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)


  • Erica

    I’d happily pay for added incentives — behind the scenes; original psd, ai, ae, flash files; a tutorial on how something was done.

    • AmidAmidi

      Erica – You know, I’d never honestly thought of providing animation files/elements as an incentive, but what a fantastic suggestion. I know Nina Paley released all the .fla files for “Sita Sings the Blues” and I’m sure plenty of artists have done similarly in the CG world, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done as, say, a Kickstarter incentive. Very cool idea!

    • mee

      I missed seeing ParaNorman at the theater because I was waiting for the DVD special features. I’m a total bonus geek. Very happy with the special features, but now I want to see it at a theater. Funny how that works.

    • Mikki Måse

      It’s a good idea, this kickstarter project for a pilot based on The Reward short offers all pre production material plus posters, t-shirts, soundtrack and original paintings: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1862188728/the-reward-tales-of-alethrion

  • http://www.maryctaylor.com/ Mary C. Taylor

    Not a bad idea for an internet based short films business model.

  • mee

    Just the headline reminded me of a joke my brother-in-law (race car volunteer support crew) used to tell: You know how to make a small fortune in racing? Start out with a large fortune.

    Very glad to see this post, because money is just not working right anymore. I’m always amazed at how much crazy wonderful content is being put out for free. Lot of love going around, would be nice if it could create new sustainability.

    • mee

      Also, about all the wonderful stuff put out for free — this is one of the best things I’ve read this year, Linds Redding’s “A Short Lesson in Perspective.” It’s from 2012, but I just saw it recently, a blog post by a British/Scottish/New Zealand ad man who was looking back now that he was retired by cancer. The good old days of mad fun collaboration and wild creativity that business model made into a race to the bottom. Too much to quote, but try this part:

      http://www.lindsredding.com/2012/03/11/a-overdue-lesson-in-perspective/

      The scam works like this:
      1. …You don’t have to drive creative folk like most workers. They drive themselves. Just wind ‘em up and let ‘em go.
      2. Truly creative people tend not to be motivated by money. That’s why so few of us have any. The riches we crave are acknowledgment and
      appreciation of the ideas that we have and the things that we make. A
      simple but sincere “That’s quite good.” from someone who’s opinion we
      respect (usually a fellow artisan) is worth infinitely more than any
      pay-rise or bonus. Again, our industry masters cleverly exploit this…
      3. The compulsion to create is unstoppable. It’s a need that has to be filled…

      No, that doesn’t capture the breadth of his story, I’d say just read it all.

      I had the same problem when Stephen Silver’s “Stop Working for Free!” post was up here. Thinking of Redding, couldn’t encapsulate it. He’s telling us something powerful that “stop working for free” doesn’t quite answer.

      Of note, when I was trying to find this article again, the business websites who covered his death focused on the part: “Was it worth it? Of course not.” But I’m stuck on the other part.

      So, totally curious about new business models that care about nourishing creativity rather than exploiting it to death.

  • http://animationanomaly.com/ Charles Kenny

    Amid, you’re thinking of an idea similar to Flattr. You pick a set monthly amount, and Flattr keeps tabs on how often you hit the donate button during the month. At the end, it divides your chosen monthly allowance among all the services you wish to support.

    The tip jar is a good idea but it ultimately amounts to glorified charity, If you can scrape a 5% donation rate, you’d be doing pretty well.

    The real problem though, is the current payment systems in use. Credit cards are not near as ubiquitous in other countries as they are in the US, and between exchange rates and transaction fees, the odds are against the animator. Especially when it comes to small amounts.

    That said, I’ve come to see the benefits of the digital currency Bitcoin in this regard and even wrote a post about it on my own blog (link). It could provide a better solution, but it will need more widespread adoption among the public.

    • AmidAmidi

      Vimeo already has a platform where users can pay via credit card or Paypal to become a Pro user. It wouldn’t be that different for Vimeo to sell chunks of viewing credits to their users, in $5-20 chunks (or as a renewable monthly subscription). I’m not sure if you’re worried about processing micropayments, but neither Vimeo nor filmmakers would ever have to deal with micro-credit card payments. The 5 cents a view would only function as Vimeo’s internal accounting system.

      Also, while it’s true that a lot of countries don’t have credit cards, most online retailers in the US offer credit card purchases whether it’s Walmart, Best Buy or Amazon. If it works for them, it’ll work for a film site.

  • mee

    This part…

    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. … They take far too many rights for the limited financial reward and exposure they offer in return.

    …reminds me of this that I also read today:

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/03/transcript-lawrence-lessig-on-aarons-laws-law-and-justice-in-a-digital-age-section-i.html

    We should name it outrageous because we built this world. We academics built this world. It flows from the deployment of copyright that we have chosen. But here copyright is not to benefit authors, it’s to benefit publishers. It’s not to enable authors – there’s not one of the authors on this [JSTOR] list who get money from copyright. Not one wants the distribution of their article limited. Not one of them has a business model that benefits from restriction. Not one of them should support this system as knowledge policy for the creators here. It is crazy. It is dumb copyright policy. And as Aaron would say, he doesn’t oppose copyright, he opposed dumb copyright.

    Similar principle? Good luck to the creators.

  • Jens

    Out of curiosity, did anyone ever got anything through the vimeo tip jar?

    I would argue that for the broad majority of shorts getting 500k people to pay 5 cents a view is unrealistic. It might work for established people but most shorts don’t even get close to 500k views.

    When you go about making a short you have to understand that in 90% of the cases you won’t see a return.

    But for the sake of the argument lets say 100k, 50k or 20k payed views would be enough to break even for you.

    The problem is that, most views for shorts come from blogs and sharing on fb, reddit etc. If editors could not just embed, and internet folks can not just share a short, but instead see a’please buy some credits’ screen it will be a problem in terms of spreading it around. And thus making money.

    The way the internet works is that people do expect stuff to be free, maybe once that has changed online marketing for shorts could work that way.

    but then again would we want that?

    • pat

      It’s a good point to bring up friction on sharing.

      Do you think it might be feasible to ask watchers to pay for extra shares to help spread it as goodwill? After I pay a nickel to watch, if I like it and want to contribute .25 for 5 shares, or 2.50 for 50… I’m pretty sure that only 1-10% of my 500 Facebook friends would spend the time to watch a short I posted, anyways. That could pay it forward for the next watchers. 2.50 is like a pretty good tip that could also represent a defined value to the filmmaker beyond coffee money, making a payer feel like they’ve done something real to help. Isn’t that a common reason why people contribute on Kickstarter or Indiegogo… I feel like a micropayment system and sharing could coexist by building it on a community spirit principle.

    • Musical Cromartie

      Even then people are extremely greedy. I have over 1 million YouTube views that hasn’t seen a $1.00 go into my “Donations” section. I can imagine 5 cents never going out too.

      (Heck I’m guilty of passing by small micro-transactions too.)

      • http://twitter.com/ocmexfood Christian Z.

        The case you describe is not an issue of greed but of convenience. I think that quite often people don’t want to go through the process of making an electronic payment (which may involve setting up a new username and password, typing in/divulging credit card info, etc.) even if they are fine with donating a nickel or a buck. It’s just more complicated online than pulling a coin out of one’s pocket and flipping it in the busker’s guitar case.

      • tom

        their isn’t even a donation jar on youtube

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=770172078 Carlos Herrera

    Amid, that’s an amazing idea…

  • Scott Shaw!

    At first glance, I thought that was David Silverman lighting his cigar. Must be the eyebrows…

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondhi Jason Sondhi

    Thanks Amid. I for one think this is a fantastic idea, and one that I’ll continue to bring up in discussion at Vimeo. I don’t think traditional VOD/PPV is a good idea for short films because, as we address in our article at Short of the Week, the the extremely low profile of even celebrated shorts means that putting a paywall up restricts exposure too much, and exposure is an extremely valuable currency in its own right.

    A micropayment system reduces the financial commitment a viewer must commit to a film they know nothing about, but still represents its own challenges. While Vimeo collects subscriptions through PLUS and PRO, these members still constitute a fraction of the overall viewing audience. It’s a challenge for most animations to receive 100,000 views, let alone 500,000, and if we restrict viewing to subscribers, that number will plummet.

    Perhaps incentives can be configured though that reward micropayments but don’t restrict general discovery and exposure. For example, audiences currently cannot see HD embeds of your film if you are not a PLUS/PRO subscriber. Maybe viewers would not be allowed to see HD versions of your short if they did not sign up for the micropayments? Love to hear more ideas the community might have around these sorts of incentives.

    Jason Sondhi
    Curator@Vimeo
    Editor@Short of the Week

    • AmidAmidi

      Jason, You’re right that the paywall is a very difficult thing to pull off for short films. Still, if anyone is in a position to pull it off, it’s Vimeo. I think the reason that other paywalls haven’t worked for short films is primarily due to two reasons:

      * cost of entry—either monthly subscriptions or $1 and above for individual films.

      * lack of diverse content

      With a low cost of entry, and access to exclusive content from name-filmmakers (and name-filmmakers is arguable in short film, but you know what I mean), I think it stands a shot of being successful. I pay monthly for Hulu and Netflix, and I wouldn’t think twice of buying a $3/monthly subscription for credits on Vimeo ($36/year for 720 film credits).

      I should point out that in my scenario, Vimeo would still be a free video site. Filmmakers could choose to charge. For example, a filmmaker could make his older films available for free, but charge the nickel for his latest work. Further, it would be a set price. I think tiers and complicated pricing structures based on HD/non-HD don’t work. Films are either a nickel behind the paywall or free to view.

      Make it happen, dude! ;)

    • http://blog.azizk.com azizk

      Jason how about combining this idea with Vimeo Plus & Tip Jar? Maybe while you’re signing up to plus, you get a credit of $10 to use on viewing payments. A nickel per video, $10 gives you 600 viewings. But maybe, you could choose to give that nickel. So while still keeping the “Tip Jar” button for people who would want to donate more, maybe add another incentive for people just to contribute a nickel which would be deducted from their $10 credit. And once the $10 is over with, you can top it off if you choose to.

      Impulse purchases are a huge thing, at least for me and most probably for a lot of people. Even in the app store etc, if I see an app that’s .99, I don’t really think twice. So considering it’s a nickel, I think people would really just chime in.

      I’m watching a gazillion videos on Vimeo, but I still think 600 videos per year to contribute to is really quite a lot. Even if it’s a nickel.

  • http://youtube.com/cathuliancg Justin Goran

    ya, as I mentioned merchandise is a very small portion of income for webcomics. I agree you have to get to a certain size before merchandise even becomes viable.

    offering a physical product however is a good way to generate funds, but where webcomics have books what do film/animation people have?

    Maybe Blu-rays are okay if you have a series as opposed to a single short, but I just don’t see the appeal. A book offers a different way to see webcomics art work so fans usually enjoy getting the book versions of their work.

    For film/animation the best we can offer is an HD version on Blu-ray which would look much better without all the compression online streaming sites do to the video but I don’t know if that difference is even noticeable to an untrained eye, or even something a fan base wants.

    I don’t know, lots of questions, this is why I would love to see a dialog on this subject so us as a community can brainstorm ideas so we can bring independent work to a higher level and make it not be a loss to create.

    I’ll be following your work, please let me know what you are finding successful with your audience.

  • Kevin Parry

    Kevin Parry here – Yes, Film Annex has been fairly profitable for me. I’ve made about $19k so far in the last year off ad revenue on my shorts. I’m not sure how they run their platform, but it seems to be working!

    • http://youtube.com/cathuliancg Justin Goran

      To make $19k on youtube you would need roughly 12million – 15million views.

      It sounds like filmannex has a much better payout system for creators, though I’m not sure how many views you’ve gotten on filmannex.

  • OtherDan

    REALLY good post. Thanks for sharing. It definitely makes you consider more carefully what your end goal is. The big problem I have with a glut of shorts is that most are terrible. The reason I think we all saw “Paperman” was because of the Branding. I love animation, but I don’t love it enough to sift through shorts to find good stuff. I think sites like youtube or shortoftheweek are very convenient for development types to forage. But, I doubt that on the whole it really helps people get the kind of grand or targeted exposure they seek. Ultimately, I think it boils down to branding. I think short film makers/artists have to focus on personal or group branding as much as a wide distribution (monetization) strategy.

  • http://twitter.com/quollism S J Bennett

    I’m not sure if it’s been pointed out here yet but i’m sure part of the success of Bandcamp is in its openness towards its users – in most cases, you can listen to an entire album without having to actually pay for it. Only once you pay money can you download high-quality lossless versions with bonus features (e.g. music videos) and hidden/unstreamable tracks. Buyers have heard the music they’re about to buy, so the monetary transaction is less about gaining access to the music and more about currency-based kudos with no hovering question of “will i actually like this album once i’ve heard the entire thing?”. The level of trust you get doing things this way is key – having the whole work available to listen to establishes a stronger connection between artist and audience. Paywalling kills that trust – people don’t have a sense of the implicit value of the work until they hear it, and it also inhibits someone randomly discovering it.

    Also Bandcamp’s stats are great. As a former user of theirs i have nothing but praise for them. For instance, it’s amazing to see hard numbers on which tracks of your album the audience stops listening at.

    So on a video-oriented equivalent of Bandcamp, perhaps users would need to pay money for a pristine DRM-free downloadable version with extra stuff (soundtrack, script, storyboards, etc) but they’d be able to watch the entire short and a trailer for the whole package in SD for free (perhaps with a couple of comparison screenshots in HD to whet their appetite). The user could spend money on the spot to watch a video in distraction-free fullscreen or stream it in HD – this is where microtransactions come in (possibly drawn from a credit pool like XBox points, possibly also an independent transaction). And if you want to stream all the extras off the site along with the HD version instead of downloading them, paying for the whole package would unlock that.

    That’s a possible user story anyway. Whether it’s economically sustainable as a business enterprise, i have no idea.

  • http://twitter.com/quollism S J Bennett

    Agreed. The Blender Open Movies are incredibly hard to beat for extra goodies: “Here, have the short, the usual special features like commentaries and making-of, the movie’s entire asset pool, the software we used to create it for Win/Mac/Linux, tutorials on how to use the software from the creators themselves, your name in the credits if you pre-order, live streaming video of our weekly production meetings including preliminary versions of the short, live streaming video from the greenscreen set and location as we actually shoot..”

    When they say “open”, they mean wiiiiiiide open. :)

  • Joseph

    Well this is quite interesting, i don’t know if you heard of this by now, but it seems Vimeo has listened your inquiries Amid, as they have recently introduced their Vimeo-On-Demand feature which apparently allows any filmmaker with a PRO account (no wonder there) to charge for the “screening” of their videos. It seems one can learn more at their site now at vimeo.com/ondemand

    Hopefully their newfound promises for a brighter future in the short film distribution “game” won’t fall short.

    Best Regards.

  • http://twitter.com/siosism George Siosi Samuels

    Check out https://chill.com/ for a Bandcamp for film-makers!

  • http://twitter.com/toscreenshots James McNally

    I am actually doing this here in Toronto. I’ve been running a quarterly shorts screening series for the past 18 months and recently introduced a $100 Audience Award for each screening. It’s not a lot of money, but when I read what the filmmakers were getting from distributors, I thought it was a step in the right direction. Hopefully we can grow that amount as our audiences grow, too.

  • tom

    that’s the best idea on how to make money of short film i’ve ever heard