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.