You Are The Studio

July 26, 2009
posted by sheric

Making it big in shortsSaturday’s coffee chat at LA Shorts Fest featured guest speaker Kim Adelman, indieWire columnist covering short films and author of the book MAKING IT BIG IN SHORTS. For those who missed the chat, I wanted to cover some of the finer points she mentioned because I think her knowledge can benefit the short filmmaker as well as the indie filmmaker in general.

Her first point was an independent filmmaker has to think of themselves as a studio, just like a Hollywood studio. When you have completed your film, you are opening your doors for business. What do you want to invest your time in? How much time and money do you have to invest in your product, your film? What strategy are you going to develop and follow? I believe you really should decide this before your film is made, but for sure it has to be set when you put it out to market. And then you have to market it.

She recommends starting with film festivals as a means of exposure. You, as the studio, must determine how much money you have to devote to this endeavor. Not only are there submission fees, but travel costs, promotional costs and the time associated with each. While there are a few festivals that pay a filmmaker to travel, most do not. Festivals give your film exposure to a paying audience, give you a chance to meet other filmmakers and people in the industry who could potentially help you in the future, and give you a place to enjoy the atmosphere where being a filmmaker is revered and celebrated.

Some festivals have markets attached. These are the first festivals to consider if you are looking for traditional distribution. Kim suggested that short filmmakers in particular should submit to Clermont Ferrand in France which takes place in January. There is no submission fee and there is a short film market attached. Even if you aren’t accepted for the festival, your film will get into the catalog and screen in the market for buyers. Same for Palm Springs Shortsfest and Worldwide Short Film Festival  in Toronto.  For the feature filmmaker, festivals with markets attached include Berlin (European Film Market is attached, but a separate event), Cannes, AFI (AFM is attached, but a separate event), Philadelphia, PiFan (Korea, for genre films), and Rotterdam.

Kim recommended that you submit to festivals specializing in short films and mixed feature/short films. Shorts festivals give you better exposure if you have a short film because the mixed ones tend to emphasize the features, but being in a mixed festival gives you exposure to feature film producers and industry people who can help you to make your feature which is what short filmmakers usually aspire to do. She strongly recommends that whenever you take part in a festival, you should have your next film idea packaged so that if you meet an agent, producer or distributor and they like your short but want to know what you have planned next and how can they help you, you are ready to present the idea. You don’t want to say “I don’t know” or be scrambling around in your mind trying to formulate a cohesive film idea.

She also warned about spending too much time on the festival circuit with one film. This comes back to the studio thinking. How much time, money and effort do you want to spend on this one project versus the time and money you could spend developing the next one? Too many filmmakers spend an inordinate amount of time on the festival circuit with the same film instead of moving on to the next one. Eighteen months should be your maximum. On the one hand, festivals enable you to meet more people, but they don’t earn you money unless you are selling a lot of DVD copies at the screenings. Going back to festival strategy, identify what it is you are looking to accomplish with festivals. Is it name recognition, showing your filmmaking talent off to agents or distributors, gathering an audience for your DVD sales strategy? Identify when you have accomplished your goal and can move on. 

The next strategy is digital distribution. This is where your film can either be downloaded or streamed online or put onto a portable device such as an iPod or a cell phone. One company that can help you get your short onto iTunes (because iTunes won’t deal with the filmmaker directly) is Shorts International.  iTunes actually gives the short filmmaker a way to make money like there never has been before. There are also revenue sharing sites like Bablegum, Blip.TV, Atomfilms and Metacafe. She cautions that while some money can be made in this process, it is not going to make you rich. It may not even help you break even, depending on how much money you invested in your production. Traditionally, short films were used as calling cards, a way to sell yourself as a filmmaker, not  a way to make money. With the proliferation of digital sites, a short filmmaker can either put their film out there for free and build an audience for their next project that may make money or use these revenue generating sites to slowly recoup some of their costs. Back to the need for marketing, you will only make money on these sites if you can successfully generate traffic and downloads. That takes time and consistent effort. Another company she recommended is a Canadian aggregator called OuatMedia who specializes in the worldwide distribution of short films.

Overall, her statement “You are the Studio” resonated the most. As an independent filmmaker it is all up to you. This is both an exciting prospect because you don’t have to ask any one’s permission to make films and sell them, and a nerve racking one because there is no one holding your hand and guiding you through the process. There is no magic formula that will work every time. Filmmaking is a trial and error process, even for big studios. The path to success is littered with mistakes and poor judgement, but there is no success if you never try.