Gary White looks into what you should be doing with your short film to best get it seen. Published in 3 parts on filmireland.net, here’s the full article.
Whether you’re making a tiny indie short for one hundred euro or a fully-fledged IFB-backed production, you should probably consider the long-term plan for your film. Uploading it straight to Youtube or Vimeo is likely to get a moderate-sized audience immediately, but it is unlikely to really make big waves. Ideally your first step is to get a premiere at a notable festival—the bigger and more prestigious the better. After that it should tour festivals around the world for about a year, and thereafter gain sales representation for international television broadcasting. Every film is unique, but generally speaking any good quality short can earn back their budget through a combination of festival prizes and screening fees.
The first thing to know is that you need to start planning for sales and broadcast during pre-production. Legally speaking you need to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Don’t use music that you can’t afford: Many a potential hit has had to be turned down or forced back to the edit suite because they used music that was instantly recognisable and completely unaffordable. Get your own composer (cheaper than you might think) or license music that you can afford.
During production it is important to have a stills photographer; most festivals need good quality images for their brochures and websites, and if you’re lucky enough to hit it big you could find yourself wanting to print full-sized posters, and screengrabs just won’t cut it. You also don’t need “making of” style photos—what you really need is for your photographer to get down beside your video camera and shoot stills from the same perspective, with cast in costume and on set. Think of what a movie poster of your film should look like and get photos with that in mind. Something iconic—even staged separately if you have time—is most useful.
During post-production you should be aware of a few different things. If you want to have any hope of doing international sales you should create what is known as an M&E track; this is where you lay out your audio so that dialogue, music and sound effects are in separate channels. This enables broadcasters to dub the film—an idea that some filmmakers might oppose on artistic grounds, but it is frequently a good source of revenue and you might need it to make your next film! Make a careful note of your music use, including when different tracks are used in the film and how/when they are licensed. You will likely have to provide what is known as a “music cue sheet” with this info for a broadcaster. When a film isn’t dubbed in a foreign language it will be subtitled, and for this broadcasters will require a time-coded dialogue list, which is as simple as it sounds. Type up all of the dialogue and make a precise note of the exact timecode at which each line should be displayed.
The single most important thing to do from a distribution perspective, however, is to export a high-quality master file of your film. The majority of the time a broadcaster or festival will accept delivery of an Apple ProRes 422 HQ file, at highest resolution and native frame rate. If you’re on an Avid system the DNxHD codec is very similar, though less-frequently requested by broadcasters. Uncompressed file types are good to have from an archiving point of view but too large to be practical for delivery. Resist the urge to use a lossy format such as H.264, which Vimeo and Youtube use, it won’t serve as a proper master file. If these technical elements are beyond you then that is an immediate warning sign that you need to get someone on your team who does understand the techie side, or you’re frequently going to be running into obstacles which will cost you time and money in the long run.
Finally, creating a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) is a good idea as many festivals will happily screen one of those. For the technically adept there are a number of ways to do it yourself, though there is a fairly steep learning curve. Most production houses will make DCPs for a reasonable fee too. Regardless of how it is made, the end result will be a hard drive or USB stick with your film encoded in a format ready to be plugged into a digital projector in a cinema.
The entire world of festivals may seem daunting at first but they all follow similar procedures and are usually very straight forward. The process will typically involve these steps:
2) Complete entry forms, pay the entry fee and fill in all of the details for your film;
3) Submit a “screener”; a copy of the film for them to review, usually either by posting a DVD or uploading a file through their website.
Generally, the earlier you enter the cheaper the entry fee. Most festivals have “early bird” options, so planning ahead is a great idea. Don’t bother with elaborate press packages, graphic design or marketing pitches at this point; they literally have thousands of short films to watch, and you will be accepted or declined on the merits of your film alone, they simply do not have time to wade through additional material. The best favour you can do for yourself at this stage is to make it as easy as possible for them: Make sure the disc works, print the title and duration on the front or use neat handwriting, and make sure it is packaged to survive. After a few weeks or months you will get a reply, and if you are accepted they will explain their delivery requirements.
Which festivals you should enter depends largely on your film and resources. If you have a very strong film with broad appeal and Oscar potential, and sufficient resources, then you should head straight for the biggest and most prestigious festivals you can find; Tribeca, Venice, Cannes, Berlin, Sundance etc. Competition is high for the bigger festivals, but once you screen in one or two, you will find yourself getting invitations from different festivals around the world, including fee reductions and fee waivers—just like celebrities; the more successful a film is the more places it gets into for free! I have it on good authority that the programmers of these festivals are a tight-knit group, they keep each other informed on films that have caught their eye, so it is often just a question of getting your foot in the door.
If your film has more niche appeal, or your resources for entry fees are more modest, you will need to be more careful about which festivals you choose to enter. There are a number of festivals dedicated to promoting short films as a format—Bristol Encounters, Clermont-Ferrand, Palm Springs—that should probably be on any short film’s festival list. There are also genre-themed festivals—horror, Sci-fi, etc—which should be targeted if your film qualifies. Some festivals are exclusively dedicated to animation or documentary, so targeting these can also boost your chances.
Keep in mind also the fact that festivals will favour films with a premiere status: A world premiere is best, then region (North America/Europe etc), then country, then city. This means you should strategise; don’t blow your North American premiere on a no-name festival if you have a real chance of getting into Tribeca a couple of weeks later. Some festivals, such as Cannes or Venice, will only accept a short as a world premiere; if you screen anywhere else they will not even consider it. Don’t be afraid of contacting relevant publications about your film’s successes too, they will often be happy to do articles on short film that are doing well, which can only boost the profile of your film. Once you start getting into festivals, winning awards or making headlines you are likely to attract the attention of a distributor, which then leads you into the next phase of the film’s lifespan.
If your film has good sales potential, or has won any significant awards, you are much more likely to register on a distributor’s radar. Some types of film are more likely to sell than others—as a rule “family friendly” films have more potential; strong language, nudity or excessive violence make a film harder to sell. Perhaps unfair but inescapably true. If your film has won any significant awards, the Oscar being the holy grail, you are likely to be offered an advance on future sales, but do not expect this unless your film is getting a lot of attention. The filmmaker/distributor relationship is really quite straight forward: You provide a master of the film (the aforementioned file, and possibly some tape formats depending on their needs) and a number of supporting materials. They then sell it on your behalf to international TV broadcasters and take a percentage of the income as their fee.
You might have limited success trying to sell the film directly to broadcasters yourself, but the simple truth is that broadcasters usually do not want to deal with content creators directly. It might sound haughty but it is a very pragmatic issue for them; why deal with a thousand different production companies and independent filmmakers when you can deal with ten distributors instead? There are only so many business relationships that one can maintain. Many of them feel so strongly about this that they will suggest films that they have seen and liked at festivals to their preferred distributor, as they would much rather license the film through them rather than have to deal directly with the filmmakers. When choosing a distributor bear in mind that a distribution deal is an exclusive contract, so choose carefully; you are signing over your rights to your film for a number of years. Some distributors rely more on quantity over quality and so may not be able to give your film the attention it deserves. Ask other filmmakers that have worked with them before to see if they will suit you.
The majority of sales will likely be made within the first year, though many films go on to get occasional sales down the line for years to come, which often makes a nice surprise for the filmmaker who has moved on to other projects by then! The final stage in the life of your film is to go online, and there are debates being had over how early this should happen. There are a few things to keep in mind: The vast majority of festivals will not accept films that have been broadcast publicly (online or TV) as they have lost their exclusivity—this is also why your distributor will not make any sales with a start date before the end of your festival run. While an Oscar win or nomination may seem like the world of fantasy, there have been several wins and numerous nominations for Irish shorts over the years, and your film being available online will rule it out immediately.
While TV broadcasters do not insist on the same level of exclusivity they are still less likely to license a film if it is freely available online, so uploading it to Vimeo can be a serious detriment. With that said, the online world of short films is becoming more and more diverse and prestigious in its own right. Short of the Week, a website that showcases top-quality short films, tends to generate a large amount of attention for some shorts, so there is definitely a trade-off to be made. Many directors view a short film as a stepping stone to bigger things, so may want publicity and attention over sales and income. Ultimately it depends entirely on the specific circumstances of your film and what you hope it will achieve over its life time.
Gary White is Media Content Manager for Network Ireland Television – an international distributor for TV and film, primarily selling to TV broadcasters around the world.