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4 New Rules To Successfully Distribute Your Short Film Online

It’s as easy as pressing as the ‘upload’ button, right?

It’s true: sharing an animated short film with billions of people around the world has never been easier.

But whether anyone actually watches your film after you publish it online is another question entirely. The ease of online distribution has also made it exponentially more difficult for individual films to be discovered by audiences. A filmmaker has to compete with literally hundreds of thousands of hours of video uploaded every single day to every corner of the internet.

Throughout 2017, Cartoon Brew is going to make an in-depth examination of the new realities of being a short filmmaker in the internet age. We’re going to take a look at all kinds of issues from online distribution and third-party film licensing to digital series and short-form funding. We’ll explore these topics through case studies, interviews, and commentaries.

We launch the series today with four new tips and strategies for publishing animated short films online. The advice is based on close observation of the online short film scene, as well as active involvement with and consultation to numerous filmmakers over the past few years.

Some of these ideas will be contrary to the advice that you’ve probably heard from others. That’s because most of the thinking on how to distribute a film online is woefully outdated, and hasn’t been updated since the mid-to-late-2000s when sites like Youtube and Vimeo first started to become part of the conversation. The time is long overdue to re-examine how independent animated shorts are released online, taking into account the evolution of the web and the changing role of film festivals.

1. Put your film online while it is still in festivals.

If you’re a little older, you’ll remember that back in the 1990s, Hollywood movies used to be released on home video about 8-14 months after theatrical release. The dramatic increase of available entertainment content over the past couple decades rendered that system obsolete. Today, there is an ever-shrinking window between theatrical and home release; films are released on TVOD, SVOD, and other digital platforms often as early as three months after theatrical release, and there are increasing day-and-date theatrical and streaming releases, thanks to the prominence of new content producers like Netflix and Amazon.

It’s the same with short films. To increase the chances for discovery, a film should be made available early and to as wide an audience as possible. Releasing a film online while it is still having a festival run allows you to take advantages of the synergies between festival and online audiences. For example, someone who discovers your film at a festival will be excited to share your film online with their friends. And vice versa, if your film is performing well online, a festival programmer may be more likely to program it in their line-up.

Festivals and the internet are now partners, and they work together to help filmmakers be discovered by wider audiences. But the only way for you to take advantage of the free promotion that festivals offer is to have your film online. (Be sure to include a prominent web site link to your film in the credits.)

2. Short films should ALWAYS have a release date.

This is advice you won’t hear anywhere else, and I think it’s perhaps the single biggest thing that prevents short films from gaining more prominence in the mainstream. If you release a short film trailer, it should always—and I mean ALWAYS—have a release date.

No one wants to watch a trailer for a film and then wonder how many months or years they’ll have to wait to see it. Creating uncertainty about the availability of your short is the surest way to kill enthusiasm for the project. The lack of release dates is also a key reason why Cartoon Brew (as well as, I’m sure, other media) are usually reluctant to promote short film trailers. It’s standard practice for feature films, tv shows, and pretty much every other form of content nowadays to have a release date; it’s time for short filmmakers to catch up with the times.

So, how do you plan a release date in advance? Short filmmakers will need to experiment with this to find the sweet spots. Here’s a suggestion I’ve heard from some filmmakers: after a film has had its premiere in its home country and a major international festival premiere, it’s time to put it online. (Both of these things usually happen within the first six months of a film’s festival life.) Another good time to consider putting it online is in the fall, after a film has qualified for the Academy Awards, which is a key objective for many filmmakers. (The latter release strategy was applied very successfully last fall by one of the current Oscar nominees, Borrowed Time, though they only made it available online for a limited period of time.)

Whatever date you choose, keep in mind that earlier is better. I’ve watched countless films that were much talked about at festivals fail to catch fire online because the filmmakers waited two or three years before releasing their film on the internet, after the buzz cycle for their work had expired. No matter how great your film, there will not be the same amount of enthusiasm for it two to three years after it’s been on the festival circuit; take advantage of the window when excitement for your film is at its peak.

3. Don’t give away your online rights.

A few people have made money on the internet with their independent shorts, but this is not the norm and there is not a single reliable monetization strategy that applies to a large number of filmmakers. But if directly generating revenue for a short film is still difficult to do, don’t overlook the fact that a successful short online can generate work opportunities and exposure— and not the icky exposure that third-party companies promise you in place of payment, but honest-to-goodness exposure that was earned on your own and that comes back directly to you.

A hit film online can do so many things for a filmmaker. It’ll look good on your next grant application to film funding bodies if you’re continuing down the independent route, or it can help you score a first-look deal with a major Hollywood animation producer, like Kyungmin Woo did with Illumination. It can also lead to all kinds of commercial animation gigs that help pay the bills while you work on your next personal film.

To make any of this happen though, it’s essential that you control the online rights to your film. I realize this is not always possible if you have a producer who puts up the money for production, but remember that these things can be negotiated. Whatever you do, NEVER throw away your rights by giving long-term exclusive rights to broadcasters or short film distributors like Shorts International. Owning the rights to your film, including online rights, is one of the greatest assets you have, and its value far outweighs the pitiful few dollars that might come your way from a short film distribution deal. If a distributor absolutely must have online rights, give them non-exclusive.

4. Distribute on every platform.

One of the biggest misconceptions among short filmmakers (besides the one that festivals won’t accept your film if it’s posted online) is that you should only publish your film on a single platform to direct all the views to a single source. That would be a good idea if everyone in the world thought the same way you do, but they don’t.

I’ve watched filmmakers enjoy success after posting their films on both Vimeo and Youtube, and here’s what’s interesting: the traffic sources and the top countries from which people saw the same film on each platform were completely different. People in different countries have different mechanisms for discovery, and your best chance to reach the widest possible audience is to release day-and-date on Vimeo, Youtube, and Facebook. Other social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat shouldn’t be overlooked; though they are currently not the best ways to distribute a short film, they can certainly help in the lead-up to a film’s launch.

Besides increasing your chances for having your film discovered, there’s another benefit to making your film widely available. If you have the good fortune of having an online hit, and it’s not on one of the major platforms (Youtube/Facebook/Vimeo), someone else will put it up for you and then it becomes even more challenging to pull down unauthorized copies. As many successful short filmmakers will attest, policing the internet for unauthorized copies of your film can be a full-time job. Making copies of your film available in as many different places as possible helps ensure that the traffic leads back to your official versions.

  • James Madsion

    Out of curiosity, would these rules be vastly different to distributing a feature?

    • AmidAmidi

      While there are some parallels, like shrinking release windows, short film and feature film distribution are two totally different beasts. These ideas are intended strictly for makers of independent animated shorts.

      • James Madsion

        Gotcha! Thanks a million for the insight on both, Amid.

  • Shawn

    Thank you for the helpful tips. In regards to releasing a film online while it’s touring festivals, there is an issue to be aware of that many festivals require your film to not be available for free online. It makes sense because the festival organizers want people to buy tickets to attend their event, and why would they if they can view the films online for free? With that in mind, do you still recommend putting a film online while touring festivals?

    • AmidAmidi

      As mentioned in the piece, that is simply not true of most festivals anymore. Festivals have evolved their approach and few penalize filmmakers anymore for having a film online. In fact, some festival programmers are very aware of what’s popular online when doing selections. It’s not about whether a film is available but about the curation of the films and how it fits into the context of a festival program. Nevertheless our recommendation is to still do a major festival premiere and local premiere first instead of putting it straight online.

    • There are 10 thousand reasons to put your film online and one not to (ego).

    • alexmyung

      Same, I really wish I had heard this earlier, at least to decide what was best for us. My team and I have been under the impression that you simply shouldn’t put films online during festival runs for the exact reasons above. We’re nearing the end of our festival circuit and have been contemplating how to move forward so this was a great read, but now I have anxiety lol.

    • No longer true. We (Short of the Week) heard this concern from filmmakers all the time, so we did a deep study a couple years ago and found that at around 70% of the biggest and best festivals (Academy Award qualifying festivals) will accept films that are already online. This includes the top US fests like Sundance and SXSW. And every year we’ve checked back on the list, that number has only growing.

      If you want to scan our entire festival list and whether or not online films are eligible…

  • fernandafrick

    Great advice! I’ve been trying to gather clues about all this from different sources so it’s great to have a lot of the information compiled in one place :)

    I’m wondering though, all this is with free online release? Or also includes Vimeo On Demand/Itunes/vhx? Is it wishful thinking to believe a short film would do well behind a paywall?

    • AmidAmidi

      For certain projects with commercial potential—yours included—it makes sense to explore TVOD and customizable VOD options. Besides the ones you mentioned, I’d also look at Gumroad. The reason I mention Gumroad is because I think that you can still earn more from sales of items related to the animated film (artwork/merchandise/Bluray) than from the digital download itself. If all you make is $1-2K, then the benefit of having a publicly available hit film online may outweigh putting it behind a paywall. But if you have a plan to make $5-10K, then it’s definitely worth exploring.

      • Martian Monkey

        I’d also throw into the mix. It helps the filmmaker get their stuff on the big sites.

        I don’t know much more than that. I’ve followed them for a few years when they first got started but haven’t done so recently. They’ve seemed to do quite well for themselves. Has anyone had experience with them?

  • UsaMiKo

    I hope more animated film makers start putting their films online mainly because I want to see them so bad! Its so dang annoying seeing a trailer for a short film I really want to see and knowing I’m not going to be able to see it for another couple of years because their still making the festival rounds. If more filmmakers took advantage of VOD services like Vimeo (because I’d be willing to pay for them) I think lots of people would benefit, enthusiasts and filmmakers alike.

  • chris padilla

    Excellent info, Amid!

  • Johnny Marques

    All suggestions are pretty valid and reasonable, I think. This is the kind of topic where a guide with 50 tips still would not be enough to cover all variables both in production and distribution of short films nowadays. The biggest regret I’ve noticed in some animators is tied to their rights, too often people give up their long-term rights without proper safeguards.

  • Thank you so much for the research and info, Amid! This sounds like a great series; can’t wait to read the next installment.