From idea to iTunes – distributing short films

Daniel Taylor 7 March, 2013 0
From idea to iTunes – distributing short films

Film students will spend months working hard to make their short films: they’ll spend all their bursary money on production costs and hours of darkness in the editing suite. Their films are shown at their graduation show and then only brought out once in a blue moon for friends and family.

This is perhaps an exaggeration; maybe ten years ago that was the case and student films would be left to gather dust on the shelf but these days, students can use platforms like Vimeo and YouTube to have their work seen by (potentially) millions across the globe.

This is all very well but what about that magic feeling of having your film shown on a big screen in front of a paying audience, an audience who has come out for the night to see your work? Could the uploading phenomenon be too easy an option for film graduates?

What happens to the vital lessons they could learn from trying to show their films in cinemas across the world? Few of them ever consider making back the bursary money they spent: it is rare for short films to make back their budgets but not impossible.

In June 2009 these were the things I was considering when I finished my graduation film Cat Eats Dog: a ten-minute comedy about a lovelorn professor and his misadventures on a hunt for a stolen dog, starring Mamma Mia’s Ashley Lilley. I had knocked my pan in making it for the last year and was damned if I was going to let it die after the graduation screening. How would I distribute it? How would I get it in front of audiences in cinemas?

I drew up a plan.

Thinking big

The first stage was not to stick it on YouTube. I knew that by doing that I would be limiting myself to only one platform of distribution. Film festivals prefer to premier shorts and, like distributors, tend not to take anything that has been online.

Cat Eats Dog poster

Cat Eats Dog poster

Second stage was to submit it to film festivals: my opinion is that every student should attempt this. Film festivals screen your work to paying audiences, you have the opportunity to travel with your film and most importantly festivals give you the opportunity to network and meet potential collaborators.

If you do get this far make sure you have something new in the pipeline to get them excited about. Imagine if Harvey Weinstein really liked your short and wanted to give you millions to make a feature, having nothing new to intrigue him with could kill the conversation.

I started by sending my film to big festivals. I know I was grasping a bit further than my reach, Cat Eats Dog is not exactly Venice material but Venice was not charging anything for submissions so what did I have I to lose? Someone at the other end might love it and get it screened…or pass it on to Mr Weinstein. Unfortunately it never made it to Venice and I doubt Harvey (or Bob) has ever seen it.

I tried a few other big festivals: Sundance, London and Edinburgh to name a few. The price to submit to these bigger festivals ranged from approximately £10 to £30. Sundance for example cost around £20, reasonable considering it cost the same to send it to a much smaller festival in Yorkshire.

There was some cost to this and a risk that it would not pay off but putting aside a little each month was not too hard, it gave me the hope that the film would be seen again.

It didn’t get it into any of the big festivals but I was not too disheartened by this, I knew I’d been chancing it. I now concentrated on smaller and niche festivals: I sent it to places that focused on short films, student work and comedies. I even tried to seek out animal related festivals, at the time no such festival existed and I’m sure that is still the case today.

This approach paid off however and in March 2010 Cat Eats Dog was screened in a Toronto cinema in front of two hundred people at the The World of Comedy International Film Festival. Sadly I was unable to make it across but the thought of a cinema full of people in a city on the other side of the Atlantic watching something I’d worked tirelessly on made me smile inside: it had been worth it.

In June it was screened for a second time, this time in the Far East. It was in competition at the Beijing Film Festival and had two screenings over there. I was delighted to get it in front of another foreign audience. Interestingly, the organisers decided Cat Eats Dog was suitable to be screened in a three-part programme between a documentary about the Japanese WWII atrocities and a Czech war movie! If you have seen Cat Eats Dog you’ll probably wonder how on earth they connected the three…I am still wondering.

After Beijing I continued to send it to smaller festivals, a lot of which had no submission fees and over the next fifteen months the film had three more screenings in London, Edinburgh and Drumnadrochit. I estimate that it’s festival screenings combined with its graduation show have allowed it to be seen by approximately 1500 people. This is by no means an exceptional figure but is a lot more than what it would have been had I not put it out there.

Ashley Lilley on the set of Cat Eats Dog © Daniel Taylor

Ashley Lilley on the set of Cat Eats Dog © Daniel Taylor

Reaching a wider audience

Back to my plan of June 2009: stage three was to get it on television and stage four was to get it on iTunes. Stage three and four both required the same thing: a sales agent. Sales agents (or distributors) will rent your film out to worldwide TV networks for broadcast, for this they take a cut from the payments made by the networks and pay you royalties.

The distributors usually take 50% and charge any expenses incurred from your cut. The percentage you get is small but what should be kept in mind is that your film is reaching new audiences on platforms only accessible to sales agents. A TV network will not accept unsolicited films. That is to say, films without the representation of an agent.

As the film’s festival run came to an end (short films have a life span of about two years on the festival circuit) I decided to try and get a distributor. There was one at the top of my list: Shorts International. I sent them a DVD and an application form. They got back saying they’d like to take it on and sent me a contract that I signed and posted to them along with the deliverables.

This has proved fruitful: in 2012 they got Cat Eats Dog broadcast twenty four times on the American cable channel ShortsHD and in August that year they launched it on iTunes. Seeing it on iTunes available in HD for the small sum of £1.99 was a nice moment for me. My film was available in fifty countries and someone had believed it was worth charging for: I had got it as far as I could.

I doubt it will make millions (although that would be nice) but it could make back its budget. Making back the production costs and reaching more audiences are my only goals for the film now. I hope this article is useful to film graduates out there wondering what to do with their short films. Hopefully I have shown you there are alternatives to YouTube and Vimeo to get your films out there.

Good luck!

Visit iTunes to watch a preview of Cat Eats Dog.

Related links

Interview: Ashley Lilley