by Hal Landen
“If someone told us a year and a half ago that one day people would be paying to see our film, we would have said they were crazy,”says Joseph Levy, the producer of George Lucas in Love. This nine minute parody of Star Wars, directed by Joe Nussbaum, is one of the most successful film on the Internet. See IMDb for more information
Mediatrip.com offered Nussbaum and Levy a distribution deal with Amazon.com as well as a brick and mortar deal that would put their video on the shelves of stores like Tower and Blockbuster. To date Amazon has sold 20,000 tapes, and 25,000 more have been sold in stores. A special DVD edition is also selling well. Through an independent sales agent, Mr. Levy and Mr. Nussbaum have sold the broadcast rights to the Sci Fi Channel in the United States and to foreign distributors.
Short films and videos are making a comeback thanks in large part to the internet. Short films were much more common back in the 1960’s when movie theaters would routinely play a “selected short” before the main feature. But then, according to film critic Roger Ebert, “shorts were marginalized by greedy theater owners, who dropped them in favor of faster audience turnover and more trailers.”
Few shorts made it into the theaters. Most shorts such as my own 13 minute documentary entitled Blacksmith had a handful of venues including film festivals, the educational market and some TV play. The Internet has changed all of that and given the short film a giant boost in the arm.
As of March 2008, YouTube had a total of 70,000,000 videos and over 100,000,000 video viewings every day. YouTube was purchased by Google in 2008 is clearly the top video sharing site in the world. Just about anyone can put their video on YouTube. And some YouTube producers are making money at it. According to the New York Times YouTube Videos Pull In Real Money
On the other end of the spectrum is Atomfilms.com which is very selective in the films it accepts. As of this writing Atomfilms hosts some 1300 films on its web site.
Sites that specialize in hosting shorts are classified as entertainment sites. And in the recent hi-tech shakeout many of these high-profile entertainment sites have crashed and burned, but those that remain should be healthier since there is less competition for viewers. In any case it is the filmmakers who are the big winners. Nevertheless, producing a successful film or video that either makes a profit or leads the producers to bigger things, is still an uphill battle, but the web definitely helps level the playing field. If a few viewers like your short and spread the word, it’s possible that in a few days or a week thousands of people could watch your film. Never before have filmmakers had this kind of opportunity.
But we’re not talking about home movies. You’ve gotta have a great product and be dedicated enough to make it happen. Many of these short films on the web have been or are making the festival circuit. But you don’t have to be a veteran of the festivals to enter. If you’ve got or can borrow the tools and have a burning desire to make an entertaining short, you qualify! You can produce it in DV or another video format. The format is not nearly as important as the storytelling and filmmaking skills.
Some of the entertainment web sites are intended to attract large audiences and make their profits by selling advertising. Others aspire to make profits as a middleman representing producers and selling their shorts to offline distribution venues such as television, film studios and airlines. But regardless of their business models, all entertainment sites need new and engaging shorts. As AtomFilms proclaims, “We Want Your Shorts.”
Some films that were roundly rejected offline have been very successful on the web. “Sunday’s Game” is a comedy about elderly women playing Russian Roulette over lunch. Their film had been rejected by scores of agents and over 15 film festivals before it became a hit on the web. David Garrett and Jason Ward.were unemployed writers who decided to make Sunday’s Game” as a showcase for their talent. And it worked. Their web success eventually led to a deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures on a mob comedy they wrote in 10 days. But their story is not typical, especially now when there are so much competition on the net.
Another successful film on the net is “405 The Movie” which has been viewed more than 3.1 million times. Jeremy Hunt and Bruce Branit had already nominated for two Emmys for their visual effects work on “Star Trek: Voyager.”. This fact was omitted by a recent Videomaker article which might misled some into thinking how easy this is. Well it isn’t easy and these guys were already accomplished filmmakers. They did it because they have been working for other people and wanted to have their own thing. So they made a little three minute movie.
405 shows a clueless driver played by Hunt turning onto a freeway that’s been cleared for a DC10’s emergency landing only to find the plane dropping down right behind him. “Through our jobs we had access to much-higher-end computers,” Mr. Hunt said of the 2 minute 58 second sequence, It took them three months using professional software on no-frills home computers. “But we’re believers that the tools are accessible and that anyone could do what we did.”
The two have now been contracted by Creative Artists Agency because in the words of Don Adler, head of the new media division at CAA, “They used digital technology to tell an incredibly engaging story that never would have been told in the analog world without an enormous budget of millions of dollars, or perhaps not at all.”
The web sites which specialize in showing short films run the gamet in terms of selectivity and compensation to the filmmakers. While some sites accept longer films, most longer films do not do well on the net since they take so long to download. On the other hand. “Computer Boy,” one of their most successful spoofs is 49 minutes. And NetFlix.com now rents feature films via download.
IFILM does not pay for the films it hosts, but the popularity of this site can make this a valuable way to promote your film for no cost. IFILM works on a non-exclusive basis so your film can appear on other sites and be placed with other distributors. One advantage of showing your film at at site like this is the instant ratings. Imagine going to a movie theater and seeing right next to the list of movies playing the ratings of how many people had watched this film and unedited comments from those viewers. If people like your movie, these statistics and, hopefully, good comments from viewers could attract the attention of a distributor, agent, cable network, or film studio. The odds may be long as you might deduce by looking at the IFILM success stories on their site, but this could be a winning approach to finding a distributor.
AtomFilms.com takes an entirely different approach. This site is highly selective in the films it choses to host and to represent. Atomfilms operates more like one of the traditional distributors in our Free Library. If they choose your film, they will offer you an exclusive contract and then work hard at setting up distribution deals for your film. Their store features videos and DVDs of the “Best of AtomFilms” and similar ideas. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of their sales efforts.
According to their site they sell to television stations on five continents, airline entertainment services, major internet and broadband services, selected theatrical venues and more. They have deals pending to provide some 600 shorts to television, airlines, broadband and wireless companies this year and they say that there’s barely enough films to go around. According to Mika Salmi, chief executive of AtomFilms, “We are focused on finding the next wave of hot creative types who we can keep going back to. This business isn’t about finding that one hit. It’s about volume and quality.”
Of course you will want to carefully study the requirements of any web site you plan to submit to. And I would definitely ask others who are represented by a distributor before signing any exclusive distribution deal. You will be asked to prove that you have all clearances and rights for commercial distribution. Music rights must be cleared so if your film has Beatles music, you will have to do something about that. Keep it short and entertaining.