The Transition by Emerging Filmmakers from the Short Film to the longer format Feature Film or TV project
Helen Carter, Matt Hawkins and Tom Young
Filmmakers often learn their craft by creating a body of short films (‘shorts’). They do this because they are easier to make than feature films or television series. Sometimes these filmmakers use a short as a testing concept for a longer format production. This essay explores the experience of five emerging filmmakers who have used a short as leverage to get financial and organisational support for a longer format product. Our interviews found that for these filmmakers, having a short was useful in five circumstances: when applying for development and funding programs, organising crowdfunding, seeking attention through film festivals, finding mentors, and gaining online digital distribution. Each phase, however, was different and the impact of the short was not something that could be conclusively determined. Overall, for the filmmakers we researched, having a short was an important but not the only step toward further support. Its value, if not part of a careful strategy, is a limited one.
Low-budget, shorts, film, funding, festivals, distribution, online, filmmaker
Filmmakers often learn their craft by creating a body of shorts. As a training ground, short filmmaking has become well established as it is typically low cost compared to the significant budgets of longer format productions. Film and television as an art requires substantial and comprehensive funding in order for the work to reach what the industry considers an appropriate standard for a wider audience. Even short films require a considerable amount of time and money compared to other art forms. Nonetheless, each short project has a confined and easily manageable temporal duration. emerging filmmakers successfully turn their short into a feature film or TV project. This essay explores how five filmmakers achieved this transition.
To do so, we undertook qualitative interviews with five Australian filmmakers who have transitioned from a short to a longer format feature film or TV project. The filmmakers (and projects) include Dario Russo (Italian Spiderman/Danger 5), Kirsty Stark (Wastelander Panda), Maddie Parry (Murder Mouth/Meatwork), Kristen Moliere (Monster/The Babadook) and Liz Kearney (Transmission/These Final Hours). The short and long format versions of each project are closely tied, as either a direct successor (for example, Wastelander Panda) or a spiritual successor that replicates the same style and tone (for example, Italian Spiderman/Danger 5). All of the filmmakers, except Kearney, are South Australian practitioners who were already known to us. The interviews shed light on five circumstances where shorts were useful: when applying for development and funding programs, organising crowdfunding, seeking attention through film festivals, finding mentors, and gaining online digital distribution. All of these factors helped our filmmakers make the transition from short to longer format. We use these factors as the subheadings here.
This essay is complemented by a short documentary Short to Feature/TV (2015), featuring interview excerpts from each of the five filmmakers. The short documentary highlights the case for producing a short before attempting a longer format version. Short to Feature/TV is available online here.
Development and Funding Programs
In the Australian context, government funding plays a large part in film development. However, to secure this funding a filmmaker usually needs either industry experience or an A-List film credit (Screen Australia, 2015a, 2015c; Film Victoria, 2015). So how might having a short as proof of concept help? We identified two pathways. In the first, a small grant from state-based programs funds a short. Once the film is accepted into A-list film festivals, then the filmmaker seeks more substantial funding to produce a longer format version. The second pathway saw filmmakers distribute their short online, proving its popularity with a substantial audience before leveraging discretionary government support. In the case of Wastelander Panda, the filmmaker used a combination of both.
An example of low level funding leading to more significant funding is Parry’s short Murder Mouth, which received A$4,500 from the South Australian Raw Nerve initiative. The film was later nominated for Best Documentary at the 2011 St Kilda Film Festival and Best Documentary at the 2011 Inside Film Awards, and won the Bondi Short Film Festival. This, according to Parry, made her a more attractive applicant for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Screen Australia’s Opening Shot initiative (Parry, 2015).Through this program, Parry produced the half-hour broadcast documentary Meatwork.
Similarly, Jennifer Kent’s short, Monster, received A$30,000 as part of the NSW Film and Television Office’s (FTO) Young Filmmaker’s Fund and then a further A$4,500 marketing allowance (NSW FTO, 2006). As with Murder Mouth, it proceeded to prove itself on the festival circuit, revealing Kent as a ‘director to watch’ for Screen Australia (Moliere, 2015). The Babadook, the feature film version of Monster, received A$764,616 in Production Investment from Screen Australia in 2011/2012 (Screen Australia, 2012). Although Parry and Kent had different levels of experience, they shared a progressive approach to funding, starting small and then using festival success to apply for larger amounts. The fact that shorts gained the credibility of A-list film festival selection meant government funding bodies had more confidence in supporting a longer format version.
In Australia, there also exist specific programs to transition first time filmmakers directly to feature filmmaking. The South Australian Film Corporation’s (SAFC) Film Lab and Screen Australia’s Springboard program are two recent examples. Kearney received $150,000 from Screen Australia via the Springboard program in order to create the short, Transmission, with director Zak Hilditch(Screen Australia, 2013b). This now discontinued program was designed to ‘create a short drama film that speaks directly to their feature film screenplay, providing a strong showcase into the marketplace’ (Screen Australia, 2013a). Kearney and Hilditch were selected into this program on the basis of their feature film script for These Final Hours and their previous short and no-budget feature film experience (Kearney, 2015). As this program was in its infancy, Kearney felt that Screen Australia was more likely to take a chance on a relatively unknown team. However, requirements soon became tougher and the 2013 Springboard guidelines stipulated that applicants should have a credit at one of the A-list film festivals listed in the Director’s Acclaim Fund, which includes Cannes, Sundance and Berlin (Screen Australia, 2013a). Given these more stringent requirements, the fact that the Springboard program is currently ‘under review’, and SAFC’s Film Lab is now defunct, it’s fair to say that support from such programs for the emerging filmmaker is not a likely option unless they have at least one A-list film festival credit (Screen Australia, 2013a; Dooley, 2013).Funding programs are continuously changing as well as being highly competitive in an environment of decreasing in government funding. Therefore, regardless of its quality, a successful short film alone does not guarantee government funding.
Russo and Stark took the second approach, using online views as evidence of audience demand. Initially the Wastelander Panda team received a modest A$7000 grant from the Helpmann Academy, a South Australian organisation supporting local emerging artists, to produce a trailer for their series (Perri, 2011). Stark released the trailer online to show family and friends. Within three days it had appeared on the front cover of online news service BuzzFeed, and gained over 100,000 views. Stark used this data to create evidence of audience demand:
We went into the stats for our Prologue video, Facebook page and crowdfunding campaign, and put together a numbers package of audience age, gender and location, the average amount donated, and a profile showing how they had accessed our content. From the ‘Advertise with us’ sections on major websites that had featured the project, we pulled their user demographics, and monthly page views, giving an indication of the eager audience we had in place. (Stark, 2015)
Stark took this package of information to the SAFC, who provided extra funding to produce three online episodes. The final stage involved Madman Production Company, SAFC, Screen Australia and the ABC funding a further six episodes. In this case, the filmmakers used a combination of progressive grants and a proven audience to eventually secure major funding for an extended series. Similarly, emerging filmmaker Russo used the 500,000+ views his Italian Spiderman trailer received on YouTube to leverage modest funding from the SAFC for a ten episode series (Russo, 2015).
In summary, the experience of the filmmakers interviewed suggests securing government funding is challenging but by no means impossible. The filmmakers in this study started small and worked their way up to more substantial funding, using the success of shorts in festivals to gain the confidence of funding bodies. An alternative option might be to establish an audience online, and then use this as a means of gathering larger funding for a longer format project. Either pathway is potentially available for the emerging filmmaker. Both of these forums help demonstrate an emerging filmmaker’s ability in industrially recognised forms of film, such as television series and feature films.
Crowdfunding is an online mechanism to source money for projects, including film projects. It also provides a tangible opportunity for future audiences to express their support for the filmmakers and the project. Filmmakers can leverage this information when applying for funding or during distribution. Having a short in the style of a longer format production was a way for The Babadook team to demonstrate a proof of concept (Moliere, 2015) but for Stark it was more the filmmakers themselves who impressed the donors. The Wastelander Panda team uploaded a video statement from the writer and director that resulted in, according to Stark, greatly increased donations. Stark explains that the donors ‘could see how young we were and how enthusiastic we were about the project, and that it wasn’t some big studio or production company that was making it’. As donors are primarily investing in the filmmakers themselves, a personal testament is an important selling tool (Kolenda, 2015).
Based on her experience with short video, Stark recommends its use: ‘I would recommend somewhere between 2 and 3 minutes … You can always include more information in the text on the page, but I think the video has to be designed to be an attention-grabber, get all of the key points across but leave people wanting more.’ (Stark, 2015)
Crowdfunding is not a magic bullet. The campaign itself requires many months of intense work in order to be successful (Tice, 2014). The other filmmakers we interviewed did not participate in crowdfunding. They did not have projects suitable for this model and lacked the necessary resources to run a successful campaign. Parry has not yet used crowdfunding on her projects:
I know that crowdfunding, to be done successfully, also requires a big input of time and energy and just looking at the resources available in terms of time, there often hasn’t been enough time for me to gamble that I’ll be able to do crowdfunding well. So I haven’t yet tried.
As Moliere observes, crowdfunding raises only a small portion of a feature film’s budget. It has greatest impact on small, low-budget projects that do not already have a broadcaster or major investor attached. Given that fewer than half of all crowdfunding campaigns actually reach their target, it is not surprising that Parry considers the risk too high. Crowdfunding requires considerable time and effort, and there is good chance that a filmmaker might not reach the money target. This can be disheartening for an emerging filmmaker, and in our experience the negative impact of such setbacks on early career artists can be deleterious. On the other hand, if an emerging filmaker is prepared to sacrifice the time and is cognisant of the possibility of the campaign not meeting its target, crowdfunding remains a viable option.
Of all the areas we have researched, participation in film festivals has been the most traditional and enduring opportunity for short filmmakers, especially in relation to securing government funding for longer projects. In all of our case studies, the shorts were accepted into film festivals. Murder Mouth was nominated for Best Documentary at the St Kilda Film Festival and the Inside Film Awards in 2011. Monster screened at 2006 Aspen Shortsfest and 2006 Imago International Young Film and Video Festival, winning prizes at both. Italian Spiderman screened at the 2009 Adelaide Film Festival. Transmission won $10,000 cash, as well as Best Short Film, Best Director, Best Editor and Best Actor at the 2012 St Kilda Film Festival. Furthermore, all of the films or filmmakers won (cash) prizes and received significant recognition. The benefits of this success are far reaching, as Parry explains:
I can say it definitely was valuable because when I showed my short film to somebody that I wanted to impress, it had a tick of approval from someone that they trusted. That makes you stand out from the crowd (Parry, 2015).
Applications for funding from Screen Australia require the director and producer to have short film credits where the film has screened at A-level festivals such as Sundance, Berlin and Sydney (Screen Australia 2015c). According to Wastlander Panda producer Stark, entry into South by South West (SXSW) provided industry legitimacy with Screen Australia: ‘Pretty much all of their conditions for emerging film programs relate to whether you’ve been to a major festival with your project or not’ (Stark, 2015). Acceptance into a film festival provides a calling card for the producer and director. The most veteran producer we interviewed, Moliere explains, ‘You have those conversations with sales agents and they want to know whether you’ve made a successful short film and it’s found festival success and won prizes. That’s still important’ (Moliere, 2015) In the context of the journey from short film to feature, festival screenings and awards seemed quite an important stepping-stone. Film needs an audience for legitimacy, or it never progresses to the more labour-extensive and highly financed longer-format productions. Networks, distributors and investors expect film to have a financial return and/or a high degree of popularity. Film festival screenings legitimise the film in front of an audience.
Short film festivals also provide validation for unknown talent when considering casting the longer format project (Kearney, 2015). This is especially useful for examining audience engagement with inexperienced actors (Wastlander Panda, Transmission, The Babadook) and documentary subjects (Murder Mouth). In the case of Transmission/These Final Hours, the filmmakers used the short as an opportunity to try out the child actor and other cast. Kearney took festival success of the short as confirmation of the film ‘recipe’ and casting choices. This was crucial in convincing funding bodies to support the longer format feature film.
Film festivals continue to provide significant momentum and encouragement for short filmmakers, propelling them towards their goal of a feature film or TV series. Kearney summarises the impact of festival screenings as follows:
if you’re making a short it is the logical first stop in terms of getting an audience, which for short films is incredibly rare otherwise. There’s nothing more exciting than to have a room full of people watching what you’ve made and to hear their reaction in the flesh. I think it’s fantastic for exposure, it’s fantastic for building up profile, so I think it’s a fantastic, fantastic tool.
Regardless of whether or not film festivals are intrinsically valuable, competing successfully at film festivals was a common factor in all of our case studies. Festival entry remains a significant means of obtaining legitimacy with funding bodies. Furthermore, film festival reviews and screenings are useful for building audience (Stark, 2015; Moliere, 2015) and the profile of the film producer and director (Kearney, 2015). There are new strategies and platforms for marketing films, but film festivals are still very relevant. Indeed, with the plethora of film festivals that has emerged in recent times, even a minor festival might give an emerging filmmaker the confidence of having at least a small audience. This might help an emerging filmmaker with continued practice and exposure, if they are aware that this is unlikely to lead directly to significant funding (private or public). This hints at the need for an emerging filmmaker to either quickly develop a sophisticated grasp of the film industry or to have access to experienced mentors.
Networking and Mentors
The variety of networking events organised by government funding bodies and industry organisations suggest that meeting fellow filmmakers might be a valuable career move for new and emerging filmmakers (Screen NSW, 2015; Screen Australia 2015d). We found that networking allowed the filmmakers interviewed to find either mentors for their own career development, or champions for their specific film project. Both are important at different stages, and having a short film as a calling card helped garner support. Having a proof of concept in the form of a short speaks louder than a verbal pitch.
The screening of the trailer of Wastelander Panda at SXSW brought Stark in touch with Madman Production Company producer Nick Batzias, who had earlier expressed interest in the project after Stark pitched it at the Screen Producers of Australia conference (Stark interview, 2015). Batzias became a champion for the project, coming on as a producer for the ABC TV series of Wastelander Panda, as well as a mentor to Stark personally. Stark subsequently worked with Batzias on his feature film A Month of Sundays, completed in 2015.
Kearney secured the mentorship of high profile Australian producer Robert Connolly due to the fact that Connolly could understand and enthuse over the concept demonstrated by her short, Transmission. This was,she believes, of great value to her making the transition to feature film making. According to Kearney, Connolly legitimised the project and helped to open doors with potential financiers (Kearney, 2015). Kearney’s career also advanced through her connection with Connolly producing on his 2014 feature Paper Planes.
For both Kearney and Stark, then, having a short film project led directly to a networking situation that eventually secured a mentor. In both cases, this mentor was so impressed with the work that they provided the filmmaker with major career development opportunities in the form of feature film production roles.
Russo was able to gain the attention of public television station SBS because of his short trailer and low budget methodology. It was on a cross-platform panel organised by the Media Resource Centre in 2008 that Dario Russo found a champion in the form of SBS Online head, Marshal Heald. Russo suggests that having Italian Spiderman as a film at that stage was an ideal way to say to this potential executive producer, ‘this is what it’s going to look like … and we can do it for that amount of money’ (Russo, 2015). SBS could readily see what they might be getting and were prepared to support him as a result. Even when the Italian Spiderman project was abandoned due to internal issues, the fact that Russo had successfully pulled off something in this particular ‘spoof/parody/pastiche’ style paved the way for the production of Danger 5, which was, according to Russo, ‘essentially the same thing’ (Russo, 2015).
Online Digital Distribution
Online digital distribution is the final space in which some emerging filmmakers can choose to be active (Murray and Johanson, 2015). The path forward can be confusing for emerging filmmakers, but it appears shorts lend themselves to this form of distribution. Wastelander Panda and Italian Spiderman owe their initial success to online digital distribution. Both projects began by releasing a short video online. The filmmakers cultivated their viewership, and then proceeded to use these online views as evidence of audience demand. Both projects leveraged this to secure funding and support to produce further content. Because the level of audience engagement with a film is difficult to predict, any evidence a filmmaker can offer a distributor is highly valuable. Without someone to distribute a film, there is very little chance of a filmmaker gaining a legitimate audience.
The filmmakers behind Wastelander Panda put their trailer on Vimeo, an online streaming platform, to show friends and family. Within a few hours it had over a thousand views and that kept steadily growing throughout the day. Stark (2015) knew they had something people wanted to see, and that they needed to keep the momentum going. She reflects on how things unfolded:
We started thinking about different ways and strategies to capitalise on the attention it was getting. At that stage we brought in Ella McIntyre … she knows a lot about how information spreads online and the different blogs and networks between content creators and content aggregators. She suggested some strategies for expanding the amount of views we were getting online. We started sending tips in to certain websites. By the time we woke up the next morning we’d had 10,000 views and by the end of the day we got on the front page of Buzzfeed, and so within the first three days we’d had over 100,000 people from over 50 countries view that 3 minute trailer.
Stark’s account illustrates the consideration and strategy required to find an online audience. These skills are beyond the traditional skills of making a film and are usually not part of film school curriculum.
In 2007, the Italian Spiderman trailer quickly accumulated half a million views on YouTube, a significant number at the time. Russo (2015) recognised these online views as evidence of audience demand. Armed with this evidence, he approached the SAFC for funding, who provided A$9500 to produce 30 minutes of content to be delivered as a 10-part web series. According to Russo, ‘that’s a farcical amount of money. It’s nothing. Nobody gets paid, it essentially paid for yiros, fake moustaches and the basics of putting the production together’. But while Russo took the opportunity to develop the idea and the fan base, he simultaneously started a conversation with SBS, who were interested in his ability to generate online success with little money. Russo produced the web series and generated further evidence of audience demand via YouTube views. He continued to cultivate the relationship with SBS, which eventually led to two seasons of Danger 5 being produced for broadcast and then being sold onto Netflix. Online audience demand allowed Russo to gain the support and funding required to progress from a short to a web series, and then a TV series. It is interesting to note that one of eligibility requirements for the 2015 Screen Australia Skip Ahead production initiative is for the creative team to have one million views on a single YouTube video. The Skip Ahead initiative provides up to $100,000 for the production of a web series or similar (Screen Australia, 2015b). This example further shows the willingness of funding bodies to support filmmakers based purely on online audience demand.
In 2014 Wastelander Panda became the first content to be exclusively commissioned for ABC iView. In May 2015 the iView catch up/VOD platform was the most popular in Australia with 32 million monthly episode views (Finlayson, 2015). It seems it can be advantageous for emerging filmmakers to recognise and embrace the increasing prevalence of online digital distribution and the legitimacy that online views can afford your project. It is fairly straightforward getting a short online, but getting it seen by a substantial audience is challenging. Nonetheless, in the absence of traditional distribution, it at least offers a forum for a short as well as engagement from a potential audience. If a short strikes a chord with a particular sub-culture, then this core audience can serve as a de facto distributor.
Going from a short to a longer format presentation is by no means straightforward. In the case of the filmmakers we interviewed, a combination of factors led toward the short being in the radar of those individuals and organisations that might take the short to the next step. All of the filmmakers felt that giving the idea a test run in the form of a short, however, was a highly valuable experience. Ultimately, publicly presenting a short provided proof that they had a tangible vision and a necessary level of expertise. As Russo (2015) points out, ‘if you’re capable of producing a proof of concept… that displays explicitly what your larger concept is going to be, do it, because there is no other way for a financier or a broadcaster or a distributor or anyone to have faith in the fact that you can do it.’
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