Who Is Your Video Short For, Anyway?

So, why are you making your short in the first place? Seriously. Who is this for? Don’t worry, there’s no wrong answer. But it should be the first question you ask yourself.

Knowing the audience for your video short

photo by: Vancouver Film School

Is it for your accountant? In other words, do you think you’re going to get rich off a short film? If so, we need to talk. Yes, it is possible to make money on a short, if you win an Academy Award and you license the film to iTunes and a couple home video distributors and you sell it to television in pretty much every country in the world. It’s possible to make money even if you don’t nail the hat trick, but not a lot of money.

In the United States, the handful of broadcasters (IFC, Sundance Channel, Logo, your local PBS affiliate) that acquire shorts pay somewhere between $500 and $3000. In Canada, Europe, and Japan, license fees are a little better, but to get those deals you’re probably going to need a sales agent, which means handing over 40–50% on each. Home video deals for shorts are thin on the ground, generally geared toward niche audiences, and usually conspicuously lacking in an advance. Internet sales can make you some money if you’re lucky enough to have the right film at the right moment (ask the JibJab guys).

But don’t forget about the hidden costs—duplication and closed captioning and music clearances. In other words, no matter what anyone tells you, short films are not a commercial proposition. They’re wonderful things, but they’re not going to make the down payment on that condo. Plan to lose money (that’s where those tax breaks come in) or, if you’re feeling optimistic, plan to break even. But don’t make a short film to make money.

OK, so there was a wrong answer. But that was the only one, I promise.

Is it for your resume? There’s a stigma attached to the so-called “calling card” short but, you know what, if it gets the job done…

Short filmmaking is the proving ground of aspiring feature filmmakers. If you can show that you can tell a story in 10 or 15 minutes, then your feature pitch is that much stronger.

Maybe there’s a chunk of your cherished feature script that you could shoot as a short film. Just make sure that the short works on its own terms. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Sundance Film Festivalwinning short Gowanus, Brooklyn is a terrific example of a beautifully made, self-contained short that did double duty as a dry run for its makers’ first feature, indie sensation Half Nelson. Unlike 99% of calling-card shorts, Gowanus worked as a short film, not just as a showreel.

Is it for the gatekeepers—the film festival programmers, distributors, acquisition execs, jaded types and their ilk? In the best of all possible worlds, the gatekeepers are a means to an end, the crucial bridge between your film and an eager worldwide audience. In the real world, they’re cranky, overworked, overscreened, and maybe a little bit dismissive. How do you win them over?

Directing a video short

photo by Vancouver Film School

The obvious answer is the most important. Make a good film. Make one that hasn’t been seen before—a new story told in a new way, or at the very least, an old story told in a new way. Give ’em something to chew on, something that makes ’em pay attention. Make sure that your film opens with a bang, ’cause most shorts get ejected after two minutes. Get your hooks in early. What else?

Is it for the audience? Which audience? It’s worth thinking about how you’re saying what you have to say, and to whom. Industry types—the gatekeepers and producers and whatnot above—are part of your audience. But so are the hundreds or thousands or even millions (well, more likely hundreds or thousands) of people who might see your short film at a film festival or a micro-cinema screening or online or on DVD or on TV. But don’t spend too much time worrying about the hypothetical audience (and that goes for the gatekeeper, too). If you make the best film you can, the film that speaks truly and clearly in your own voice, people will see it, and when they see it, they’ll get it.

Is this short for you? Is this filmmaking as self-expression? If so, more power to you, as long as you don’t blow through too much of other people’s money doing it (if you do, at least get ’em a tax break).

Too many filmmakers take too few chances making shorts. With limited resources and no real commercial prospects comes freedom. Use it well, take chances, figure out what you have to say and how you want to say it. The rest will take care of itself.

Excerpt from “Who Is This For, Anyway?” by Ian Bricke. Published in Swimming Upstream: A Lifesaving Guide to Short Film Distribution by Sharon Badal, © 2008 Sharon Badal. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment
   LALIT KUMAR RATHORE said on January 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm


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MasteringFilm, powered by bestselling Routledge authors and industry experts, features tips, advice, articles, video tutorials, interviews, and other resources for aspiring and current filmmakers. No matter what your filmmaking interest is, including directing, screenwriting, postproduction, cinematography, producing, or the film business, MasteringFilm has you covered. You’ll learn from professionals at the forefront of filmmaking, allowing you to take your skills to the next level.