The Shorts Story

Forget parties and late night cocktails. To discover which films are getting buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, ride the buses. Whether everyone is squished onto the Main St. shuttle or huddled together outside the Yarrow, the conversation is always about films and gossip. This year, much of that talk centered on the documentary short films that preceded the features. Surprisingly, many of those films went on to secure distribution deals. 'I was definitely not scouting for shorts,' says Udy Epstein, a principal with Seventh Art Releasing in Los Angeles,
March 1, 2002

Forget parties and late-night cocktails. To discover which films are getting buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, ride the buses. Whether everyone is squished onto the Main Street shuttle or huddled together outside the Yarrow, the conversation is always about films and gossip. This year, much of that talk centered on the documentary short films that preceded the features. Surprisingly, many of those films went on to secure distribution deals. ‘I was definitely not scouting for shorts,’ says Udy Epstein, a principal with Seventh Art Releasing in Los Angeles, who is discussing theatrical distribution rights for Clayton Hemmert and Benita Raphan’s doc short 2+2. ‘It was totally on impulse and against my better judgement on the business side. The economy of what will be paid in terms of license fees isn’t very impressive.’

Indeed, the business prospects for short films have never been strong. Epstein describes shorts as a ‘bastard form’, unable to secure a strong toehold in either the broadcast or theatrical markets. Even the definition of a short remains elusive. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences considers a film under 40 minutes to be a short, but the half-hour slot common to TV dictates that a short must be less than 24 minutes. Ask broadcasting execs and they’ll say anything under 15 minutes.

But, there’s still that buzz.

‘I’ve always found festivals are on the leading edge of what’s going to happen in programming around the world,’ says David Russell, president of Big Film Shorts, a Burbank, U.S.-based company established in 1996 that specializes in the distribution of short films. ‘Festivals tend to be there before anyone and they were there for shorts. Even though [the festivals] were way ahead, each year [the market] improves, and this year there has been a big surge forward. People are out there making shorts that are getting into festivals; now we have to see that markets find a place for them in broadcast and elsewhere.’

Short wave

HBO licensed 2+2, which runs 11 minutes and uses unique compositing techniques to communicate the story of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a mathematician who won a Nobel prize for his Game Theory and suffers from schizophrenia. That Nash is also the subject of the Oscar-nominated film A Beautiful Mind didn’t hurt.

Many broadcasters use shorts to complement their feature films, particularly if the subjects are related. Says Johanna Lunn Montgomery, director of programming for The Independent Film Channel in Halifax, Canada, ‘We run our feature films to their full running time, uncut, so we have odd end times. We use shorts to bring films up to the half-hour or hour. It’s a great way of complementing a subject, and it’s quality programming that continues the feel of our channel.’

Interstitial programming is another common outlet for shorts. Kim Leggatt, head of sales and co-managing director of the Short Film Bureau, a London, U.K.-based distrib, advises producers to keep running times to 12 minutes or less, as shorter films are slotted into spare schedule space more easily. License fees are usually determined on a per-minute basis, although some broadcasters pay per film. Either way, there’s very little room for negotiation. ‘Where a filmmaker or agent can start negotiating is if the film has won awards at festivals,’ explains Leggatt. ‘An agent can say it has won a prestigious award and therefore deserves more money and they can usually negotiate. For filmmakers, it’s really worth doing festivals. The more acclaim they can get for their film, the more they can up their price.’

License fees vary, but most are on the low end. In the U.K., Channel 4 pays £130 (US$185) per minute for shorts and Canal+ in France offers (euro)460 (US$400) per minute; Russell estimates he receives an average of $50 per minute from American cablecasters that license a film over three years. Says Russell, ‘You can negotiate and push a little, but there are 5,000 more short films sitting on the shelf. If you play hardball, they just move on.’ The financial risk for shorts is high, so Russell doesn’t offer money to filmmakers up-front. Once a film is sold, he receives a 35% commission on the proceeds.

That interstitial programming is the main broadcast outlet for short films reflects the difficulty of scheduling shorts within the current television model. Russell explains that most programmers want interstitial films to be light and fun, limiting the type of shorts that get purchased. Additionally, how to insert 30-second adverts into a 10-minute film continues to perplex programmers. It also explains why the license fees are minimal – it takes more money to attract viewers to a short than the short can attract in advertising. ‘There needs to be more containers for collections of short material. Until those containers are built, people who make shorts are going to have a difficult time trying to sell them,’ says Steve Rosenbaum, CEO of New York’s, a prodco that continues to experiment with short formats on both the web and TV. ‘MTV is an example,’ he continues, ‘One reason MTV evolved from a collection of short music videos into a series of programs with hosts is because advertisers said, ‘We don’t know how to put a commercial between four-hour blocks of music videos.’ So, MTV had to come up with a programming format in which half-hours and hours became the order of the day. That’s been a creative challenge they’ve risen to extraordinarily. But, as they did more programming, there was less and less room for those three-minute, music-driven shorts.’

Good things come in small packages

Most large commercial broadcasters remain outside the short film market, especially within the U.S., but there are some television outlets showing a tentative interest in shorts and learning how to package them effectively. ‘The [television market for shorts] has grown, because there are so many cable and satellite channels that need content,’ says Leggatt. ‘The terrestrials – in the last year, three or four broadcasters have said they want to start showing shorts and it’s very interesting to see the different tastes. Channel 4′s Film Four likes international or edgy films, whereas BSkyB is trying to educate its audience into accepting short films through recognizing a face.’

Canal+ in France runs shorts in ‘Midnight Plus’, a weekly one-hour program. Shorts editor Pascale Faure, who buys for all the Canal+ outlets in Europe, acquires genres ranging from fiction and animation to docs, although she admits docs represent only about 10% of the program lineup. ‘I have to go to documentary festivals specifically to find documentary shorts, and I don’t always have time,’ explains Faure, who bought about 20 films (none docs) at the Clermont Ferrand short film market held in France at the start of February. Instead, Faure depends on tips from Canal+ director of documentaries Anna Glogowski to find factual shorts.

Swedish pubcaster SVT is entering its fourth year of programming documentary shorts, which it packages in a 30-minute program titled ‘Ikon’. Stockholm-based prodco Story was commissioned to produce the strand. ‘It was started to show documentaries that wouldn’t otherwise be placed, and to revitalize the documentary branch in Sweden, which I think it has,’ says Story’s David Aronowitsch. ‘It created a window for young documentary filmmakers to express themselves and for older doc filmmakers to experiment.’ The program airs on a weekday evening at around 10 p.m. and Aronowitsch estimates it attracts a viewer share of about four percent. ‘Ikon’ broadcasts about 40 short films a year, 30% of which are acquired from international filmmakers for about $200. Commissioned films fetch $960 per minute.

Five minutes of fame

Outside the festival circuit, documentary short films struggle to gain theatrical release. In 1999, the lack of big screen opportunities for doc shorts led the Academy’s board of governors to eliminate the Documentary Short Film Oscar category. ‘There really isn’t enough non-television work in the genre to justify a separate award these days,’ argued Academy president Robert Rehme. The category was reinstated six months later after Hollywood heavyweights such as Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford and Martin Scorsese added their names to an open letter urging the Academy to recognize doc shorts as distinct from feature-length films. Three years later, however, doc shorts are still rarely found on the big screen.

One mandate of London’s Short Film Bureau is to get theatrical releases for its shorts. Working with cinemas in the U.K., Leggatt arranges for shorts to be appropriately paired with feature films. On occasion, short film programs are arranged, which Leggatt says are well attended. In 2001, the Bureau released about 25 short films in theaters, but the films only earned exposure. ‘Getting shorts into the cinema is never going to be a money transaction, not at the moment,’ says Leggatt. ‘Sometimes we will do a split at the box office, but that’s if we’re doing a dedicated short film night, so it’s the shorts that are pulling in the crowds and not the feature.’ But, Leggatt admits that shorts are beginning to catch on with independent cinemas around the world: ‘There’s a lot of cinemas that are getting into showing a short film to show their audience something different. It all goes down to marketing. We’re talking to a Japanese distributor at the moment about getting some of our shorts out in Japan – we’re beginning to look at different ways to get into different countries.’

BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, produced a five-minute short titled Blue to help promote the pubcaster’s Blue Planet series and to determine if there is revenue potential in the theatrical market. The film, which cost about £70,000 ($100,000), screened in theaters last summer in front of Help, I’m a Fish, an animated kids film. ‘It was a useful marketing tool that gave additional exposure to the series,’ says Josie Sekulin, brand manager for factual intellectual property at BBC Worldwide. ‘[But], it isn’t revenue you’re generating, it’s exposure. Of course, you can equate that and say what it’s worth. A five-minute film across several cinemas for several months is a lot of exposure.’ Sekulin is currently in discussions with a number of airlines interested in programming the film.

Short circuit

On January 24, between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., people in New York’s Time Square were treated to something different when they looked up at the 25′ x 28′ CBS Spectacular/Xtronix outdoor video screen. Instead of the typical advertisements, short films vied for the attention of passersby. ‘We wanted to support emerging filmmakers and short films, because they don’t have enough venues,’ says Susan Michie, producer of Open Air Shorts. Although filmmakers receive no money, they can add a promotional plug at the end of the film that says how to contact them and where the film can be viewed. The program premieres on the first Thursday of the month and Michie is busy trying to lure sponsors. ‘Xtronix is buying other screens, so I hope to expand to other locations and cities,’ she adds. A five-minute version of Katja Esson’s doc Vertical Traveler, which premiered at IFP in October, ran on February 7 and Michie says other docs are set to screen.

Given their abbreviate length, short films have an innate flexibility that ingratiates them to alternative outlets, such as Open Air Shorts. Roman Podzyhun, head of programming at Movieola, a Canadian digi devoted exclusively to short films, reveals he is currently looking into arrangements that will allow viewers to download shorts onto a handheld computer – a practice Podzyhun says is already widely done in Japan. And, although the dotcom bubble burst – a bubble that can claim credit for attracting attention to shorts – nobody can say the web has stopped evolving. ‘Ten years from now we will look back and all the things we were promised the web would accomplish will be accomplished,’ says’s Rosenbaum. ‘Once the content creation tools are more widely distributed, the market will evolve for the distribution, sale and trading of short form content. I think there’s some pretty hopeful light at the end of the tunnel with the whole TiVo, replay, set-top box phenomenon.’ Perhaps the future is only a short film away.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.