From the latest issue of realscreen: Three-minute magic

Doc-maker Morgan Spurlock has moved from super-size to snack-size with online short film portal Cinelan. Realscreen spoke with Spurlock and Cinelan CEO David Laks about the key to creating three minute docs for the web.
March 3, 2010

Online distribution outlets have made their marks over the past two years, with sites like Hulu, SnagFilms and Babelgum and, of course, YouTube carrying long-form and short-form general content. But Cinelan, the brainchild of doc filmmaker Morgan Spurlock and entrepreneur David Wales, aims to put the spotlight specifically on online docs – three-minute docs, at that.

Cinelan was created with the idea to give people a taste of documentary film. Says Spurlock, ‘You get clued into this in a very short form where someone doesn’t have to invest 90 minutes or two hours of their life to experience how great docs can move or touch you.’

CEO of Cinelan, David Laks, further explains the venture’s mandate. ‘The idea was that filmmakers can make content, [and that] we would fund the development of the content to a very small extent to get these projects launched,’ he says. ‘[We] work with a group of curators to produce high quality three-minute films that we can then syndicate on digital platforms around the Internet.’

Three minutes became the magic number, explains Spurlock, since it is a ‘fantastic sweet spot both for the Internet and mobile.’ Laks, meanwhile, cites other considerations that led to the three-minute mark. ‘The average viewer on the Internet watches a little less than three minutes of content at a time,’ he says. ‘If you’re on the Internet working and taking a break, you’re browsing [an average] of 2.7 to 2.8 minutes.’

Launched in February 2008, the short doc portal now has a library of about 60 films and relationships with some 400 documentary filmmakers, including Spurlock’s filmmaker friends Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels) and Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons), all of whom serve on Cinelan’s advisory board. Many of them have also created three-minute films that have set the standards for filmmakers on what can be done within that time allotment. Kauffman’s short, Wait For Me, is even being turned into a full-length doc.

All of those 60 films are not meant to be viewed on Cinelan’s website,, however. Laks says that Cinelan syndicates to about 10 different online platforms, including Hulu, SnagFilms and Babelgum, and says those are the destinations where online viewers should take in the material. ‘We don’t expect people to watch films on our site,’ Laks says. ‘In fact we very rarely advertise our site.’ Cinelan also recently joined forces with Babelgum for a mobile partnership and online network FliggeeBox Network for a content partnership.

Most of the views come from the aforementioned trio of portals, which have generated about a quarter of a million views of Cinelan films in the last three months. Facing economic facts, however, Laks says, ‘In order for content providers to really make money, you need 10 times that.’

A significant viewership for online, he explains, would be three to five million views a month across 60 to 100 films, which is exactly what Cinelan has set its sights on. Laks says the current audience for the shorts is comprised primarily of the 25 to 40-year-old female demographic, a group that’s also a big audience for indie films.

Still, the digital market hasn’t found stable methods of revenue generation for online video content, which is a major concern for Laks. ‘When we distribute digitally to all of the best platforms, they don’t necessarily pay very well right now,’ he admits. ‘Advertising rates are low [and] there’s a lot of fragmentation of audience. The way that Cinelan will grow is that as we see opportunities with these platforms paying a little better, we’ll start being able to give filmmakers revenues to make films,’ he explains.

Spurlock is more optimistic, saying that there has been progress in revenue creation, but it’s still difficult. ‘The Internet is much like the Wild West and it’s going to take some sheriffs coming to town to straighten things out,’ he says. ‘Hopefully it’ll take some champions and folks like Cinelan to give filmmakers a chance to get their work out there.’

Cinelan is so serious about supporting filmmakers, that for every penny that comes into the company, 50% goes to the content creator. If the company distributes a three-minute film to Hulu which generates advertising revenue, Cinelan pays half of what it received from the platform to the filmmaker. If a sponsor funds film development, the same thing goes.

Besides the 50-50 cut, filmmakers also benefit by flexing their creative muscles through crafting a three-minute story. Spurlock recalls that when he asked Kauffman to come up with a three-minute short, the whole process seemed very cathartic for the filmmaker. ‘He was able to close a door on this stuff that had been sitting around occupying space not only on his shelf, but in his brain,’ he says.

Spurlock himself sees making shorts for Cinelan as a very freeing process, since it’s not something that’s going to eat up months and years of his time. ‘It’s a chance to be very creative in a much smaller amount of time and I find it to be an exercise,’ he says.

A few weeks of shooting and editing produces a three-minute short, although Spurlock says he supposes a filmmaker could churn out one a day, but that sounds incredibly stressful to him. And thankfully, the subjects of the shorts tend not to be so stressful. Laks says they try to keep the subject matter light, and the biggest hits go to profiles of interesting people or humorous treatments. A good three-minute doc, says Spurlock, is a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and an end that captures viewers’ attention and imagination.

To broaden the audience base, Laks and the Cinelan team are exploring new ways of making short docs mainstream viewing. ‘I’m finding that video is consumed in conjunction with other things, as an adjunct to a news story or in some form of research,’ he says. To that end, Laks is looking into linking short films and editorial more closely. The company will also look to build its film library to the point where it has enough to match up content more often to editorial.

Documentary making is often a labor of love with plenty of blood, sweat and tears exchanged for little promise of a payoff. Thus, doc-makers should take comfort in Spurlock’s assertion that the process for making a short for Cinelan involves ‘crying on a much smaller level.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.