Hot Docs ’16: Conde Nast, C4 share tips on making shorts

Execs from Conde Nast, Channel 4, CBC and the Tribeca Film Festival gathered at Hot Docs to discuss how best to land a short doc commission. (Pictured, left: Channel 4's Adam Gee; right, CBC Docs' Lesley Birchard)
May 6, 2016

The growing market for online short-form content serves a variety of purposes for filmmakers.

For emerging directors, producing an online short is a chance to get a commission with an established broadcaster or online brand. Meanwhile, established directors often produce shorts to keep busy and earn extra income while developing and rustling up financing for feature projects.

For content platforms, shorts provide a way to build a mobile-friendly catalog, as well as a way to build community around subject matter and hot-button topics of the day.

This year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival has shone a brighter spotlight on doc shorts – both in the Toronto-based fest’s programming and on the industry side.

On Wednesday (May 4), Hot Docs and Toronto International Film Festival shorts programmer Kathleen McInnis convened a panel of short film commissioners and programmers to give an audience of mostly nascent filmmakers a sense of the market for online shorts.

The panel, entitled “Bell Media Kickstart: You Think You Want to Make a Feature But You Should Make a Short,” included Sarah Lash, acquisitions consultant for Condé Nast Entertainment; Lesley Birchard (pictured, right), executive in charge of programming for CBC Docs; Adam Gee (left), commissioner for multi-platform and online video (factual) at Channel 4; and Sharon Badal, VP of filmmaker relations and shorts programming at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Topics included how much filmmakers can expect to get paid, the best way to pitch and social media. Here are five takeaways from the discussion:

Pacing is everything

Run times for shorts vary depending on the outlet. CBC prefers doc shorts under 30 minutes but “ideally under 10,” while Channel 4 tends to commission three- to five-minute shorts in series of six episodes to maximize web traffic.

Condé Nast commissions shorts in a range of formats for a variety of media brands that include Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker and Its run times range from two to 20 minutes and encompass one-offs, series, lifestyle how-tos and scripted.

Regardless of format or length, all the panelists emphasized pacing. The first 15 seconds of a short is just as important as the first 15 minutes of a feature when it comes to hooking a viewer – especially as they are likely watching on a mobile device and can easily click or swipe away.

“I’ve seen five-minute films that feel like five hours and 20-minute films that seem breezy quick,” said Lash.

Other things directors should bear in mind is “title title title,” said Lash. In the competitive world of online viewing, a title needs to immediately tell viewers what they are about to watch. When creating graphics and title cards, bear in mind that a viewer might be watching on a mobile device.

However, Gee noted that C4 has noticed an uptick in audiences watching online shorts on big screens via home-viewing devices such as Google Chromecast. He also noted that mobile viewers typically use headphones so “audio quality has to be better than on TV.”

Payment tends to be on the low-end of the scale
CBC and Channel 4 are both pubcasters but Condé Nast relies on ad sales for revenue. As such, its rates for short filmmakers reflect a current reality that finds most ad dollars being spent on TV.

Lash expects the tide to turn from TV to digital in about five years. In the meantime, she pays in the area of four figures for shorts by emerging directors. Condé Nast will pay five figures, but usually in cases when an established director comes in with a coveted project.

Channel 4 pays a set fee of £1,500 (US$1,035) per minute so a series of six shorts can result in a pay range between $30,000 or $60,000 depending on run time. Birchard did not spell out CBC’s rates but said directors will enter into contract negotiations with the pubcaster’s business and rights team and that directors should build their own fee into a budget. “And if they forget to, we will remind them because it’s important.”

In addition to programming for Tribeca, Badal programs the festival’s in-flight shorts channel on United Airlines. While the license fees may be small, she says the upside is a million eyeballs on seven flights a day.

Prepare footage for your pitch
Unless you’re a director with a release track-record, awards and an easily identifiable style, outlets will likely require footage in addition to a paper pitch. Although all the panelists actively seek out directors at work events and festivals such as Hot Docs, they are extremely open to pitches, as long as emerging directors are prepared to show some sort of footage.

At Condé Nast, Lash also needs to ensure a project will be a right fit for her wide array of brand channels. She advised directors to familiarize themselves with the brands and only pitch her directly if they have a clear idea of where their content will fit in her network.

Birchard requires footage, and especially if the doc is character-driven. “We want to see the characters,” she said. “I want to see a proper pitch.”

Channel 4′s Gee first requires that pitchers pen a couple of paragraphs so he can determine whether or not a topic has already been done. If he is interested, he requires a treatment and teaser footage, which can be shot on a cellphone if need be.

Social media is a consideration – but not always
The panelists were split on how active a role a director should take in promoting their film on social media. CBC’s Birchard said a social strategy is part of what she wants to hear in a pitch, namely the channels a director will use and possible social influencers who can help build buzz.

“That’s putting an awful lot of onus on the filmmaker,” countered Gee. “I would rather them be out making films. This sort of ‘tariff’ is a big ask.”

Similarly, Condé Nast has robust marketing and social media departments that oversee social strategy once a director delivers their short. “It’s not an expectation but it’s nice to have,” she said.

More broadly, McInnis noted that building audiences online can be a smart strategy that will help a filmmaker down the line.

Not enough filmmakers are making shorts
On the festival level, programmers are having trouble finding worthy shorts as filmmakers opt to go the one-hour broadcast route instead of producing a film that runs a festival-friendly 40 minutes or less (the criteria for Oscar qualification).

“There is a shortage of shorts on the festival circuit,” said Tribeca’s Badal. “Filmmakers are not making short docs.”

She also cautioned filmmakers to tread carefully when tackling heavy subject matter, noting she could have easily programmed a death-themed shorts program at this year’s Tribeca if she wanted to. “There’s a huge difference between being dramatic and being depressing,” she noted.

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