Impact Funding and Distribution
While there is renewed interest in doc shorts, this is happening within the context of a media ecosystem that is failing to support even a majority of independent filmmakers at feature length. The question of funding and distribution for shorts is definitely still a moving target.
Many shorts filmmakers get started on their projects without any funding at all, or without enough funding to cover costs. Sometimes funders will give smaller grants for shorter films. The perception is that, because it’s short, it needs less. While it’s true you may not need a whole year to edit a shorter piece, it nonetheless often takes the same amount of time to build the relationships and capture the footage needed.
Alice Quinlan of POV underscored this point: “One of the lessons of the last year: it takes just as much time to produce a high quality resource (i.e. discussion guide or lesson plan) for a short as it does for a feature.” So, even though there may be areas where a filmmaker can cut costs with a short, it’s important not to underestimate the areas where the costs will remain the same.
Filmmaker Michael Premo puts it more forcefully still; “If we’re trying to uphold values of equity and justice, we need to structure fundraising in equitable ways (i.e. not in the mold of product-driven consumer capitalism). We need financing models that support development/testing/iteration. If we are committed to “impact,” we as a global community of practice need to embrace the complex nature of change, which also applies to the complex nature of how people, scenarios and stories evolve over the course of filming.”
While it’s not a solution to funding challenges for shorts for shorts’ sake, some filmmakers find value in using their shorts as proof of concepts for features and series they want to make. 76% of shorts filmmakers who were surveyed in one study said that the most important thing for them in making a short was to open up career opportunities. A feature film can be a big financial commitment, so being able to see and try out the possibilities first can help get a feature off the ground.
But many of the filmmakers we spoke to were worried about the business model for non-branded short form work and how sustainable it really is. And the data seems to support this anxiety. In 2018, the Short of the Week Filmmaker Survey found that the average short filmmaker spends about $12,500 out of pocket on a film and $34,000 when you factor in hidden costs.
Some filmmakers might receive money from film festivals in awards. But there are costs involved at the front end that limit this as an income stream. The 2018 Short of the Week Filmmaker Survey found, for example, that filmmakers on average spent $1537 on film festival submissions alone (51 submissions on average).
There is some foundation funding available for production. Fledgling formed the Rapid Story Deployment Fund because they felt there was a role for rapid response short-form content. And while obviously budgets can vary depending on the short, they notice budgets do tend to be smaller, and a relatively small grant can play a key role in a film project. Meanwhile Tribeca has started IF/Then Shorts, a new filmmaking initiative that awards monetary grants and provides year-round distribution mentorship to filmmakers creating short documentaries. And Doc Society - realising the value that short pieces could offer to organising efforts in the U.S. - launched Good Pitch Local. This integrates short-form film into regional efforts to address issues that are vital to local communities.
National film bodies have a mixed record on shorts, though in the UK things are looking brighter. The British Council Shorts Support Scheme funds the travel of UK-based short filmmakers to 48 major film festivals, correcting for festivals with policies wherein the travel and accommodation for short filmmakers are not covered. And the British Film Institute, recognising that shorts are an essential part of a talent ladder for emerging filmmakers, has put a renewed focus on them following the disappearance of slots on broadcast television for the form.
We have seen NGO’s might fund a single or series of shorts. Look at the Trans In America documentary series by Daresha Kyi, Cary Cronenwett, Lindsey Dryden and Shaleece Haas that was presented by the ACLU and Little Gem Films. It offers compelling portraits of three impressive people and families who have experienced discrimination, and deepens viewers’ understanding of its impact on their lives.
Sometimes a corporate sponsor will get behind a film. Ben Knight’s film Denali, which chronicles the relationship between photographer Ben Moon and his dog Denali as Moon battles cancer, was sponsored by Patagonia. But this kind of arrangement is relatively rare.
In some cases shorts can fall into the advertising-supported streaming model and - if the film does not get buried - filmmakers can make some money back that way. There are platforms that will buy the rights to exclusively stream a film indefinitely or for a period. And sometimes a platform or other distributor will commission a short film directly, especially journalistic outlets, and pay the costs for it outright. Examples of these are POV, Field of Vision, Topic, Quibi, Concordia, Great Big Story and The Guardian - all of whom have been known to provide funding to one extent or another.
Transgender, at War and in Love was commissioned by the New York Times Op-Docs series. Filmmaker Fiona Dawson had started documenting the stories of transgender service members who were still banned following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” At the time, transgender issues were beginning to get attention in the news and The New York Times was interested in including U.S. troops in their coverage. So, they brought Fiona on and teamed her up with director Gabriel Silverman and producer Jamie Coughlin to put the film together in just a few weeks (you can read more about this in the case study in the following section).
This was also the case for Occupy Bakery, the short by Rachel Lears. She and her partner Robin Blotnick met the New York Times at a Good Pitch event and received a small budget to feature it in the Op-Docs series. The film went viral within the labour and law community that week, and labour lawyers who they didn’t know started to get in touch. In this way the short helped them build awareness of the film among their core audience, an important contribution to impact.
Despite the challenges to date, more and more funders who have traditionally funded features are taking a greater interest in shorts due to this perception that they can not only be more economical but can also come out sooner and therefore have accelerated impact. Which is good but leaves us with one last thing to reflect on.
WHO IS PAYING, WHO IS IN CONTROL?
We shouldn’t just interrogate equitable compensation for filmmakers for producing shorts, but also consider the question of who has control of the film. An issue about which filmmakers and their partners need to be really clear.
This is true for all filmmaking but particularly heightened with shorts where the budgets are smaller, there are likely less funders involved and more opportunity to capture control of the project.
Over the years we have seen three main models emerge:
- The filmmaker owns and controls the film and collaborates on impact plans with partners
- The partners own and control the film which the filmmaker delivers
- The filmmaker and partners collaborate and share control and ownership
It is possible to make great creative work and have impact with all three of these models. But in any of these scenarios, you must have a shared vision and understanding of the goals of the project, and to have discussed what the process will be around editorial control, impact strategy and how you will resolve any disagreements.
It might be worth looking back at Active Voices ‘Prenups’ to help set a relationship framework.
Geek Out: Ideas for further reading
'When I embarked upon Water Warriors - my road map until then had been feature films - I had no idea what the rules were,' explains Michael Premo. 'It just felt like everyone has different policies on shorts and there didn’t appear to be any standard.'
Sound familiar? For us, too! Distribution is often the biggest question when it comes to shorts for impact. So what is a film team to do?
'Get a deal with an established and respected outlet and use it to build momentum towards your next moment.' This can work very well for those filmmakers who are able to secure such a deal or have been commissioned by a news outlet. But there are far fewer established outlets than there are talented filmmakers. In addition, getting such a deal does not guarantee impact.
'Premiere your film where you’ll gain the attention of your target audience, and use it to build momentum towards your next moment.' Sometimes distribution of a short can look fairly traditional, with a run at film festivals, a premiere (usually online), and community outreach and engagement. This can also work well IF your team is actively involved in maintaining the momentum.
'Get your film out there, in as many places as you can, all at once.' This strategy aims to build a cascade of attention by getting it out far and wide. This too can work well, especially when bolstered by strong online and offline partnerships. But there may be drawbacks with a few film festivals with exclusivity clauses. Depending on how you go about it, it may also mean giving the film away for free.
Geek Out: Ideas for further reading
Check out this handy explainer by Andrew S Allen and team: Be Everywhere All At Once: The Ultimate Guide to Festivals, Online, and Your Short Film Release for more information about distribution trends for short form filmmakers today. Its based on interviews and a survey of hundreds of successful filmmakers to understand what works and what doesn’t when releasing a film today.
These are by no means the only short form distribution models. Sometimes it’s a combination of the above. Sometimes it’s none of the above. For example, it’s common for a short that is adapted from a feature length film to have its distribution intimately tied to the community outreach and engagement planning of the feature campaign. (Beware: sometimes it can also get lost in the campaign.)
'Even filmmakers with good connections, relationships and experiences can have difficulty securing distribution for their shorts. At Fledgling, we worry about that,' says Sheila Leddy, who helped launch Fledgling Fund's Rapid Story Deployment Fund. 'As its name implies, our fund emphasises rapid deployment. We want to know that the film team has a plan for how the story is going to reach audiences.'
The truth is, the right fit for your film will take into account your impact strategy (including target audiences and engagement needs), your economic and other priorities, and the distribution pathways that are open to you. There will be opportunities. There will be trade-offs. So develop a plan, make sure your partners and funders understand it, stay nimble, and keep your eye on impact.
Film festivals are one of the main ways that shorts get seen. They can generate industry buzz around a projects, and filmmakers often use them to gain the attention of potential funders and engagement partners for their distribution or impact campaigns. There are so many fantastic festivals with shorts programmes, we are deferring to the following list by the good folks at Short For The Week which was accurate at the time of publishing in early 2019.
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But people who’ve been there, done that warn that spending too much time and money on festivals may not balance out in the end. The most important note is to submit to festivals you plan to attend in person. And know that if you want to draw specific target audiences to festival screenings, you’ll have to put in the work to get them there. Also keep in mind that you’re likely to have a very limited amount of time for discussion. And you may be sharing the spotlight with other short films that may or may not have anything to do with your film or impact campaign. So plan wisely. Otherwise you may find the costs outweigh the benefits.
There are many platforms to consider. From Nowness to Dazed, AJ Shorts to Vice, Omeleto to CBC Short Docs and online premieres are certainly worth exploring. Especially if the prospective digital rights-holder will work to guarantee viewership. Or if they would allot a marketing budget to the project? If not, you may want to evaluate the terms against other non-exclusive options and prospective reach - especially if your priority is reaching a specific audience, which you can better guarantee on your own.
Also ask, will you be allowed to screen the film with partners or at other in-person events? And don’t forget to ask about derivative rights too; will they be included? Because if your priority is to leverage your short towards a series or a longer film, make sure you’re discussing those terms up front.
Take Vimeo’s premium initiative, Staff Pick Premieres, as an example. It guarantees over 100,000 views on the site and other benefits (e.g. placement, editorial and social media promotion) to filmmakers who they select and who agree to premiere their films on Vimeo. However, participants must agree to upload their work directly through their Vimeo accounts for one year, with the first 30 days being exclusive to Vimeo (a Vimeo-embedded link on other sites is fine though, as well as in-person events, festivals, television deals, and even SVOD). It's free to submit as long as you've screened at an Oscar-qualifying festival - however, they don't pay a licensing fee.
Which will be more valuable: an exclusive film festival premiere or an online platform that garners views from an important and select few, or the possibility of thousands of views in many spaces? Only your team knows. But the main lesson here is: ask lots of questions, weigh your options, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Because the space is still taking shape, most distributors are fairly flexible… especially if your reasons for doing what you want to do are aimed at social change.
And if you are self-distributing online, Jeffrey Bowers and Ina Pira, curators at Vimeo, suggest doing everything you can to set your film up to be discovered.
'Filmmakers are so good at doing crowdfunding to get their films made. But for some reason, they’re not so good at reaching out to everyone to “like” their film or spread the word about it. Remember: it’s the simple things that make a difference.'
What simple things, you ask?
*Make sure the audience you hope to reach is digitally connected and then be sure to feature your short in the spaces where they are likely to be.
*Thumbnails and a good logline are important.
*Subtitles, so your film is accessible to people who need them, can push your film up above the fray - and be sure to let people know you’ve done so in your logline.
*Connect your video to all your social media channels: make it really easy for people to help you.
*Create a plan to get your film up and out on as many platforms and spaces as you can.
*In terms of best practices for releasing a film online, that first week is crucial - the number of views a film will get that first week is probably the highest it will see, so make sure you give it your all.
*Reach out to press and your partner organisations.
Take This is a Coup for example. Field of Vision and Doc Society (formerly known as BRITDOC) partnered with Paul Mason’s Kallithea Films for this series about the 2015 Greek debt crisis. Their goal was to use the series to engage new democratic left-wing movements across key territories (Greece, Spain, UK, the US, Germany) and reinvigorate conversations around the Jubilee Campaign for debt relief. Their strategy required a robust online release.
The team had a robust plan that involved: press outreach in four languages; influencer screenings and thought leader engagement; outreach to over 200 influencers that was guided by influencer mapping; developing dozens of gifts and other assets; and a social calendar to coordinate their activities, among other things. Their press strategy also involved social mapping to identify press targets based on the media that their target audiences consumed, allowing the film team to prioritise media engagement to the audiences that would be most receptive to the episodes. This in turn amplified the reach to those most likely to share the films through social media. The team exceeded their online targets with over 486k views of 50% or more of the episodes and over 10 million impressions on Twitter.
Then, wherever it is that you gain momentum, use it as a springboard to build even more momentum. Filmmakers like Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick leveraged their short, Occupy Bakery, to build buzz for the feature among their core audiences in the labour and immigrant rights communities. They were able to keep this going with Upworthy, where the trailer was posted later in 2013, and through press and strategic outreach around several key festival screenings in 2014 (such as Full Frame, AFI Docs and DOC NYC). They also laid the groundwork for a successful Kickstarter in 2015, which funded a limited theatrical release and national grassroots screening tour.
'You can’t just wait for things to just go viral. You have to have a strategy to get it in front of the audiences you want to reach.'
Netflix, for example, features selections from The New York Shorts International Film Festival. Amazon’s Prime Video Direct program holds over 100 short films in its offering, which have been culled from popular film festivals like Tribeca or publishers like Tastemade, Machinima and CollegeHumor. AMC Digital collaborates with Sundance. Fandor is yet another, which offers a short film channel featuring films - all mostly under 5 minutes long - that have been pulled from well-established film festivals. We expect to see more of these collaborations in the years to come.
On-Demand deals, including AVOD, can be a great way to make some money back on a production or campaign. But again: read the agreements carefully for exclusivity clauses that limit your ability to release during certain windows or spaces. If you decide to sign one, be sure you’ve weighed the reasons why.
And be sure your impact campaign’s target audiences will be able to afford to get past the paywall. If not, it may be a good idea to create a discount code for them so that everyone you need to see this film can see it.
TELEVISION & THEATRICAL
Getting a short film featured on broadcast channels can really raise the profile with mainstream audiences. It’s a chance to focus outreach and engagement, to generate buzz and conversation online, and around which to get press attention. This can be valuable for film campaigns that are aimed at raising awareness, exposing new information, or educating the public about an issue.
But - shorts have a mixed fortune on TV. Strands have come and gone but one notable example is Al Jazeera’s Witness, which is available online and on TV and has the advantage of global reach. There are new players like ShortsTV, an HD TV channel dedicated to short movies that is available around the world. We are also seeing an increase in new series that feature shorts exclusively. The Short Form Film Festival, for example, is a TV program that showcases shorts for 14 million British households and is soon to reach markets in Asia and Australia.
POV has now thrown its hat into the ring with POV Shorts, a Public Broadcast TV series in the U.S. that premiered in late 2018. “The goal is to fill a need for shorts to be celebrated and amplified and have a home as a part of our cannon and legacy,” says Alice Quinlan. “We see shorts as part of a vanguard of adventurous and interesting and fun pieces that need to be showcased better.”
And then there’s theatrical. Did that make you blink twice? Well, it’s true. While it’s still limited, there is increasing opportunity for shorts in theatres in non-festival settings. Neon announced it would be pairing short films with all of its theatrical releases, And the word on the street is that one other distributor is making similar moves. This may still be a fledgling trend, but we’re keeping our eyes on it.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to get your film out there and there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Signing a deal or signing no deal; focusing your energies online or focusing them off-line… it all depends on priorities and your impact dynamics, as we discussed at the start of this chapter.
But even when you do manage to secure distribution, you still need to think hard about how you need this audience to engage with the content.
Unless your impact dynamic is changing minds (and even if it is changing minds) you need to create some scaffolding to move your audience up the ladder of engagement. In other words, they’ve experienced your film and have been moved and have learned from it. Now what? Be sure your plan includes a way to direct your audiences after they’ve viewed the film.
Now it’s time to explore a unique kind of partnership that we’ve already touched on but that deserves a deeper look because it’s increasingly common with shorts: journalistic partnerships.