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The Big Question: How To Make Money From Short Films

If you read just one article this month about short film distribution, make it this piece at Short of the Week. Written by filmmaker Ivan Kander, the piece is ostensibly about the changing game of short film distribution, but it also contains a sharp critique of short film distributor Shorts International.

Nobody denies that Shorts International works for a handful of high-profile short films—think Oscar-nominated—but, as the article makes clear, their model simply doesn’t work for the average animation filmmaker, a complaint that I’ve heard often throughout the years. Their business model might have been relevant as recently as five years ago, but in 2013, they are an anachronistic presence on the short film circuit. They take far too many rights for the limited financial reward and exposure they offer in return.

Solutions exist, but companies in the short film community have been slow to implement them. Firstly, filmmakers need something like Bandcamp that facilitates the sale of digital downloads and merchandise, the latter of which is a major part of the income stream of established indie animators like Don Hertzfeldt and Bill Plympton.

Vimeo, by virtue of its name-recognition and user base, is perhaps in the best position to make a major impact in the film distribution game. Their recent introduction of the “tip jar” was a step in the right direction, but what I’d really like to see them do is introduce a micro-payment system. For example, a filmmaker on Vimeo could charge 5 cents per film view. As a viewer, I’d purchase a $5 credit from Vimeo, and then everytime I watch a film that requires payment, the site would automatically deduct a nickel from my account. Vimeo could charge 10% for the service (that’s half a penny on a five-cent film). A film with 500,000 views at a nickel apiece would earn $22,500 for the filmmaker and $2,500 for Vimeo. Add in downloads for 25 cents, and you’ve instantly created a more effective model for short filmmakers than Shorts International, iTunes and YouTube’s Partner Program combined.

(Rich man smoking money photo via Shutterstock)