Short films are tricky. There are many reasons to make one, but ultimately, shorts are less likely to have the mass appeal of feature-length films. So, what do you do with a short once you're ready to release it?
Do you put it immediately online? Do you submit to a festival? And if you do submit to a festival, is it for cash prizes or exposure? How do you make your short appealing to festivals? Do you look for some avenue of distribution thereafter? These are all questions you should be asking before you make any decision, including your initial decision to shoot short in the first place.
The most crucial thing you can do as a short filmmaker is to be prepared for what comes next.
After sitting in on an industry panel at TIFF 2016 last week, we discovered that the most crucial thing you can do as a short filmmaker is to be prepared for what comes next. Industry experts including Amotz Zakai (VP Management, Echo Lake Entertainment), Benoit Blanchard (sales agent, UNIFRANCE), Ania Trzebiaowska (Manager of Acquisitions, Visit Films), Inga Diev (General Manager, Ouat Media) and former TIFF award-winning director Martin Edralin discussed the best strategy for the life of a short film. Here are six tips, including advice about festival play, awards consideration, and sales and distribution.
1. Use the festival circuit to get noticed by a manager
Managers are actively scouting film festivals for directors of unique shorts. When asked about what it is that managers specifically look for in new talent, Amotz Zakai laid it out plain and simple. "When you decide to do a feature in this business, you're going to have to meet with a lot of people," he said. "A lot of them will be a waste of time and you'll be like, 'Why did I ever take that meeting?' But somebody, ultimately, will finance your feature film, whether it's a government agency or a private investor. And so the first thing I look for in the person I sit with: Can they actually speak coherently? Can they entertain me? Because they're going to have to entertain rooms full of people. And the second thing I look for is a good person, because I'm going to spend thousands of hours with that person."
No matter how good your film may be, if you're a grade-A jerk, you're not doing yourself any favors.
'Nebraska'Credit: Echo Lake Entertainment
2. Sign with a manager before you sign with an agent
Zakai was keen to point out that film festivals are about filmmakers scouting managers as much as they are about managers scouting filmmakers. It's important to take time and consider the pros and cons of every team that approaches you.
"I don't want to go to a film festival to sign a filmmaker because there's so much competition over signing people," he said. "It's actually not healthy for the filmmaker, because at the end of the day, if you have all these good-looking agents in front of you and they're all saying the same thing, you're going to be like, 'Okay, that person is prettier or more handsome, I'll go with that person.' Whereas you could have gotten the better representative if it was just a one-on-one. We like to scout before the film festival and then maybe have a party after we sign them."
Zakai also thinks emerging filmmakers should sign with a manager first, rather than an agent. "Agents—especially the ones that work in the big companies like CAA and WME—make $250,000 a year before bonus," he said. "A bonus can take them up to $500,000 a year. Will they focus on you? That's the big question you have to ask yourself, and if you truly believe that they can, then great, you should sign with them."
If you do decide to sign with an agent first, "it's usually better when an agent comes running after you as opposed to you running after an agent," he added. "Historically, they work harder that way."
"Making a short film that works and is going to be successful is more difficult than making a feature film."
Managers, however, may be more invested in your potential in the long-term. "As a manager, I feel that you should sign with a manager first, because we have fewer clients and we see it more as a long-term thing," Zakai said. "We're not transactional, as in, 'Here's the product, sell it.' We want to develop it with you and we want to grow with you."
'The Ladybug and the Mouse' (2011), which Benoît Blanchard worked on at UniFrance.Credit: UniFrance
3. Fully develop your vision
When asked what stands out in short filmmaking to industry professionals, the panelists generally agreed that the medium itself was built to showcase the filmmaker's talents. "You do spot talent in that, in terms of originality and someone having their own voice already," Anita Trzebiaowska said. "Making a short film that works and is going to be successful is more difficult than making a feature film, because you can get away with a little bit more in a feature film. With shorts, if it's a very complete vision, it's a hint that this is someone that you want to work with."
But fully realizing your vision should not come at the cost of a broader perspective. "My favorite people in this industry are the ones who are actually curious about what's out there," said Inga Diev. "What I'm always a little bit worried about is when other filmmakers don't watch each other's work. You won't know what your competition is. It is about networking—as much as I hate networking a lot of the time, especially when you go to a festival and that's all you do. It is about talking to viewers, about tracking trades and seeing what's out there."
"From a sales perspective, it's very important for us to know what [filmmakers] want from the film. Do they want it online the next day? Hopefully not."
4. Festival strategy should be in place before you submit
Filmmakers who have already decided which festival comes next rise above the fray of those who don't. Bonus points if you're able to explain why you chose the order of the festivals to which you submit. According to Diev, "We have a long list of questions we ask filmmakers and their festival strategy is one of them. So from a sales perspective, it's very important for us to know what they want from the film. Do they want it online the next day? Hopefully not. Do they want to do a festival run? What kind of festival run? Which territories? It's very important that they have those answers ready."
5. Awards matter
While the LA-based Zakai claimed that "unless it's Oscar-nominated or an Oscar-winner, [awards] makes no difference," other panelists were not so quick to agree. Diev remarked, "For independent feature films, buyers notice a lot. We're trained to. When I acquire something, if I know it's a winner of whatever directorial debut somewhere and it's a festival that matters, then yes [it matters]. For buyers, sometimes it's a name thing. It's a conversation starter."
'Emma,' Martin Edralin's TIFF 2016 short film premiere.Credit: TIFF 2016
6. Have a feature-length screenplay ready to go
As a filmmaker, there are a thousand things that you're going to have to worry about when making your film. The same is true once your film has made it into a festival. One audience member admitted that he was confused in terms of what comes first: festivals, sales agents, managers, or distributors? The answer he got probably wasn't what he was looking for.
"What comes first is actually what's going to come later, like a zen thing," Amotz mused. "I'll give you an example: Tony Elliott. He did a short that premiered at TIFF. He had two feature scripts ready to go. We meet with him. He says, 'Hey, I've got these two things.' We read it. It's great. Boom. We say we want to sign you. If you make your short and go to all these film festivals and then you meet with somebody like me and don't have a script, I'm already off to the next person."
Your best move while on the circuit may have nothing to do with your current film. Come prepared with a script or a screener for what you have in store next.
The typical festival life of a short ranges anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
7. Your short has a festival life of 12-18 months; don't let it die in vain
That film that you've spent ages and ages on has finally made a festival, but once it's made it rounds, don't expect it to have much life thereafter. For this reason, you should plan to work as hard as you can to make connections while your film is on the festival circuit. Your film is going to work on your behalf, but after that, in the words of Diev, "it's over."
The good news is: if your film is really good, you could have plenty of time to take advantage of its potential. According to the panelists, the typical festival life of a short ranges anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
From a distribution standpoint, Ania Trzebiaowska was quick to point out that "often enough we hear from filmmakers a year later, and that's too late. We work with licensers who are equally passionate about short film. They want to see films that are on the festival circuit right now. They want to figure out if they can license them right now, so the sooner we hear from the filmmakers, the better."
8. If your film has a successful festival run, you can make back 4x your budget with awards
Director Martin Edralin, whose short Hole premiered at TIFF a few years prior and whose short Emma premiered this year, was used as the case study for the panel. He admitted that even though he sold the film to Shorts HD, the company hadn't done anything with it and the money involved in the transaction was negligible. So Edralin brought his short through a long and fruitful festival circuit.
"Once we started winning awards, the strategy changed to having an incredible festival run," Edralin said. "I started looking at festivals that had award money. I think that the award money gave us more money than any distribution would have given us."
While he wouldn't give a solid figure, Edralin says he made back three to four times the budget of his short.
'Hole,' directed by Martin EdralinCredit: TIFF 2014
9. Having a built-in audience doesn't matter for your short—unless you're planning to turn it into a feature
It's always good to start filming with a target audience in mind. But for shorts in today's internet age, it doesn't necessarily move the needle.
"It does matter if you want to use your short as a sample for a feature," Zakai explained. "It used to be that you needed 200,000 hits on YouTube. Now you need, like, 10 million even for it to register."
Moderator Kathleen McInnis gave another example. To promote her short film Alive Inside, she leaked a particular sequence to YouTube before the film was completed. It garnered close to 20 million views. Unfortunately, since the film took two more years to complete, the audience they had won evaporated. "Those associated 19-20 million people who had been so glued in had simply moved on and didn't care because they thought they had already seen it," she lamented.
10. Always have a business card with a screening link on hand
When the moderator asked if there was anything that anybody in the room could do to help them stand out, the majority of the panelists agreed that the best thing a filmmaker could do is to have a card with a screening link to your short.
11. Do NOT post your film on the internet before a festival run
There are many questions as to how effective an immediate internet release for your film can be. On the one hand, you're building an audience for your work, and certain honors, such as a Vimeo Staff Pick, could be huge for your career. On the other hand, "from a sales perspective, having the film floating online for free just means that most of the licensers are not going to go for it," said Trzebiaowska, "because they're not going to pay money for something that's readily available online. But at the same time, during festivals, it's kind of heartbreaking. There are films that do really well at the festivals and just don't sell. That's the reality. So for films like that, why not put it out once the festival is done?"
Many festivals disqualify short films that aren't premieres, so if you plan to release online, the most effective strategy may lie in waiting until after your film has finished its circuit.
Top photo credit: 'Mamans,' directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, winner of 2016 Sundance Short Film Jury Award. Repped by Ouat Media.