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Making short films viable for filmmakers
  • I've been thinking a lot about how to make short films viable as a format for filmmakers. Here's my plan. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  • 23 Replies sorted by
  • Sounds interesting. You should give it a try to see how it works. I think any product that people like can be successfully sold, so it's really a matter of producing quality movies that people like then making them available. Sounds cliche but quality is the key. Produce true dynamite and you will have sales...but it must be truly dynamite!...but that's fine because that's what we all want to do...its the reason we got into filmmaking in first make killer movies.

    Step 1 - Produce TRULY DYNAMITE film Step 2 - Make sure it really is must be "lightning in a bottle!...not just merely "pretty good". "Pretty good" is worthless when you don't have an advertising budget...and may be worthless even if you do. Step 3 - Sell

    Quality is everything.

  • Mmmm...quality isn't what the mass audience responds to, unfortunately. Two of the biggest indie successes, in terms of selling to an audience, had absolutely horrible quality and no production value: Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity. Then you have the not quite this level but still massive success for something like Open Water. And all over I'm seeing promotions for VHS2, the first of which was another anti-quality film. The only film to gain a theatrical release with a greater anti-aesthetic, that I can think of, would be Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers.

  • I agree and disagree. Some of the films you mentioned are an LCD situation (lowest common deniminator) and have succeeded, so you could say low quality succeeded. But my point is that if you have good taste (both in classical film sense, and in innovative/modern film sense)...and you produce TRUE DYNAMITE QUALITY by your own standards...then you can be commercially successful. I.e. you can blend and manifest quality artistry with wide commercial appeal...and can succeed in sales. My point is that if an indie guy produces soemthing that is "pretty good" and tries to sell online without big advertising won't succeed because "pretty good" isn't good enough to sell off word of mouth. Word of mouth (and limited/no budget social media marketing) will only work with TRUE DYNAMITE LIGHTNING IN THE BOTTLE level quality.

    Please excuse caps...that reflects my enthusiasm for what I see as the great potential for indie filmmakers...if they stay focused on "quality".

    That's my approach and I say it should be the aporoach of anyone who dreams of producing "greatness" and then making money. Forget the world...produce the "gem"...then take it to market.

  • One of the things I discuss in the article is that even with great quality, there has been no meaningful return for short films for a few reasons particular to the format. My short films have won lots of festival awards and get distribution offers, but in the current system, the returns just aren't there. So I proposed a different tack.

    I'm definitely jumping in with my short films, including one I just shot (on my GH2s, of course). The article is getting a lot of response, so I thought maybe some folks around here would be interested as well

  • I think that level of quality is a bit of a false aim. A truly great short film can get you a little attention, but less than you might think--especially these days when the film and commercial industries are contracting and no one is really looking for the next great filmmaker.

    Also, even if you do create something amazing that goes viral, how do you propose to both let people know about your short film AND then get them to pay for it. That's been the Catch-22 for short film filmmakers for ages and it's what the Business Model addresses.

  • Wish you the best of success. I like the creative approach to the "catch-22".

  • @matt_gh2 Yeah, I wasn't trying to say not to produce quality. It's just that making something good, really good, is no more a guarantee of commercial success than making something bad is a guarantee of failure. The catch here is "commercial success" which nobody has a formula for since what works once might fail when repeated, with no discernable reason for the difference in performance (see: Hollywood).

    Shorts are very problematic in this culture and haven't really ever been commercially viable, by themselves, as individual units, beyond their function in some cases as a "calling card", opening up other opportunities. Even that is something that occurs so rarely it borders on myth and for every real example a healthy percentage of those other opportunities never come to fruition, because the filmmaker didn't have much to offer besides what was seen in the short (see: 405 the Movie). This is a shame really. But we live in a culture (America at least) that does not value art for its own sake nor does it reward it.

    Episodic shorts enjoy examples of success and some for the collection of shorts into an anthology. But shorts just by themselves, I've only ever seen that work for animation. Spike and Mike put several fellow animators through school and into new cars for the sick-and-twisted shorts that they would produce on campus at CalArts for their always sold-out travelling animation festival.

    But I'm hopeful that a new model can be created that overcomes our present reality. So, best of luck to Mr. Horn.

  • @DouglasHorn, you Sir, inspire me more than anybody else on the internet. Initially with Divergence (and I was pissed off when you stopped releasing them), and now with this article/model. I also watched 'Full Disclosure' where can I buy it in HD?


  • @DouglasHorn Interesting read Douglas, and I felt very old after reading it. Your idea is the same type of program I've used for a long time, except you've improved the platform. As mentioned, I'm old and am still struggling with the new cashless society. Internet and a shallow audience.

    You're plan adds some light at the end of that tunnel. I'm going to re-read it in a little.


  • Artificial scarcity and toying with viewers is not a good idea I think.

    Indie films need reliable distributors and widely-known web stores, something that IndiePix and iTunes' indie section seem to be aiming for. For buyers it should be as easy as "go to store, watch trailers, buy the films, watch the films".

    For example, club music (EDM) scene nowadays is based on indie labels that sell artists' music online, DRM-free, in specialized stores like Beatport, TrackItDown, Audiojelly and others, along with iTunes. Most artists and label runners get only marginal income from it, not enough to cover all expenses, but they get products to the market and manage legal side of it properly. Some artists and labels achieve greater success, fan following and commercial viability, some don't. Big labels have bigger marketing and promotion budgets, small labels have to manage on less, and so on, but at least the distribution model makes all content from all artists easily available to buyers.

  • @kavadni - Wow, thank you very much. I truly appreciate that. I'm going to be releasing more of my short films for free shortly--as many as my contracts allow me to. And I'll be putting out new shorts soon, starting with one called Tape Recorder. Please don't give up on DIVERGENCE. There will be 5 new episodes soon and we're working on ways to keep the series going and at a much faster production pace too. The truth about DIVERGENCE is that even though we get some great help from some talented people, at the heart of it, it's a series that's made by two guys who still need day jobs. But we're hoping to change that.

    About Full Disclosure--bear with me while I set it up. Rather than just creating a solution for myself, I'm trying to work through a lot of these questions in a way that's transparent and can help other filmmakers. So part 2 of this Open Source Short Film Business Model will break down who I'm using and why with costs, etc. It just takes a little longer this way.

  • @peternap - I would love to hear about your experiences. One really humbling thing about putting out this article is all the great responses I'm getting from it. So many people are offering me their thoughts and experiences that I think it's going to shave a lot of time off what it would otherwise take to whip this first draft of a plan into something that really works.

    If you can, please drop a comment on the site. I look forward to hearing your take.

  • @neokoo - You could be right about artificial scarcity. On some levels I agree with this in principle, but looking around various marketplaces, it seems like artificial scarcity can work quite well in some contexts. (Gas prices?)

    As for toying with viewers--that's not my aim and I hadn't really thought about it being perceived that way. I think you make a good point that any filmmaker who does this should frame it in a way so that it does not seem capricious. At the moment, the only part that I'm advocating not disclosing is exactly when the film goes dark. (But the time for it to become available again would be made clear.) Television does this all the time--a network show is available for a certain time frame and after that you can purchase the episode. To be clear, in my model, once you purchase the episode, it's yours forever.

    Anyway, it sounds like you have some interesting thoughts on the subject, I'd welcome your comments on the post. I'm trying to direct the discussion over there, and I suppose if I want to succeed in that I should discuss it less on other sites.

  • @DouglasHorn

    Yep, I see what you mean, when presented like "see if for free this weekend!" or "get it for half the price today!" the idea could work. Must be careful to send viewers a positive message. Both digital game stores as well as digital music stores have similar offers, but anyway, that's basic sales promotion tactic… the most consumer-friendly of them, perhaps.

    About scarcity as part of business model: I think what actually sells Disney and other big company content - besides quality of content itself - are established market positions, brand awareness and big marketing budgets. Scarcity policies of big companies might have boosted sales before, but in digital age they also helped to create demand for illegal distribution channels that offered instant availability when legal channels did not. But even that happened only because their brand and promotion efforts had created demand for content in the first place.

    You mentioned getting emails from people around the world, I think it is not scarcity that gets them interested, it's your content. TV (or wherever else they got to know of it) in that case acted in same role as, for example, DJ sets in EDM scene - promotion for artists' work. In some sense that can be seen as temporary scarcity, but newer generations tend to expect instant availability right after deciding they like the content.

    All in all, I think in trying to make indie short films viable the best thing is to have as wide and convenient digital availability as possible, while using film festivals, TV exposure and free viewing periods (or "first X minutes" clips, as you've done) on Vimeo/Youtube/etc. for as much promotion as possible. As with indie music, rest is up to chance, social media sharing, active self-promotion, bought promotion, knowing the right people, negotiating better deals, building a lasting company/artist brand and so on…

    For what it's worth, I bought Full Disclosure on iTunes after seeing 2:00 of it on Vimeo. Being close to age bracket and life situation of the characters, the story and setting got me interested, and easy click-buy availability coupled with "impulse buy price" closed the deal. The distribution share you've shown is not far from what's in beginner artist contracts in European EDM scene, having signed a few of those I can relate to how little that one sale brings. But still, having one's work for sale on iTunes is significant if not downright essential these days, not only for potential sales but for image value as well.

    Hope your films get more exposure and lead to better deals!

  • There's no way that marketing will ever overcome market fundamentals: vast oversupply of product, and very limited demand. Who's interested in shorts without obvious commercial characteristics? For the most part, the only audience would be appear to be other filmmakers who make shorts. Even with commercial characteristics, where's the public interest in them, beyond the festival circuit, where they're programmed reluctantly? The business model for independent features is bad enough; for shorts, it would be appear to be altogether hopeless today.

    In the U.S., the arts are supposed to redeem themselves by making money, but it's no secret that virtually all other governments subsidize film production. Can't blame people for trying, but where has non-Hollywood filmmaking ever made money, without state or philanthropic support? What does happen occasionally is that an independent feature -- or more rarely, a short -- will promote a commercial career or lead to a better financed independent production. But in that case it might be useful to distinguish between steps taken for career advancement, and an actual business plan expected to generate income.

  • @jrd There is not a glut of good product. The overwhelming majority of independent films is miserable. There is an insatiable demand for compelling cinema, long or short. DouglasHorn's solution to the distribution conundrum is worth a serious try for those very few films that are worth watching.

  • There is an insatiable demand for compelling cinema, long or short.

    I'll agree that there's no glut of "good product" (or better still, let's say "great product"), but there's no demand for it, either. Outside the Hollywood realm, can you name any recent films which succeeded commercially thanks to their excellence or originality?

    This has always been a problem, for cinema: it's a populist, vulgar medium which necessarily relies on trash and superficiality for an element of excitement, including classics like Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane or Vertigo.

    Try to turn the medium into a contemplative or profound art-house product, and you'll end up with a very tiny audience and, in many cases, a film which fails to succeed even on its own terms, because it's working against the very nature of cinema as a mass-audience real-time experience -- and where the requirements are different from those of the theater, the novel or the visual arts, and there isn't the same freedom.

    Anyway, the films I consider worth watching today generally don't make money, or make so little that they'd never get made based on a rational expectation of showing a profit. You wouldn't expect lyric poetry or string quartets to make money today, so why would films with ambitions to high art?

  • I'm not talking about art films or exotica. I'm talking about excellence in popular entertainment, for example, Tony Scott's Beat the Devil, a very entertaining and expensive short film. (I did not include a link because I couldn't find an HD version). You don't have to spend at that level to produce an excellent salable product, but you cannot do it on $5K. It takes a strong story, a commitment to top quality, especially cast, and the skill to execute the project. No distribution model will work for crap that no one wants to see. Had Beat the Devil been marketed only according to DanielHorn's model, is there any doubt as to its success? Now that high-quality image capture is available, one expensive impediment is gone. The technology fools us into believing that everything else will be that easy.

  • Beat the Devil isn't really a good example here because it's a long-form commercial as much or more as it's a short-form film and exists beyond the pressures or issues related to short films. That was part of the BMW FILMS campaign of 2001 (of which the Scott Bros. were producers). It shares more with Ridley Scott's "1984" campaign for Apple than it does any legitimate short film made for the sake of making a short film. While it's great, and I love it myself, it is a commercial at the end of the day (admitting, of course, that a majority of great commercials are, themselves, micro films).

    Each installment's A-list director made a short film on a commercial shoot's budget, and most commercial shoots are way, way spendier than your average short film or indulgent USC thesis short. They were financed and commissioned by BMW to market their cars. These are what eventually led to The Transporter franchise, only they didn't, unfortunately, keep Clive Owen (who appears as "The Driver" in all of the BMW FILMS).

    Guy Ritchie's is quite entertaining as well. I'm betting his installment for BMW cost more to make than his indie feature budget for Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

    There wasn't any budget to recoup here. It was brilliant marketing on the part of BMW.

    On October 21, 2005, BMW stopped distribution of The Hire on DVD and removed all eight films from the BMWFilms website just four years after the first film debuted. The series was abandoned, reportedly because the project had become too expensive. BMW's Vice President of Marketing James McDowell, originator of the BMWFilms project, left BMW to become the VP of sales and marketing for BMW's "Mini USA" division. BMW also split from longtime ad partner Fallon Worldwide which was the creative production outlet for the series and BMW's German division had attempted to become involved with the US division of the company, cutting costs.

    ...but even with their deep pockets, they cried "Uncle." But, yeah, short films are quite viable when you have a multi-national corporation writing the checks for you.

    And, unfortunately, I wouldn't hold my breath for an HD version, seeing as how nobody at BMW is still involved with the creatives. I forget now if their custom QT player streamed anything higher than 480P equivalent back then. Remember, early 21st century there were still people on dial-up and your average DSL was like 768K down. I doubt it was finished at HD which was still in its infancy and 24P HD had only just been available.

  • @DouglasHorn

    First of all, FANTASTIC POST!

    You've taken the existing ideas of scarcity and patronage then really looked at how they can be applied to Short Films, via a mix of intermittent scarcity and micro patronage. As a web developer I'm already imagining how this platform could be made and used.

    Secondly, am a couple of minutes into watching "Full Disclosure" and I'm already loving it :-)

  • Clearly, I don't think that this is something that every filmmaker who makes a short can turn into a living wage. However, I'm hopeful that for people who make some high quality shorts and know how to be mindful of their spend, that this approach (especially as it evolves) could enable them to make more great short films and pay some people along way.

    As the situation stands, that's not really a possibility for even the best short films. And it may ultimately prove not to be possible. But I just hadn't seen any serious new thinking applied to the question in a while even though there are several new tools, consumer attitudes, and market forces that could be brought into play. Anyway, that's the genesis and I've been having a lot of interesting discussions on the topic lately, so it continues to evolve. More on the blog soon.

  • @IronFilm - Thank you. I hope you like the short. It's been a good one for me. I'm glad you like the OSSFBM as well. As you keep thinking about it--especially from a developer standpoint--please stay in touch. I've been having a lot of interesting talks with people lately. That blog post is having quite a "stone soup" effect and I think there's a chance that as people bring their talents and ideas to the question, that perhaps an actual, functional solution will emerge.

    One of the things I'm doing now is talking to many of the VOD providers (most listed on my VOD blog post) about how they could implement some of the tools of intermittent scarcity to their platforms. Drop me an email, PM, etc if you'd like to share your thoughts.

  • On the topic of making short films for a price--I'm about to release a new one called Tape Recorder, which I'm hoping to be a new Full Disclosure for me. I'm trying to marry the new model of DSLR filmmaking (use only the cameras, lights, editing system, etc. you own and can use for free) with high quality, vetted scripts and talented professional actors and keys so that there's both high quality and low cost to help make these short films viable and sustainable. Stay tuned.