The Changing Game of Short Film Distribution

We’re really starting to like ShortoftheWeek.Com because they know just about everything about, um, shorts. (Short films! Short films! Not, you know, shorts.)

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This year marked an interesting milestone for the Oscar nominated animated short films. For the first time in recent memory, people actually watched them. On January 29th, my Facebook feed blew up with posts about a short film—that’s right, a short film! Disney kicked off a decidedly unusual trend when it released its Oscar-nominated short Paperman online. Soon, others followed suit—Head Over Heels and Adam and Dog hit the internet within the week. Suddenly, an award category usually only visible by a very select few could be seen by the masses.

Then, abruptly, a few days before the big night, the shorts vanished. But, why?

To cut to the chase, Shorts International, the world’s leading distributor of short films who distributes the Oscar nominated shorts in theaters, sent a letter asking the filmmakers to take down their films, citing a desire to preserve the theatrical experience. If you’re interested in all the sundry details, check out Jen Yamto’s piece for Deadline.

But this controversy highlights a bigger issue. When it comes to shorts, the game is changing. Over the past six years, the number of bite-size narratives available online has exploded and opened up new pathways for rising filmmakers. It’s this very influx of readily available digital content that spawned the creation of Short of the Week in the first place. So, why are short distributors—especially Shorts International—so damn scared to allow those high-profile shorts a free online release?

On the surface, the answer is simple—money. For instance, Shorts International is paying the filmmakers in exchange for the rights to distribute their movies in theaters and other avenues (On Demand, iTunes, etc.), so it doesn’t seem fair to simply release their product for free, right? Well, I’d argue that things are a bit more complicated than that. Having been to a lot of smaller festivals lately, it seems that so many short filmmakers are hung up on the idea of distribution as the end-all be-all—the glorious pot of gold at the end of the short filmmaking rainbow. I mean, if you can get distribution, you’re all set!

Yet, if you were to ask your average short filmmaker what distribution entails, most couldn’t answer you and others would be extremely light on details. So, what is it like? Most importantly, is it really even worth it? After all, doesn’t releasing your film online for free potentially expose you to the widest audience imaginable? 2012’s influx of short sci-fi films proved that amazing things can happen if you just get your film out there to the free internet audience.

Well, at Short of the Week, we figured the best way to provide transparency to the shorts distribution process was to talk to filmmakers who actually had their shorts get distribution deals. Simple, right?

Let’s Make a Deal

Vicky Mather’s live-action stop-motion short, Stanley Pickle, cleaned up at festivals from 2010 to 2011. After a screening at the 2011 Hollyshorts festival, she was approached by Shorts International about potential distribution. Since Vicky was nearing the end of her festival run, she agreed. A long 12 months later, Shorts International made Stanley Pickle available on iTunes (where it’s still available for download).

Since Stanley Pickle was created while Vicky was a student at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in the UK, Mather had no part in the financial negotiations. However, she did agree to give Shorts International 6 months exclusivity for the film. NFTS also received some financial compensation. After the half-year period expired, Vicky did what any filmmaker would do—she released her film online, free to view on Vimeo. Shorts International was not happy. The day she uploaded the film she received an email from the distributor asking her to take it down, claiming that by having the film available for free on Vimeo, “it might keep people away from buying the film on iTunes.”

Ultimately, Vicky has mixed feelings about her dealing with Shorts International. For one, they tended to be uncommunicative. As a result, it took a long time for the film to appear on iTunes: after the initial offer in August of 2011, nearly a year elapsed before Stanley Pickle showed up in the store.

Filmmaker Patrick Doyon, whose short, Dimanche, was nominated for an Oscar in 2011, shares similar frustrations over the waiting game. Although he was not personally responsible for negotiating the distribution deal (that onus went to the National Film Board of Canada….

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