The Film Business

Why Would I Want to Buy Your Short?


Photo by: Patrick Hoesly

I’ve got a shelving unit in my office that houses over 1000 short films sent to me in the last year. And those are just the ones from distributors. The shelf from filmmakers holds another couple hundred. I love short films and I’ll watch them all—eventually—but I program another TV channel and handle the contracts and scheduling for that one, too. Okay, cry me a river, I’m busy, but the point is—given those circumstances, what’s my motivation to watch YOUR short film?

It has a kick-ass original story, awesome production values, and stars Brad Pitt. That trifecta isn’t going to happen often, if ever, but two of those three will help move your film closer to the top of the pile.

It’s played 60+ film festivals, so it must be good right? As a festival programmer myself, I can’t disagree with that, but there are a couple of caveats. First, a “festival darling” doesn’t always equal a film that’s suitable for TV. Setting aside the obvious broadcast hindrances of excessive swearing and lots of nudity (although depending on the channel these can be pluses), the film may be long and the pacing may be too slow for TV. Most broadcasters have difficulty placing a short that’s longer than 10–15 minutes, as shorts are still often used for interstitials (filler) or limited to 30- or 60-minute slots where several shorts are competing for placement. Movieola is the rare exception—we only broadcast shorts so we’re open to all genres and lengths up to 40 minutes, and indeed some of the films which have garnered the best viewer response are longer. A methodically paced (read “slow”) film, especially a short, can be deadly in the short-attention-span-600-channel universe we live in. I’ve got to try to keep people tuned in to my channel.

Secondly, WHICH festivals did it play in? There are a lot of festivals out there that will play almost anything that comes their way, and although you may think it looks good to have a list of festival screenings as long as your arm, it doesn’t always help. Buyers and programmers know which fests are big deals and which aren’t, and seeing some of the less reputable festivals on a screening list can set alarm bells ringing.

It’s won awards at several of those festivals. Now you’re getting my attention (unless those awards came from the less reputable fests—see above), and I want to see what all the fuss is about. Niche festivals can also be helpful in this way; awards from doc, gay/les, African-American, Asian, Jewish, animation, children’s festivals, etc., can tell us a lot. A buyer may just have the perfect strand or theme slot for your film.

It’s won an Oscar. Bingo! I don’t know of a buyer out there who isn’t interested in seeing or licensing an Oscar-winning, or nominated, short film. The Oscars are seen by more people than any other platform for short film in the world—yes, even YouTube. They give your short instant name-recognition and they give buyers a powerful marketing tool to promote the broadcast of the film.

And that’s the bottom line. Buyers are not interested in your film just because it’s a good film; there are thousands of great short films out there. We’re interested in ensuring people watch your short film on TV/airline/web sites/DVD—whatever the platform may be. How do I do that? By having a marketing or promotional hook that can get some attention. Attention=eyeballs. Eyeballs=advertisers. Advertisers=revenue. Revenue=money to license and broadcast more short films. Crass isn’t it? But that’s the “business” part of the film business…

To be honest, short films face an uphill battle being seen and we need to do whatever we can to get people to watch them. You and I may love short films, but the majority of the population doesn’t have a clue about them, and thanks to the proliferation of user-generated content, probably doesn’t have a very high opinion of what they think short film is anyway. That’s why things like awards, prestige, and celebrities can help cut through the clutter and get your film seen. But don’t despair, there’s always going to be a place for beautifully made, low-key shorts. It’s called my heart.

Excerpted from “So You Want To Sell That Short? Not So Fast…” by Shane Smith. 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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