Editor's Note: This article is presented in partnership with the Wyoming Film Office and the Wyoming Short Film Contest, which is currently accepting submissions for 2016 and offering a $25,000 Grand Prize for the winner's next shot-in-Wyoming project. Click here to learn more.
The demand for short form content has created new opportunities for short filmmakers as brands, new digital platforms and major media companies all crave quality, bite size, streamable content that has been proven to drive web traffic via social media. But what does this mean for talented short filmmakers whose work plays at top film festivals? Are the shorts that are good enough be chosen amongst 7,000-9,000 submissions to get into Sundance or SXSW Film Festivals every year now a desired commodity? Can the short film become more than a calling card for up and coming filmmakers? Indiewire talked to a dozen directors behind some of 2016’s most celebrated shorts to find out.
When a film first gets into a major festival, short filmmakers initially feel like they are desired by the marketplace as they are quickly approached by a number of short film distributors making offers to acquire their film. Unfortunately, few of those initial offers turn out to be significant, or worthwhile. "The most common seems to be relatively little known online VOD sites and small subscription cable channels in need of content," said Gabriel Miller, whose short "A Reasonable Request" played both at Sundance and SXSW this year. "To be honest, we largely ignored these offers as the money was so small as to be barely worth the administrative time we’d have to spend dealing with it all – we’re talking maybe a couple hundred dollars."
"Everybody has a new short film platform, but they dissolve," explained Calvin Lee Reeder, who has had four films play at Sundance, including "The Procedure," which won the Sundance Jury Award for U.S. Fiction Short this year. "I'm not going to sign with a company I've never heard of."
"The only sizable offers came in the form of exclusive deals that would have locked the film into one channel for 12 months, which wasn’t something we were prepared to do," reported Miller, who estimates he could have made $3,000-4,000 by juggling all the different regional non-exclusive offers he received from around the globe. Reeder, whose short "Little Farm" played at Sundance in 2007, told Indiewire he actually had an easier time making money from his short via iTunes and Atom Films – approximately $7,000-8,000 total – nearly a decade ago.
The problem, according to most of the short filmmakers Indiewire spoke with for this article, is that making a few thousand dollars isn’t worth the tradeoff of having to take their film off free sites like Vimeo. "Being free to view online has been a major part of the film’s success – currently approaching 250,000 plays – and taking it down from Vimeo isn’t something we’d be prepared to do unless the money was very serious, which it never would be for a short," said Miller. "The main reason for this is that I just don’t believe these short film VOD sites and services have an audience anywhere near as big as sites like Vimeo, and getting the most eyes as possible on your film is the priority with a short."
Jim Cummings, whose short "Thunder Road" won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2016, and who has produced and distributed short films through his animation collective Ornana, concurred that rarely does the money come near to the value filmmakers gain from the visibility they can find on Vimeo.
"Vimeo is a much more viable option," said Cummings. "It allows us a direct interaction with our audience, which is invaluable. We know so much about the Reddit community, blogs and we already have all these connections to press through years of going to festivals, it makes so much more sense to put [our films] online for free where there is no barrier with the audience, who can like it, share it, post it and write about it. We make these things because they are really cool and we want to engage with audiences. We also make these things as a business model so we can meet people who can [help us] make bigger stuff."
That investment in his career and having a direct connection with the audience has already paid big dividends for Cummings. After releasing the animated short "Confusion Through Sand" on Vimeo, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour approached Cummings' Ornana about directing his next music video.
"They paid us $100,000 and that's an opportunity that happened because he had direct connection to us," said Cummings, who pointed out that Gilmour’s people reached them by sending an email through their Vimeo site. Cummings got an even bigger opportunity after his 2016 short "Thunder Road," which was filmed in one long take, was seen by the people at Full Screen, who just greenlit $150,000 for Cummings’ team to make six more single take shorts. "We used 'Thunder Road' as a proof of concept and they loved the idea. Now they've hired us to make more cool stuff over the next two months."
Cummings experience highlights the contradiction of the demand for short content in 2016 – there are real opportunities for commissioned work from brands and digital platforms for short filmmakers, but the very best short films that play at the biggest festivals are at best lucky to break even.
There are platforms that pay for content and that also reach a film festival like audience, amongst them one of the most desired sites is The New Yorker's The Screening Room, which has a small curated collection of shorts by filmmakers like celebrated short filmmakers like Dustin Guy Defa and includes Bernardo Britto’s "Yearbook," which won Sundance in 2014 and is widely regarded as one of the best animated shorts of the last decade. The New Yorker though is not paying top dollar for the very best shorts, often offering $2,000-2,500 and only topping out around $8,000-9,000 for a film like "Yearbook."
For most short filmmakers, this type money would mean making back their production costs, but making ends meet is not why these filmmakers are drawn to short filmmaking and losing that direct connection with their audience is not worth it.
“[The people at The New Yorker] are very nice and they loved ['Thunder Road'] after Sundance, but they just don't have the funds and they're The New Yorker, one of the largest propagators of short independent content on the internet," explained Cummings. "It's a sad market when even the winners at Sundance and SXSW are having trouble making ends meet. My film cost $8,000 to make, which I paid out of pocket, if I sell it to anybody, it would be to YouTube or someone who is going to promote it and it would have to stipulated [in the contract] that they do a lot of advertising for it."
"The main point is that no one should ever make a short film for the money," added Miller. "A short is your calling card, your chance to show people the kind of filmmaker you are. If it’s good it will get you the attention you need and help progress your career, which is far more valuable than the peanuts you’ll get by hawking your short to the highest bidder."
If you are interested in watching a short film, check out "King Ripple":