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DOC COLUMN | Documentary Shorts Are Seeing New Opportunities For Life

DOC COLUMN | Documentary Shorts Are Seeing New Opportunities For Life

Tim Sternberg‘s wife was working in India and while visiting, he stumbled onto a story–an aging father and his son who project old films into a darkened box for poor kids to watch–that he wanted to film. As is often the case with creative folks, he bounced ideas off of friend Francisco Bello who was also captivated and traveled to India to help Tim capture the story. “It was a classic ‘go for it’ moment,” said Sternberg. “We connected to the subject matter but we made it quickly and somewhat by the seat of our pants.”

With Francisco’s assured camera work and Tim’s shrewd eye for detail, a beautiful short film was born. “Salim Baba” worked its way from its Tribeca Film Festival premiere all the way to an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short. This journey of success is one that only four short documentaries made this year, and while the filmmakers boast of the many opportunities extended to them as a result, both for the film and for their future as filmmakers, the vast majority of filmmakers won’t reach this high plateau with their work.

Much more usual is a slow slog. Submitting to festivals and being rejected; trying to raise money to pay for four-walling screenings and hoping to generate an audience or industry interest; maybe entering the new wild West of media delivery over the internet. From YouTube uploads and dreams of Internet stardom, to offering pay-per-download and/or DVDs, to tacking ads to content and collecting ad revenue, you name it, it seems like it’s being done. There are a bevy of choices for self-distribution and limited options for commissioned work, and all options come with different costs and returns.

Sarah Jo Marks, a documentary sales consultant who represented last year’s acclaimed shorts “Fridays at the Farm” by Richard Power Hoffman and “The Fighting Cholitas” by Mariam Jobrani, Kenneth Krauss and Teresa Deskins, observed, “We are at a weird middle point. People want to sell their work for broadcast but it’s not really a money maker, and online isn’t really making money yet.” A new company, Cinelan, launched at this month’s Berlinale, is hoping to blaze a new, profitable path for documentary shorts while lifting the burden from filmmakers of having to figure out the ins and outs of Internet delivery.

Cinelan is a “a film content publisher,” a new business model from the mind of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, branding guru David Wales and Thomas Hoegh, a venture capitalist with Arts Alliance. With a catalog of “timeless and timely” 3-minute short films, meta-tagged and generally falling to categories like world affairs, arts, environment, etc., Cinelan will provide content for licensing by any outlet needing short content. The model eliminates the need for companies to make separate deals with individual filmmakers.

David Schrieberg, CEO of the new venture, notes that their market research pointed to working with existing content distributors as opposed to creating yet another destination website where people could watch films. “We decided to go where audiences go–syndicate films across multiple platforms and create an ongoing revenue stream for filmmakers,” said Schreiberg. Early delivery partners include The Guardian and Picturehouse, a digital cinema chain in the UK. Stressing that quality content will be Cinelan’s stock in trade, they reached out to a bevy of working documentarians, including Katy Chevigny (“Election Day”), Liz Mermin (“Shot in Bombay”) and Cameron Hickey (“Garlic and Watermelons”), besides documentary luminaries Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Jessica Yu (“The Protagonist”) and Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”), among others, on their advisory board.

In addition to making films, Cameron Hickey has been a leader in the documentary community, organizing the DocAgora mini-conferences that are held during festivals like IDFA and aimed at exploring online platforms for monetizing documentary content. When asked if he thought Cinelan was a new concept in Internet delivery and monetization, he said, “I think that they haven’t figured out the concept yet, but they described it as a record label model, which I like.” Hickey has signed on to make two films for Cinelan’s library. At least one of the shorts will be using footage he shot of polo in Pakistan that doesn’t lend itself to feature treatment.

Schrieberg points out that filmmakers often have parts of stories that wind up excluded from a feature because of time, or stories they can tell easily in their neighborhoods, and Cinelan will be an outlet for such films. Culling talent from festivals, Cinelan’s deals are available to “professional filmmakers.” Quality content from professional filmmakers is Cinelan’s product and meta-tagging will allow them to deliver content in a targeted way. But one of the biggest challenges for selling short content is the sheer volume being produced.

From Here To Awesome is a new festival model aimed at discovering filmmaking talent and connecting those filmmakers to the marketplace. Founded by filmmaker Lance Weiler (“Head Trauma”), Arin Crumly (“Four Eyed Monsters”) and M Dot Strange (“We are the Strange”), FH2A is currently taking registrations to participate. Filmmakers upload trailers about their work, ideally showing their passion and cool factor, along with anything else they have to entice fans and cultivate interest in the coming project. Users vote on their favorite films, and the best of those selections are pushed on to the next level where a jury will select the top winners. Winners get access to dealmakers from companies like Amazon Unbox (downloads), Vudu (set-top box delivery for television), and Miro (an open source download service), depending on which services suit each project.

“There is room for short form content that wasn’t there before,” says Weiler. “If you have an audience, you have value.” Weiler has parlayed the concept of his feature film “Head Trauma” into an online game and other ancillary products, and in the process, has created roadmaps for filmmakers looking for DIY (do-it-yourself) solutions. He has chronicled his and others’ journies in DIY at The Workbook Project blog ( “Consumption patterns are changing and youth are motivated by a mobile device experience,” says Weiler. He and the folks at Cinelan are optimistic about the future for short documentary films.

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