Distribution | Reports

Distributing Your Short Film in the Global Marketplace

1 Dec , 2007  

Written by Rhonda Moskowitz | Posted by:

Short film experts with international savvy reveal how to get your shorts an audience and a paycheck.
This is the best time to be a short filmmaker,” according to Megan O’Neill from AtomFilms

In November, The Magners Irish Film Festival hosted a free three-hour information-packed panel on the topic of distributing short films in the international marketplace.  A select group of short film industry heavyweights shared their breadth of international distribution knowledge with an eager audience of about 100 at Boston’s Emerson College.  Sue Biely, director of business development & social responsibility and co-founder of The Nimble Company, (which develops video based content for multi-platform distribution) served as the moderator.  The panelists included:

  • Derry O’Brien, founder and director of Network Ireland TV, a major international short film distributor based in Ireland.
  • Megan O’Neill, vice president of acquisitions and production for AtomFilms, a leading provider of short content for the Internet, broadband and mobile devices.

The bottom line, according to the panelists, is that there are a variety of exciting ways to get your short film seen, and that even though making short films won’t make you rich, your film has the potential to reach audiences far and wide, earn some money, and even launch your film career. 

Sue Biely started off by positing that short films are an art form in their own right and that short filmmakers should set goals and create strategies to achieve them.  She said that the three major ways of getting your short film seen are — festivals, television broadcast, and the Internet, and the panelists would discuss each possible venue in depth.  Megan O’Neill added that this is an exciting time to be making shorts, because new video distribution platforms such as mobile phones and MP3 players are additional ways to reach audiences, there are DVD compilations of short films.  Short films are even shown on airplanes. 


To open the dialogue about festivals as a route of short film distribution, Shane Smith said, “Research the festivals and strategize.”  The first year, concentrate on the top tier, A-list festivals, because the order of festivals at which you screen your film is important.  The web site, www.filmfestivals.com is a good resource.  Cannes and Berlin insist on screening premieres.  Surprisingly, a short film doesn’t have to have premiere status to be accepted into Sundance, however, be aware of how many festivals have screened your film before submitting.  Smith pointed out that there are different kinds of premieres such as international premieres, country-specific premieres, and regional premieres.  The second year, concentrate on the 2nd tier festivals, and then the niche festivals such as Jewish film festivals, Irish film festivals, etc.  

Major players in the short film industry attend festivals such as Cannes, Palm Springs, Bristol, Sundance, World Wide Short Film Festival, Toronto, and Clermont-Ferrand, France, which they called the ultimate international short film festival.  

Short film acceptances can be even more competitive than features.  Sundance gets 5,000 submissions and will accept 80.  Three thousand short films were submitted to the World Wide Short Film Festival, Toronto. 

Reelport.com is the European counterpart of Without a Box.  Both services offer streamlined, online festival submission services for filmmakers.  Ouat Media, a film distribution company (that shares the same parent company as Movieola) also has a relatively new festival strategy and submission service where filmmakers pay a flat fee of $1,000, which includes festival entry fees, packaging, shipping, and marketing and promotion. 

Biely reminded the audience that when you submit your short film to a festival, make sure you have a working DVD.  She stressed that you need to check the DVD on a DVD player, not just on a computer. 

What films work for festivals?  Festivals program short films in two ways — they’re either used as fillers that precede feature length films or they’re grouped into short film blocks.  So for example, a 30-minute short that takes up one-third of a 90-minute programming block, Smith said, “…needs to be damned good to replace three 10-minute shorts.”  However, programmers usually pick the best shorts and then look at how a film will fit into the programming.  

Sundance is looking at short short films (meaning less than 10 minutes, preferably less than five) to program in front of features.  They’ll program films by theme.  Sundance will put a short documentary in front of a feature they feel will work well when screened together. 

Smith said that festivals may also want to put your short film on the Internet.  He said, “Read the fine print.  Don’t be afraid to tell a festival you don’t want your film on the Internet, as this can hurt your chances for an Oscar.  Don’t be afraid to say no.” 

Smith said that once your film is accepted, you need to supply a screening format such as a film print or beta.  Cannes requires film.  You also need postcards with your filmmaker contact information, and screening details.  He said not to bother with posters.  

There are also marketplaces at many festivals, which are separate pavilions just for digital content.  Biely said to pay the extra money ($50 or so) to have your film digitized for screening rooms and marketplaces. 

If your short film wins an award at certain festivals, it will automatically be screened by the Academy for Oscar consideration.  These Oscar qualifying festivals are distinctive to short films, as there are no Academy Award qualifying festivals for feature length films.  Locally, the Rhode Island International Film Festival is an Oscar qualifying festival.

Broadcast (and Sales Agents)

Derry O’Brien, who is a highly regarded international sales agent commented, “You won’t get rich from making short films.”  Short films used to be bought for $10K to $15K, and are currently being bought for approximately 30-450 Euros (or $44 to $500).  SBS, Australia pays a maximum of $120 per minute, and takes a 10 percent withholding tax.  Network Ireland Television’s sales commission is 30 percent of net income.

O’Brien also said that buyers are looking for narrative shorts.  Comedies are the most popular genre for broadcasters.  He said it’s difficult to make a comedy that crosses into different cultures, and that films that are highly visual and less verbal or even non-verbal, are more likely to appeal to different countries.  Fiction shorts are more popular; however there is a rising interest in documentary shorts.  

According to O’Brien, most broadcasters use shorts as fillers.  Scandinavia, France, Poland and Spain all have film cable channels.  Smith has a dedicated short film channel, Movieola.  

Not all broadcasters in the global market will put subtitles on short films.  France and Germany’s Arte’ will dub films into another language. 

The major short film distributors are — Network Ireland Television, France’s Premium Films, the U.K.’s Dazzle Films, Shorts International, Apollo Cinema, and Ouat Media.

O’Brien said there are 10 to 15 good distribution companies in Europe, and their usual commission is 50 percent.  

Megan O’Neill stressed that filmmakers need to make sure that a sales agent is actually paying filmmakers, and not just taking their money.  She said to take the time to check with other filmmakers if a sales agent pays.  For example, she said Sidney Neter, president of SND Films, is a highly respected short film international sales agent. 

Cara Longo of the Sundance Channel said that short films are programmed with documentary features as fillers to carry over the audience.  Submissions take three to four months to screen and review, and could take up to one year, due to the high volume.  

At the present time, the Sundance Channel’s favorite genre is documentary shorts to go with their environmental shorts series, The Green.  

Short films under 10 minutes in length get the most exposure.  The Sundance Channel also has a 20-30 minute programming block called In Short, where they broadcast short documentaries by theme or director. 

The Sundance Channel does straight licensing. They pay $500 base, plus $150 per minute up to a maximum of $3,000.  They want two years of exclusive U.S. broadcast rights, plus Video On Demand (VOD) online rights.  The online rights is their “ask,” and could possibly be negotiated. 

Filmmakers need to make sure that they have their rights cleared for more than festivals, including music rights.  Longo also stated that it’s crucial to provide music cue sheets, as ASCAP or BMI may need to be paid.  The need for Errors & Omission (E & O) insurance is on a case-by-case basis. 

For Sundance, Longo says it’s better for a shorts filmmaker to submit through a respected distributor or sales agent, such as Derry O’Brien or Sidney Neter, because they’re more reliable, and the whole business aspect of the deal, including filling out the forms and the rest of the paperwork, is easier and goes more smoothly. 

O’Brien said that Network Ireland Television has a standard three-year term and then a one-year renewal option.  He said the optimal short film length is either two to three minutes or 12-15 minutes.  NIT has a Short Shorts series, and the films are approximately three minutes. 

Smith said that every few weeks he receives notebooks with approximately 300 DVDs of short films from sales agents to watch. 

New Media and the Internet

Megan O’Neill of AtomFilms said that with new media and the Internet, millions of people can see your film through different distribution platforms.  She stressed that short filmmakers should figure out who is the audience.  She asked, “Are you making a film to do well on the Internet, in the theater, or on TV?” AtomFilms’s audience, for example, is between ages 18 and 34 and predominantly male.   

O’Neill said that short films distributed online can garner exposure to Hollywood agents and managers who will click on a link, but not watch a DVD or attend festivals, which is why it is crucial for short filmmakers to have their own web site.  “Build your own brand. You are your own brand,” she said. 

When you make a film for the Internet, don’t put credits in front, only at the end, she said, because there is a pre-roll ad in front of the film.  AtomFilms makes money from the ads.  They don’t have a promotional budget, so filmmakers should put just the title and a one-line description in the front.  She also stated, “Make shorts, not longs.”  The optimal length is three to four minutes.  For mobile devices, one minute. 

The most popular genres are comedy, horror, sci-fi, and (sometimes) short documentaries.  Their audience doesn’t want to watch drama. 

AtomFilms films will pay from $500 up to a couple of thousand dollars.  They make money from pre-roll ads when people click on a film.  They also revenue share with their filmmakers — 10 percent on Internet ads, 20-30 percent on mobile.  AtomFilms wants rights for online and other distribution platforms.  

AtomFilms has a funding arm for production called AtomFilms Studio, which is looking for short film series for new media. They’ve funded 24 pieces so far.  The most popular has been a five-minute horror short, InSex, which has had almost one million plays.  The highest number of episodes in a series that they’ve funded is 10.  Fewer episodes are better; four to eight are ideal.  

Films are bought from scripts, but not from first-time filmmakers.  A filmmaker must have directed one piece in order for AtomFilms Studio to fund an idea.  Ideally, the films should be character-based episodic series that tell a good story and be three to four minutes long. 

Movieola is a dedicated online digital broadcast channel in Canada that is available in one million homes.  They acquire 1,200 films a year.  They distribute over the Internet, through Joost, and Air Canada’s airline channel.  Movieola currently has deals in the works with Sprint in both the U.S. and the U.K.  Movieola wants as many rights as possible. The will also “rev share,” (do revenue sharing). 

O’Neill said that mobile devices are still a tough market, but iPhone may change this.  O’Brien said there are aggregators looking for content for mobile devices, and technology is rapidly improving.  The Japanese market watches content on mobile devices. 

Biely said short filmmakers are creating their own work to upload online.  For instance, there are political venues such as JibJab where mash-ups and vlogging are popular. 

AtomFilms has Atom Uploads, which is user generated content (UGC).  Occasionally they’ll find UGC uploaded on their site that they’ll pay for. 

Diggnation and RocketBoom have mini-branded episodes. 

All of the panelists said that rights issues are important. Because of new media, filmmakers need to have worldwide music rights.  A short film that won an Oscar, Wasp, was first seen at the Bermuda International Film Festival.  The talented director, Andrea Arnold, cleared the music rights only for festivals.  Wasp was eventually broadcast on England’s Channel 4, but it took one year to license the music.  The film could have disappeared because of the music rights issue. 

O’Neill said that there are talented independent film composers that want exposure.  It may be simpler to have independent musicians compose your film’s music, and music rights may be less expensive.  Locally, filmmakers can find students studying film scoring at Berklee College of Music.   

Still from Soft.

There are inspiring short filmmaker success stories.  AtomFilms acquired Jason Reitman’s student short, then funded his subsequent shorts.  Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s short, Gowanus Brooklyn, garnered attention at Sundance, and got their feature Half Nelson funded.  Simon Ellis is successful as a talented director of only short films.  His latest film Soft has won 12 awards, and he’s had a retrospective of his films.  

As the panel came to an end, there were words of wisdom and advice from the experts: 

Cara Longo said that you make short films, “Because you have something to say. Because you’re an artist.”  Short films should be “refreshing, creative.”

Derry O’Brien said that a short film “doesn’t need Hollywood production quality.”  It needs to be “a story you want to tell…narrative told well…a good idea interpreted in a cinematic way.” 

Shane Smith said, “Two caveats are bad sound and bad acting.  Other shaky production values are more forgiving.”  He recommended a book considered to be the bible of short filmmaking called The Ultimate Filmmakers Guide to Short Films by Kim Adelman.  

Sue Biely said short films should be “compelling and memorable.”