Ian Bricke on short film distribution

First off, a quick introduction. My name is Ian Bricke. I’m an acquisitions executive for the New York-based Sundance Channel, a cable television network devoted to quirky, inspiring, creative, edgy feature films, documentaries, shorts, and series. I grew up in Kansas.

I thought I’d inaugurate this blog with an essay I wrote for Sharon Badal’s recently published Swimming Upstream: A Lifesaving Guide to Short Film Distribution

As a buyer, avid fan, and semi-reformed maker of short films, I wanted to address the too-often overlooked bottom line: who is this for, anyway?  Some of the details are US-specific but the fundamentals are universal.

So, why are you making this short in the first place? No, seriously.

Who is your short film for?

As someone who has spent a great deal of time over the last many years at the business end of the world’s accumulated short film production, it’s the first question I’d ask you the filmmaker to ask yourself. Don’t worry, there’s no wrong answer.

Is it for your accountant? In other words, do you actually think you’re going to get rich off a short film? Put down the crack pipe and we’ll talk.

Yes, it is possible to make money on a short, if you win an Academy Award and you license the film to iTunes and a couple home video distributors and you sell it to television in pretty much every country in the world. It’s possible to make money even if you don’t nail the hat trick, but not a lot of money.

In the US, the handful of broadcasters (IFCSundance ChannelLogo, your local PBS affiliate) that acquire shorts pay somewhere between $500 and $3,000 (and expect delivery of a fully-cleared, maybe even closed-captioned, digibeta broadcast master with all the trimmings).

Elsewhere, in Canada and Europe and Japan, license fees are a little better, but to get those deals you’re probably going to need a sales agent, which means handing over 40-50% on each sale (check out the attendee lists for the annual Clermont-Ferrand and Toronto Worldwide Short Film Festivals to get a sense of who’s buying shorts out there in the world, and who’s selling them to them).

Home video deals

Home video deals for shorts are thin on the ground, generally geared toward niche audiences (e.g.StrandPicture This!, and Wolfe Video’s successful gay and lesbian short film compilations), and usually conspicuously lacking in an advance (the money’s not great, but if you have a festival hit on your hands it’s worth checking out alternative home video distributors like the non-profit Film Festival Collectionand McSweeney’s Wholphin).

Internet sales

Internet sales can make you some money, if you’re lucky enough to have the right film at the right moment (ask the JibJab guys).

And don’t forget about the hidden costs — duplication and closed-captioning and music clearances (always clear your music, and steer clear of the Rolling Stones — they’re really, really expensive).

In other words, no matter what anyone tells you, short films are not a commercial proposition. They’re wonderful things, for all kinds of reasons, but they’re not going to make the down payment on that condo.

Plan to lose money (that’s where those tax breaks come in) or, if you’re feeling optimistic, plan to break even. But don’t make a short film to make money.

OK, so there is a wrong answer. But it’s the only one, I promise.

Your calling card film

Is it for your resume? There’s a stigma attached to the so-called “calling card” short but, you know what, if it gets the job done…

Short filmmaking is the proving ground of aspiring feature filmmakers.

If you can show that you can tell a story in 10 or 15 minutes (10, please, it’s the rare short that’s short enough), then your feature pitch is that much stronger.

It’s brutally hard to get your first feature off the ground, pretty much impossible if you haven’t made a short. So make your calling card short, by all means, but think about how you want to go about it.

If absolutely necessary, go ahead and make that 30-minute short with three acts (not a terrible idea, if you want to prove to potential producers or financers that you can sustain a feature length story), but know that it’s going to have a tough time on the festival circuit (no one wants to sit through a 30-minute short before a feature, which means that your epic gets confined to the comparatively underattended short film sidebar), and a tough time in the “marketplace” (see above).

Maybe there’s a chunk of your cherished feature script that you could shoot as a short film.

Just make sure that the short works on its own terms. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Sundance Film Festival-winning short Gowanus, Brooklyn is a terrific example of a beautifully made, self-contained short that did double duty as a dry run for its’ makers’ first feature, indie sensation Half Nelson.

Unlike 99% of calling card shorts, Gowanus worked as a short film, not just as a showreel. And you never know—sometimes it’s the least pragmatic choices that get the job done. Look at the careers of ex-drummer Michel Gondry and skate videographer Spike Jonze.

Gatekeepers

Is it for the gatekeepers?

By gatekeepers, I mean film festival programmers, distributors, acquisition execs, jaded types who decide what makes the cut and what goes where.

More or less by definition, filmmaking is about bringing your vision to an audience, whether that audience is your roommate and your roommate’s girlfriend or a packed Sundance Film Festival screening.

In the best of all possible worlds, the gatekeepers are a means to an end, the crucial bridge between your film and an eager worldwide audience. In the real world, they’re cranky, overworked, overscreened, and maybe a little bit dismissive (you try watching 1,000 short films a year). How do you win them over? The obvious answer is the most important.

Make a good film. Make a film that hasn’t been seen before — a new story told in a new way, or at the very least, an old story told in a new way. Give ‘em something to chew on, something that makes ‘em pay attention. Make sure that your film opens with a bang, ‘cause most shorts get ejected after two minutes. Get your hooks in early.

What else? Don’t bother with a fancy press kit but do bother with a nice-looking DVD label, one that includes your contact info, right there on the DVD. If you’re burning DVD-Rs, and you probably are, send two for every submission and test them on a couple different players before sending them out.

Think about where you’re submitting your work. Does it make sense in context? Your slick X-Men homage may be the perfect Hollywood calling card, but it’s not going to go far on the festival circuit.

Figure out how many film festivals you want to, or can afford to, submit to and strategize a bit. Do your homework. Then call to follow up or, better yet, email. If you don’t hear back, email again. But don’t be a psycho — you want these people to watch this film and the next one and the one after that.

Your audience

Is it for the audience? Which audience? I’m not talking about focus groups and demographics here but if the point of making a film is to communicate with an audience, it’s worth thinking about how you’re saying what you have to say, and to whom.

Industry types — the gatekeepers and producers and whatnot above — are part of your audience. But so are the hundreds or thousands or even millions (well, more likely hundreds or thousands) of people who might see your short film at a film festival or a microcinema screening or online or on DVD or on TV.

Is your storytelling lean and effective?

Is your film straightforward where it needs to be, and mysterious where it can be?

Does it have the visual scope to fill a darkened movie theatre?

Or is it small in scale, better suited to a browser window than a giant screen?

Form and function are pretty much the same thing when it comes to filmmaking so think about how and where you want people to experience your film and make the film that delivers that experience. At the same time, don’t spend too much time worrying about the hypothetical audience (and that goes for the gatekeeper, too).

If you make the best film you can, the film that speaks truly and clearly in your own voice, people will see it, and when they see it, they’ll get it.

You – the filmmaker

So that brings us back to you, the filmmaker.

Is this for you? Is this filmmaking as self-expression? If so, more power to you, as long as you don’t blow through too much of other people’s money doing it (if you do, at least get ‘em a tax break…more than likely you’ll be going back to that same well, and you’re going to want to do everything you can to keep the goodwill coming).

Too many filmmakers take too few chances making shorts. It’s not like you have 20 studio bean counters, five executive producers, two producers, and your lead actor’s manager breathing down your neck, making sure that you bring your short in on budget and ready to be focus grouped.

With limited resources and no real commercial prospects comes freedom. Use it well, take chances, figure out what you have to say and how you want to say it.

If you’re pursuing a filmmaking career, you’ll never again have the same freedom you had as a short filmmaker. If you’re not pursuing a filmmaking career, what do you have to lose? There’s nothing worse than a bland, derivative, packaged, safe short film. What’s the point? If you’re going to make short film, make your short film. The rest will take care of itself.

Printed with permission from Focal Press, a division of Elsevier. Copyright 2008. Swimming Upstream: A Lifesaving Guide to Film Distribution by Sharon Badal.

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