It's no news that digital media has made filmmakers' ability to create content much easier than it's ever been before. But with more accessibility there inevitable come more obstacles throughout the process, not least of which is the increasing competition and the ever-elusive channels of distribution.
Fortunately, much light has been shed on the matter by the likes of Oscar-nominated documentarian Morgan Spurlock ("Super-Size Me"), Op-Docs producer and curator Jason Spingarn-Koff, ESPN Films' Director of Development Dan Silver ("30 for 30") and actress Gillian Jacobs ("Community," "Life Partners"), all of whom sat down for a panel discussion moderated by General Manager of Audience Networks at Vimeo Greg Clayman at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
Read below to find out what they had to say on the growth of short content and what it means for indie filmmakers:
Bigger is not always better. Morgan Spurlock asserted his claim that "there are stories that are made to be feature length movies, and there are stories that should be television projects -- 45-60 minutes -- and sometimes people try to stretch those into features and they shouldn't. And then there are stories that are perfect or fantastic in a 3-5 minute segment, that's where they should live. And one of the things that we try to do and one of the things that I believe in is that you need to explore that creative process. You shouldn't stretch things longer than they should be."
Think about distribution from the get-go. Spurlock explained that "from the minute we have an idea, we're thinking about 'where could this go?' Because I think especially as a content creator and especially working in today's business world, you have to have an understanding of how the business works, and you can't just come up with an idea and say 'great, we're gonna make it and then take it out.' I feel like that world shifted. The days of 'I'm gonna make a feature-length film and go to Sundance,' you know there's still those movies you can do that with but I think you have to have a vision of where you want this to live and ultimately where it can live financially, physically, reality. I think you have to be thinking about that moving in."
Even celebrities love short form. Gillian Jacobs described her recent short form project with Ed Helms, telling the audience that "[Helms] came up with this concept about a tiny army commando and I was like 'His Girl Friday' and it was awesome because we got so many incredible guest stars, you see Nick Kroll and Rob Corddry and Thomas Lennon and all these people would come in 'cause it was just basically a day commitment for them. So I got to work with this whole wide group of people that I really admire." Spurlock added that "now everyone has realized the value of creating short form content. Look at the stars that are now doing short form content. We're getting A-list celebrities who are coming in saying 'I wanna do this 'cause it's cool. I get to flex my creative muscles.'
Networks won't interfere. Gillian mentioned another benefit of working on Helms' project, the fact that "it's really fun. There were no notes [on Helms' project], there were no studio representatives on set saying 'Please don't do that' or 'Say that.'" Spurlock also pointed out the fact that "there's not as much pressure as a network where you have to get a certain number every single week or they're gonna cancel the show. Things are done at a certain price point, they have a little more fun and basically the networks, be it AOL or Yahoo! or Hulu, want to give that creative flexibility. That's what enticing about it."
Short form content is good for documentary filmmakers. Dan Silver elaborated this point by explaining "to start, documentary filmmaking is really hard. And it's time-consuming. For us to do a '30 for 30' and the '30 for 30s' that work really well are the ones that are passion-driven. A director, a storyteller has a story and they're dying to tell it. That's where you get a specific point of view. But it's a commitment. And not everybody, not every filmmaker, not every person who does a 30 for 30 has almost a year of their life to give up. And you deal on the passion. And what we started seeing is this balance. If you bring over the quality that we spend and the attention that we spend, how seriously we take it from the 30 for 30 perspective, and apply that to short form content, short films, then there's something interesting here. And then we start getting into the fun stuff, which is the distribution."
Content is king. In response to a question about net neutrality's impact on independent artists, Spurlock reassured the audience that "I think what will happen is content creators will always be able to load a piece of their content. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter who the bandwidth is, content is king. You are the content creator and it doesn't matter. You are the brains behind the idea or whatever it is. JJ Abrams is always gonna be able to load a piece of JJ Abrams content, because he's JJ Abrams. I feel like there are certain content creators that you're always gonna be able to make those deals."
However, he also brought up the issue that "it's gonna be harder for people when you come up, as it is for anyone. The question is can you drive people to smaller channels to watch things? It's still gonna come down to marketing, it's gonna be coming down to advertising, to co-promotion. Right now, we live in a world where there's so much on the internet that 99% of stuff online is invisible. There's just no way to market it because there's just too much, and you're gonna start seeing some people get behind the promotion of certain content."
Best venues through which to get your stuff seen. Silver informs us of his reliance on outside sources to give him the buzz, stating that "I mostly get forwarded stuff. I rely on aggregators, I rely on Dark Horizon to show me the cool trailers. I check Funny or Die every day. I rely on other people to show me what's out there." Spingarn-Koff added "anything that gets picked up by Upworthy." Jacobs added "I've always loved Vulture, New York Times magazine site and I've done a couple of videos with them as well." Spingarn-Koff, however, who warned the audience not to put their stuff on YouTube due to a premiere requirement at Op-Docs, suggested as an alternative "if you have festival aspirations, you should try to do the festival run in the hopes that somebody has money paying you to give it some life on television or an online outlet that pays."