints a fuller picture of the story and engages the viewer to value the film even more.

    Don’t just sell the video alone, sell the entire story. This is where the value sits with the consumer.

    Like how you did here: http://www.reelhouse.org/ikander/surviverecoverlive/surviverecoverlive/info

    Love the article, look forward to hearing more on this topic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/esasich Eli Sasich

    This is a very good point. We offered a making-of doc with our short, and people have really responded to that. Soundtrack as well. It’s about creating an experience beyond the film. People want to know how it was done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/esasich Eli Sasich

    Thanks Ivan. Our approach definitely wouldn’t be a match for everyone. Like most things, one size does not fit all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    Hmm, that’s an interesting one Corrie. This year Sundance and SXSW programmed several films that were really popular online already. Did their popularity influence their acceptance, or did they get popular because they were awesome, and that awesomeness was apparent to the programmers? It’s tough to say. I will say, from talking to the Sundance and SXSW programmers, they do screen every film that is submitted. Unconsciously, they tend to favor known quantities, but so do internet curators—a prestigious festival laurel is a good way to get me to watch something online. I don’t think going viral is necessarily a path to Sundance, (its definitely difficult in its own right) but as festivals increasingly stop caring about premieres, more people will try.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    That’s an interesting strategy, and I’m glad it seems to be working. Shorts International though claims that ticket sales for the Oscar Animated shorts “cratered” after the films went online though.

  • wonder

    100%. All my shorts are online – my art was meant for the people, not the profits.

  • Keegan

    Thanks Eli! I couldn’t agree more, & making-of clips seem to win big with fans, especially in vfx/animated work. How was your experience in setting up, promoting and distributing via your satellite site/store/embedded player? Curious to hear your thoughts on the film marketing tools designed here: reelhouse.org/features
    How does the Reelhouse model fit with your needs & previous comments?

  • http://www.facebook.com/esasich Eli Sasich

    Just checked out Reelhouse – their model is very promising, and had I known about them at the time, I would have seriously considered their platform. The one beautiful thing about Distrify is the ability to embed the store anywhere. Wherever the tailer goes, the store follows. That’s a cool feature.

  • http://twitter.com/doiion patrick doyon

    Hello Corrie. Today, no festival (except 3 or 4 big festivals – like Berlin, Venise or Cannes) demands a world premiere to be selected. And being online does not prevent to be selected and win prizes. I had the chance to participate in a couple of jury and never the number of views or being on the web was an argument to make win (or not) a film. The example i like to give is “Pixels” (by Patrick Jean) that has been seen over a million times on Vimeo before being selected in Annecy and win the Grand Prize in 2011. I can easily imagine that a selection committee does not consider this kind of argument.

  • http://twitter.com/CorrieFrancis Corrie Francis Parks

    Something I’ve been curious about since this year’s oscar announcements: My understanding is that if your film is online before it qualifies for the oscars (either through a festival award or certain theatrical screening requirements) then it actually CAN’T qualify. I don’t know the specifics of “Fresh Guacamole”, but if it was handled like most Pes films, I think it was released online immediately, seemingly with no repercussions. But maybe it had a festival run or theatrical release through Showtime that I don’t know about.

    Either way, I wonder if this “evolution” of the game will eventually change the attitude of the Academy as well as the distribution outlets.

  • http://twitter.com/CorrieFrancis Corrie Francis Parks

    I’ve definitely noticed that the same films crop up in the bigger festivals, particularly the ones that only have only a few animated shorts among a larger live-action line-up. I imagine it must be a tricky decision whether to program the awesome short that played at Sundance and SXSW that you know will be a success, or the awesome short that no one has heard of (yet). I’m just heading back into the festival game after several years out and learning that the “buzz” factor is clearly something the big publicists take seriously, and I have to as well if I want my film to get seen!

  • http://twitter.com/CorrieFrancis Corrie Francis Parks

    I think this is in part why kickstarter can be such a successful platform for launching a film. It tells the whole story and gathers an audience from the beginning of the process providing value along the way to completion. You make a good point to apply this to marketing after a film is finished as well!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    You’re exactly right Corrie, you must win a qualifying fest or screen theatrically in LA or NY before putting your film online to qualify for Oscar, PES must have done one of those two.

  • http://twitter.com/CampfireFF Richard Leigh

    Some great insights here backed up some good case studies — thanks Ivan.
    On a personal note, it was only within the last 6 months that I took my kids to see a feature film in the cinema and was absolutely delighted that the screening started off with a short film — woo hoo! It reminded me of my own childhood 35+yrs ago (when that used to be the norm) and, it got me excited that shorts were being given that magical status of the cinema experience — alongside the usual run of endless ads.
    However, just ONE thing concerned me. A few weeks after having had this experience, a friend of mine said he also went to the cinema and saw a short film before the feature. And the short film was? …once again… Paperman… the first one you mentioned here. Clearly we (well, Shorts International to be exact) have a long way to go before a broader selection of quality shorts are getting into cinemas. THAT is when I will really start to get excited.

  • Mike

    Great article. Thanks

  • http://twitter.com/kung_fuelvis kung_fuelvis

    Fascinating article Ivan – I think you’ve touched on a subject here that is becoming more and more pertinent with the ever-increasing availability of short films online. Writing for both Short of the week & Directors Notes, I’ve been impressed by the number of filmmakers now open to an immediate online release. The number of directors reaching out to us (as online curators) for distribution advice is growing all the time and I think finally the online sphere is now beginning to be taken as seriously as the festival circuit and big screen distribution. One of the things you always fear when writing about online shorts is that the film you feature will all of a sudden be taken offline, leaving you with an article that is basically only relevant to those who will get to see the film screened at cinemas or festivals. Would be fascinating to get the input of festival curator on this – especially from a festival that asks for programmed films to be taken down.

    I think this article, along with Andrew’s ‘How we launched our film online’ (http://www.shortoftheweek.com/2011/03/23/how-we-launched-our-film-online-the-thomas-beale-cipher/) should be made compulsory reading for all short filmmakers….now how do we make that happen?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    You’re going to love our next article, which addresses the challenge of getting shorts into cinemas ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    Amid at Cartoon Brew had a great idea in response to this article which is to have a place like Vimeo allow micropayments, where you buy $20 credits and then filmmakers get 5 or 10 cents per view. Check it out.

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/shorts/the-big-question-how-to-make-money-from-short-films-78748.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    Also want to add here the reply I posted over at Cartoon Brew:

    “Thanks Amid. I for one think this is a fantastic idea, and one that I’ll continue to bring up in discussion at Vimeo. I don’t think traditional VOD/PPV is a good idea for short films because, as we address in our article at Short of the Week, the the extremely low profile of even celebrated shorts means that putting a paywall up restricts exposure too much, and exposure is an extremely valuable currency in its own right.

    A micropayment system reduces the financial commitment a viewer must commit to a film they know nothing about, but still represents its own challenges. While Vimeo collects subscriptions through PLUS and PRO, these members still constitute a fraction of the overall viewing audience. It’s a challenge for most animations to receive 100,000 views, let alone 500,000, and if we restrict viewing to subscribers, that number will plummet.

    Perhaps incentives can be configured though that reward micropayments but don’t restrict general discovery and exposure. For example, audiences currently cannot see HD embeds of your film if you are not a PLUS/PRO subscriber. Maybe viewers would not be allowed to see HD versions of your short if they did not sign up for the micropayments? Love to hear more ideas the community might have around these sorts of incentives.”

  • http://www.schmudde.net Schmüdde

    Our film, Refuge, is currently distributed by Shorts International.

    It’s not that Shorts International has been doing something wrong. They run a business; I have received small financial compensation; everything seems fine. It’s that they do not offer the tools that filmmakers need to promote their own work.

    However, SI doesn’t need to reform. Their strategy depends on two things and only two things:

    1) Lock up content.

    2) Maintain a high enough quality that their channels are appealing to viewers.

    Locking up unheard of filmmakers really does no one any good. Their strategy is lock up content for 7 years in the event that this unheard of talent becomes heard of. All the sudden that asset has value. Remember, the cost of storage is virtually nothing. They are not taking *any* risk in locking up content for long periods of time.

    I think that SI is still an option for filmmakers to consider but it is a black hole. They are not interested in promoting your film, nor co-promoting it. But there is the prestige factor and the small checks that Ivan touched on. Is that enough?

    For us, it wasn’t enough to lock up our film for 7 years. We walked away. However, you can negotiate with them – and they may consider four. ;)

    I write more on Ivan’s article at Beyond the Frame: http://www.directingfilm.net. Overall, he wrote a great assessment. Thanks Ivan!

    ~Schmüdde

  • http://www.facebook.com/esasich Eli Sasich

    That was a great companion piece. Amid’s idea is the best alternative I’ve heard yet, but I can also see how it would be difficult to implement a subscription or micropayment system without losing viewers. Whatever is going to happen, I feel like Vimeo is uniquely positioned to do something groundbreaking. I for one am excited.

  • Anonymous

    Wow! That’s what I was doing over ten years ago with “Understanding Chaos”! Glad to know I was on the right track. I released it free online and then a year later sold the DVD with almost an hour of making-of material. It worked well back then.

  • Anonymous

    I think a creator could do well releasing a short film online for free, and building an audience, and then sell the film in HD, with making-of materials, soundtracks and other goodies.

  • Signe Baumane

    Showtime qualified “Fresh Guacamole” for Oscars before it released the film online.
    As to Academy’s attitudes, it’s pretty clear cut – Academy is for experiencing a film in a movie theater, which is, as we all know, completely different from experiencing it on TV or on our mobile devices.

  • Keegan

    That’s why Reelhouse is a great an all-in-one tool from crowdfunding, to story telling to distribution, it involves the fans throughout the entire process: reelhouse.org/preview

  • Keegan

    Reelhouse’s new player also functions the same way! You can actually
    purchase the film, discover project extras, or check out the store -
    all directly from the embeddable player. We think this allows for
    further viewer engagement and a higher conversions. Watch for this new
    player coming April 22nd! Disclaimer – I work for Reelhouse :)

  • Samuel

    Harry

    Many people are talking about Lithasa ! what is it? http://www.lithasa.com
    .
    I’ve see that some where a guy said that he liked the design. I myself went to the website and it is simple but good.
    But I would like to know is it perfect for new authors and upcoming authors?
    They do have a separate publishing model.

  • Jen

    The best options available for short film distribution I have seen to date are on http://filmbay.com where they pay out ad share AND google adsense to filmmakers.

  • SK

    Hey Guys,
    I am new to this short film game and have directed my first short after coming out of film school. Actors and some crew members have asked if they could have the dvd of the film. I have made this film primarily to submit to festivals, considering that, how safe it is to distribute DVDs to cast/ crew before festival run of film?

  • shortanim

    But, How can i make money from my short, i know its fun making it but i wanna make make money from my short as well..

  • Che

    From Italy It’s amazing blog!!!

  • Joel Thorsson

    lol. Sean Astin actually made short called “The Long and Short of It” during the shoot of the lord of the rings :P