“It’s easy to get excited when a Netflix or some other streamer comes and offers you a big check to put your short on their site,” filmmaker Jim Cummings tells TheWrap
Much ink has been spilled about the rise of streaming that has defined the entertainment industry in the the last decade. But there’s one corner of the moviemaking world that has completely redefined by the digital age: short films.
Outside of film festivals, Academy screenings, and in-house shorts developed as an opening feature for a Disney or Pixar film, it has been hard for many shorts to find a large audience. Video sites and the ongoing explosion of streaming services have changed that, as sites like Vimeo and Kickstarter make it easier for short filmmakers to produce and distribute their projects at the same time companies like HBO, Netflix, and Fox Searchlight are now on the hunt for shorts to stream.
“The landscape has changed dramatically. There are more funding opportunities. Shorts as a whole have become much more high profile, and I very much believe they have become more accepted as an art form in their own right, as opposed to just being seen as a stepping stone for filmmakers towards making features,” said Orlando von Einsiedel, director of the Oscar winning short documentary “The White Helmets.”
Acquisition sprees are common at Sundance, but now that trend has extended to short films, as well. This year, Fox Searchlight picked up “Lavender,” an LGBT short about a young gay man who develops a complicated relationship with an older couple, for distribution on their YouTube and Facebook pages.
And if your short gets nominated for an Oscar, studios will soon be calling you. Such was the case for this year’s short doc winner, “Period. End of Sentence,” which signed a Netflix distribution deal the day Oscar nominations were announced. Over the past three years, Netflix has now had at least one Oscar-nominated short doc added to their service, heavily promoting it in the lead up to Oscar Sunday.
Short docs have also found homes at news organizations, which are treating the films as a premium form of journalism. First Look Media hosted “A Night At The Garden” on The Intercept, showcasing its restored footage of a 1940’s Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden as an analogy to today’s white supremacist movements. The New York Times and PBS picked up the Mediterranean refugee expose “4.1 Miles” to host on their respective websites, while The Guardian released “Black Sheep,” in which a British black teen narrates his story of how he whitened his skin to avoid harassment from racist gangs in Essex.
All of those shorts went on to earn Oscar nominations.
“We want these films to be seen by a wide audience across the world and so the fact that globally spanning studios are in on the shorts space is something very exciting,” said von Einsiedel, who released “The White Helmets” through Netflix and is now developing a film on the Rohingya crisis for National Geographic Films. “Who would have thought five years ago that a short would have billboard advertisements across Los Angeles?”
But not all short filmmakers have had as positive an experience with big studios. For those developing scripted shorts, taking offers from a recognized distributor can come with a price. Jim Cummings, who won a Sundance jury prize with his 2016 short “Thunder Road,” told TheWrap that he’s afraid that up-and-coming filmmakers don’t realize that they might be signing away control of their work by making a deal with a big streamer.
“When you’re in your 20s and don’t know any better, and you’ve worked so hard getting this short film made, it’s easy to get excited when a Netflix or some other streamer comes and offers you a big check to put your short on their site,” Cummings said. “It’s like a badge of success to show your family and friends that you made this deal with a studio.”
“But when a lot of these distributors come looking for shorts, what they’re really looking for is to build an IP farm. A lot of those shorts, unless they have awards potential, get buried under all these other titles and never get promoted. And suddenly you no longer have the rights to the movie you made and to any potential feature films you were planning to base it on.”
There are some alternatives to getting distributed by the big boys. One such alternative is offered by Shorts.TV, a TV channel and streaming service co-owned by AMC Networks International and Shorts International. CEO Carter Pilcher says that the service was made with the idea that short films can’t be treated the same way on streaming as features or TV shows.
“Many international markets, especially Latin America and India, have become mobile-first markets. Our subscribers are watching Shorts.TV on their phones,” he said. “So we’ve designed our mobile app to be like a music app, allowing users to skip past shorts but also to recommend them or look them up by QR code. By doing that, we’ve found that our users are watching and sharing more shorts in one viewing than they would through other streaming services, and it becomes easier to look up specific films and types of shorts than it would be on Netflix or Amazon Prime.”
But Cummings has different advice for new filmmakers: Go it alone and be your own distributor. While streaming may have opened new avenues to get shorts signed, the new options that he thinks directors should be excited about are the ones that have democratized how films get financed as well as made.
That’s how Cummings turned “Thunder Road” into a feature film. Turning away from selling his short’s rights to a studio, he used the acclaim his work received on the festival circuit to get a feature version funded through Kickstarter. He also believes that crowd equity financiers like Legion M and Wefunder can help build a new normal for the indie scene in the next decade, making the funding process more accessible.
“There’s too much focus on how these new tech trends force the old gatekeepers to adapt, and not enough on how they can help build a completely new filmmaking system apart from the way things have always been done,” Cummings said. “The trends we should be following are the ones social media influencers and Soundcloud rappers set years ago. They make video content and own all their stuff, and that’s what short filmmakers should be doing.”