Short but worth it. Report on “How to distribute and promote short films?” At the Cinemaforum 2016 debate
“Can we compare short films to flirting? How can a short seduce the audience?” was the question posed by the debate’s host, Marcin Radomski, who is also the program coordinator of the Cinemaforum Festival. The participants in the debate were: Zosia Horszczaruk, film sales specialists; Kuba Mikurda, film critic; Paweł Wieszczeciński, Kinoscope founder and program director; and Jordan Mattos, Kinoscope director of distribution.
Kuba Mikurda recalled the movie, Whiplash, as an example of seducing potential funders. “It’s much more difficult in the US to finance your first feature. There are no accessible funding programs such as in Poland, so to convince the prospective producers or partners Damien Chazelle made a short version of his first feature. He took half of the second act and made it exactly as we later saw it in the full version. His Sundance success and J.K. Simmons’ Oscar are one of the many proofs that the film became a hit.
In Poland, short films are more often an exercise or a glimpse of a filmmaker’s potential before his debut feature. “A short is like flirting before the real act that is a feature,” said Zosia Horszczaruk, who used to work as an agent in the New Europe Film Sales.
“Some filmmakers share their interests, style, obsessions or favorite actors since the very first short film. If you watch their films chronologically, having in mind what they have done later in their features, you will see that those artists used the short films to improve their technique. But that’s a rare case,” said Kuba Mikurda.
Continuing the metaphor of flirting, the Internet platforms such as Kinoscope can be regarded as a form of a long-term relationship with shorts. “The main idea for future Kinoscope is to fill the gap between Netflix and Mubi,” said Paweł Wieszczeciński, the Kinoscope founder. “We have to look forward. Information is delivered in more compact ways nowadays, and so are movies. Especially in the US, where people watch them on the subway, instead of reading newspapers like they used to. Everything changes and unfortunately the shorter, the better. In the US alone tons of new movies are available daily. Many companies would like to promote shorts but they either lack material or money. For me the most important thing is to curate the content,” said Wieszczeciński. “This way, filmmakers featured on the Kinoscope digital platform can be certain that they will be in great company.” He underlined that Kinoscope couldn’t function without the help from such institutions as MoMa, Film Society, New York Film Festival or IndieWire. Generally speaking, good networking is crucial. Kinoscope’s founder also stated that 30-40% of platform’s content would be devoted to short films.
With platforms such as Kinoscope in the US, there is a question whether they can bring in profit, and what risks they carry. While sites such as Mubi, which promotes arthouse cinema, show signs of growing interest in shorts, in commercial markets, the share of shorts is shrinking. Short movies used to be sold mainly to television that nowadays is less and less interested in buying shorts. (…) Platforms such as Netflix, iTunes or Google Play demand proper formatting of the videos so that they meet the platform’s individual requirements. Quite often you also have to produce trailer, design the poster, write the synopsis. Those are the costs that, in most cases, won’t pay back. “The brutal reality is that it is almost impossible to earn money when you’re making a short film,” said Horszczaruk, but she also added that she roots for every platform that promotes the short films, especially those with content curated by film specialists. She mentioned Vimeo on Demand as a place where the filmmakers can upload their videos without formatting or any additional costs, and which can be the best way to promote the movie without additional investments.
Paweł Wieszczeciński agreed that short films might never become a lucrative business. “Virtually no filmmaker that sings a deal with Kinoscope expects big profits. All they want is their work to be presented in a good company. It’s more about showcasing their work; it becomes their portfolio. It could also be a good resource for other filmmakers as well,” said Kinoscope’s founder.
Reaching to the audiences with short films can be challenging. “In the US, colleges and universities have a budget to purchase short films. If they don’t use the budget, the money is lost. So every year they have to spend the money. The educational market is kind of a straightforward market to have shorts available. Especially when they are social welfare films. That’s one way to target because there’s a real need to fill the libraries and catalogues in the US,” said Jordan Mattos, director of distribution at Kinoscope. He also added, “One tactic is bundling: let’s say you have ten films and maybe five are about social issues, and two of those are documentaries. You can bundle the films thematically and then approach buyers and schools with these bundles. If you’re talking about how to approach buyers, it might be necessary to have a catalogue of work as a starting point.”
Polish filmmakers are much more privileged in the sense that most of the short films are produced at film schools. Based on his experiences at the Lodz Film School, Mikurda said, “School is not a business institution so it focuses on showing shorts instead of selling them. For the past few years the Lodz Film School has been cooperating with big festivals, such as Berlinale and Locarno. The festivals always give a slot of 10 films that the School can submit without additional fees. They also ask about School’s movies themselves. It’s very convenient. More schools, not only Lodz Film School, are sharing movies made by their students online and for free. For sales agents such as Zosia this is bad for business because suddenly the good films are available for free.”
In Europe the easiest way to reach the audience or buyers are festivals and markets. “Finding an agent is a good thing. Filmmakers are artists. They’re supposed to focus on art and leave the marketing to people who have connections, knowledge and are well acquainted with the mechanisms of promotion. When you hire an agent, you don’t have to invest in traveling. There are many sales agents in Germany or France that focus on short films. They also take care of festival distribution, which means that the filmmaker doesn’t have to fill out all the submission forms – and trust me, this is really monotonous and wearisome. Agents earn from the profits from sales so they also care about reaching as many people as possible. The deal is really simple and effective,” said Horszczaruk.
When the filmmakers want to take care of the distribution on their own, they should participate in film markets. The best one is Clermont-Ferrand – the biggest and the most important event in Europe. The networking managers can arrange meetings with top festival programmers, buyers, TV representatives, everything in a friendly area among short film enthusiasts. Short Film Corner at Cannes, on the other hand, is not really helpful. “You pay 80 euros for your movie to be screened and it’s not even the official festival selection. Hardly any important buyers or festivals’ representatives spend their time at Cannes in a small, dark room watching thousands of shorts. The game is not worth the candle,” said Horszczaruk.
Kinoscope’s Paweł Wieszczeciński is not convinced whether filmmakers really need sales agent for short films. “I recently got in touch with Leonor Teles, who won a Golden Bear for her short at this year’s Berlinale. She wanted to premiere the movie at Tribeca Film Festival. Unfortunately her agent had sent the movie to Hamptons so she couldn’t have had two premieres in one state. She had no control over her own film.”
Perhaps the filmmakers wouldn’t need the agent if they had mandatory movie marketing classes at their film schools. Film school graduates are not prepared for the brutal reality of market and distribution. “In the US just because quite a lot of the funding and organizations are private and there isn’t a lot of public funding for films, filmmakers basically have to be their own businessmen/businesswomen,” said Mattos. “You can’t rely on any organization or cultural institute to fund your film just because it’s about an important topic. When you make a film, in order to survive you have to be able to say ‘Not only am I an artist but I also know how to budget, I know how to resource my time, how to manage people.’ You have to be both. There’s very little option if you’re independent in the USA. If you have the luck of an incredibly wealthy family then you’re fine; you can go to art school and do whatever you want. But if you are interested in really having a career in the US as a filmmaker, you have to educate yourself about distribution and sales. You have to approach this area with the same passion that you would writing a screenplay.
Part of me thinks that’s a bit unfortunate because I really do believe that we should separate art and commerce. They’re not the same thing. I personally wish that I could just focus on the arts. Actually I’m a filmmaker, I went to film school and it was through film school that I realized that there were no resources beyond the school to distribute my films. This is why I went into distribution, because I realized that I had very few resources available, at least in the US, to package myself as an artist and to succeed. So here I am, still in distribution, still talking about distribution. But one day I hope to make my own film.”
The participants agreed that the diversity of topics is really important in reaching the audiences with short films. Sales agents’ clients often complain that most of the shorts are depressive and dark. The most popular among commercial buyers such as TV stations and airlines are 5-minute long movies, especially comedies. They also should be universal. Airlines, as a very distinctive client, prefer non-dialogue or English movies. The TV representatives are not happy when the movies they buy are available online for free, so the filmmakers shouldn’t share them on free platforms if they intend to sell their shorts.
Shorts also have less visibility because there are no places to publish short film reviews. They appear mostly in recaps from short-film festivals or in industry magazines; you rarely see reviews of shorts in mainstream media that tend to deal with big titles and premieres in regular distribution.
Probably the best place to post short film reviews would be on platforms such as Kinoscope. Mikurda pointed out that there’s one ethical problem: the platform’s owners want to promote their content so they probably won’t publish bad reviews of movies available in their database. Paweł Wieszczeciński, however, said that Kinoscope intends to post all kinds of reviews, even the negative ones.
Shorts are almost a must for beginners. Very often the filmmakers treat it as a step that they need to take quickly and then move on to feature films. For viewers, critics, writers or filmmakers’ biographers the transition between short and feature movie is a natural evolution. It is worth mentioning that audiences know mostly shorts of those filmmakers who later became successful with features. “Some artists are poets. Others are prose writers. Nowadays the general mantra is that poets should give up writing poems and should write prose, because that’s the only way to earn money. But certain ideas are really best realized in short form” summarized Mikurda. “That is why supporting the digitalization of lost short-film treasures is really important.”
A short could be like a breath of fresh air for filmmakers who are already successful and experienced. At this year’s New York Film Festival the audiences could watch shorts by Jia Zhangke (director of Mountains May Depart nominated for Palme d’Or), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (director of Cemetery of Splendour nominated for Un Certain Regard) or Chloe Sevigny (directorial debut, Kitty). In Poland filmmakers that are already famous have difficulties with finding money for short films because they are no longer supported by film schools. The private investors are sometimes the only option. The commercial projects can also have artistic value, for example Martin Scorsese’s short film The Key to Reserva, which was a beautiful nod to Alfred Hitchcock.
To close the debate, Radomski quoted Alessandro Marcionni, the head of the Pardi di Domani section at the Locarno Film Festival that is dedicated to short and medium-length films: As a coordinator I always ask myself: is this movie important, does it answer important questions? I have to be sure that the filmmaker would die if he (or she) won’t tell us this story.
This article is an edited version of the article that was published at the Polish Filmmakers Association.