When we wrote the first Impact Field Guide back in 2013, we did so with feature-length documentaries in mind. But there is huge renewed interest in shorts and we decided it was time to dig into the ins and outs of making and moving them for impact.
In case you need to be convinced, short form film was listed among SXSW 2018’s '12 most significant trends.'' Distributors like Netflix and Amazon are now acquiring some short form docs content, and new spaces have emerged for them. This includes: POV Shorts, a new broadcast streaming series for short-form non-fiction content; New York Times Op-Docs, a video version of the newspaper’s OpEd section; and CNN’s Great Big Story, a 24-hour short-form video channel. Quibi is Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman's mobile viewing platform made specifically for short form narrative and nonfiction content. And in 2017, Sundance Festival launched its Indie Episodic section, designed as a dedicated showcase for emerging independent voices and their work, which featured documentary shorts series. Facebook even threw its hat in the ring, seeking shows with 15 minute long episodes.
Why are shorts on the rise now?
The answer depends on who you speak to. Some say it’s driven by audience demand; people have come to desire and even expect documentary to accompany written journalism, a trend which is now visible on almost every news platform.
Many attribute it to the narrowing attention spans of audiences that come with the social media age which favour shorter content. Netflix recently revealed that close to 25 percent of its streaming globally happens over mobile networks.
Others say shorts are on the rise because content creation is just more accessible and there are many more platforms for ease of publishing - albeit often without financial reward or guarantees of audiences. Or that the new wave of shorts is driven by filmmakers who are creating and distributing content that challenges mainstream trends, ideas, or voices, and which rarely make it through to traditional gatekeepers. To that point the 2018 Center for Media and Social Impact at American University report finds that filmmakers in their survey sample who were from racial and ethnic minority groups were significantly more likely to be making short-form films (18% makers of colour compared to 7% white filmmakers), and less likely to be making feature-length films than white filmmakers (50% compared to 64%).
What has always been true is that sometimes, shorter is best. Many impact-focused film teams will tell you that the communities they work with have particular needs, and often it’s not a feature-length film.
As individualised online viewing experiences become more common, some organisers say it can be helpful to have something that can be digested and circulated online versus having to gather people in physical spaces for several hours at a time. While shorter pieces, that can be integrated into pre-existing meetings rather than devoting limited resources towards organising a separate screening event, are really helpful.
A rapid-response short can be incredibly satisfying to produce and publish in fast-moving social and political contexts. Often, in those contexts, speed really matters - because the social problems our films address, and the movements they support, often can’t wait for alignment with a feature-length production schedule.
And for some filmmakers, shorts offer a way to break up the multi-year labour of a feature doc, helping them to build early buzz before a longer film’s release. Often, filmmakers will use the short they create to build confidence in their broader film and project, raise additional funds towards the completion and distribution, and even solidify partnerships.
In this chapter we’ll explore practices, impact considerations and trends related to making and moving shorts. We’ll also examine how film teams are getting them out into the world. But first, we take a look at the creative practices that have supported impact.
Geek Out: Ideas for further reading
This text, Shorts and Film History: The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Short Film by Cynthia Felando, was written for you!
We also love this project from the IDFA Doc Lab, Moments of Innovation, on the emergence, re-emergence, and variety of shorts.
Great evaluation will also impress and comfort all the other kinds of partners we want to work with, from grass-root organisers to leading campaign organisations. It can help you find collaborators and mobilize your audiences. You can show what a film project is going to deliver that their army of expert campaigners, lobbyists, and researchers cannot.
Great evaluation can be learnt from – both within a project, to improve it as we go; and across impact filmmaking as a whole field, so we can learn from each other and all do it better.
Fundamentally, great evaluation is great because it makes more change happen faster.
In this chapter, we’ll dig into great evaluation in more detail exploring what makes evaluation great, what makes it complex, mapping out a plan with the help of a worksheet, and reviewing a multitude of tools to help you with execution. We’ll draw on a few case studies to illustrate what we mean. You should already have read most of these, but if you haven’t, head to the Librarynow.
Then we’ll get into helping you draw up your own Impact Evaluation Plan, with the help of a worksheet, basically a simple list of the essentials you want to keep track of to help you maximise your impact. We’ll start by helping you refine the goals from the Strategic Plan you made in chapter two, then identify some Indicators, or data points, that you’ll be looking to gather, using our Indicator Matrix to find what will work for you. There’s also some practical help on designing surveys and an overview of tools available to film teams to help you make the most of your evaluation work.
And once you’re done, we reckon you might love evaluation just as much as we do.
The solution is to be proactive. Make a plan based on the goals of your campaign, and share it with funders and partners - create it with them. Ask what matters to them, why they funded the project, and consider their goals as well as your own - co-create a model that helps the film team gain insight on the work while it delivers key outcomes to the stakeholders. Done right, evaluation can be revealing whilst delivering strategy, powerful in demonstrating effect.