Why make short films?

We are supposedly living in a new era of the short film. Short films had their place when a night at the movies included shorts, newsreels, and a feature or two. You could make a living with short films. But that hasn’t been the case in several decades. Now a movie is a feature film. In recent memory if you made a short film there was severely limited opportunity to make back the money you spent to produce the film, let alone make enough to live on. And with a few exceptions like Hal Hartley and David Lynch, once you start making features you don’t go back to shorts.

When I started making shorts there was only one place to go: film festivals. But what is a film festival for? As a filmmaker I’ve always believed that the first priority of a film festival should be getting people to watch films that they wouldn’t see otherwise. The ideal festival picks films that they like, and that need the exposure. No matter how good it is, a feature film with major stars and worldwide distribution already secured has no business being selected for a film festival. But if you’ve seen the lineup at any major film festival you know that they’re filled with well-known films made by well-known directors starring well-known actors. And I completely understand this from a programmer’s point of view. How else would they get anyone to come to the festival? There is a certain amount of pandering necessary. Some festivals do it more than others. But the reality is your best chance of getting into a festival is if you’re already an established filmmaker or you managed to convince someone from a popular sitcom to star in your $100,000 film.

And of course nobody watches the shorts except the short filmmakers. I’ve been to Sundance and Toronto and I didn’t see a single short at either one. At festivals like that I barely have the time to see the features I want to see. I’ve only watched shorts at smaller festivals that I also had a short in.

The dream of the festival screening is that someone with access to money will be there and love your short enough to get you money to make a feature. Only in rare cases will the short itself earn you money, because opportunities for short film distribution are severely limited. There are the mythical foreign television outlets which have been known to purchase shorts. And A lucky few get on IFC or Sundance, but a disproportionate number of their live-action short films have indie stars in them.

The one place I seek out short films is online. People watch shorts online. They pretty much only watch shorts online. I wouldn’t like to watch a feature online. I have a nice television and a couch for that purpose. And that’s why we’re told that short films are actually going to make money these days. There’s an audience out there. But I can tell you one thing I’ve never done. I’ve never paid money to watch a short film online. I’m not going to do it. And I can’t imagine a situation in which someone else would pay any amount of money to watch one of my short films, no matter how good I happen to think they are. The only solution I can see is advertising. And I’m sorry to say, I don’t see how it’s going to work for me.

I’ve recently “Revverized” all the videos I have online. I uploaded QuickTimes to Revver.com and Revver converted them to Flash (in sync, unlike some other websites I can think of) and added advertisements to the end of the files. If a viewer clicks on the ad at the end of the video I get a small amount of money. I have no objection to adding advertisements to my videos. In fact, you could stick them at the head and I’d be happier about it. I put credit sequences at the end of most of my movies, so a viewer will have to watch all the way to the end of the credits in order to get to the part where I make any money. So far I’ve made about $9.

I also have Truth @ 15 Frames Per Second Revverized, and I see that as being more likely to generate cash than the longer movies. They’re each a few minutes long and there are not credits at the end, so viewers are more likely to make it to the ads. And honestly, if I hadn’t made it myself, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t watch Camera Noise all the way through if I came across it online. It’s 29 minutes long! It’s too long for a short film program, let alone the Internet. But some people do watch it, which is nice because it means the movie hasn’t disappeared forever.

And that is really the reason to make shorts. It’s to have people watch and enjoy what you make. Not everyone enjoys them, but the YouTube and MySpace messages I get every once in a while are positive feedback from people people who wouldn’t have had a chance of seeing my movies just a few years ago. Things are changing, but if I want to make some cash I need to make something shorter and less intentionally off-putting.

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