Monday, April 2, 2012

Making Short Films and Promoting / Distributing Them at Festivals and Online: Some Strategies and Tactics, Costs and Benefits

Since screening Hold the Mayo with us last year, Jeffrey Williams has already made another comedy short called Living the iDream and distributed it on Funny or Die; and is busy working on another film.  Through this process, he’s learned a lot about making short films and getting them seen via festivals and the Internet.  Here are some of his experiences and bits of advice:


“In the summer of 2010, during a particularly bad day at work, while waiting in line for a crappy sandwich, I had an idea for a short film, a horror comedy.  It had been ten years since I'd last made a short, and I was resisting the urge to make another one.  But I had an idea I really liked, and had recently helped a friend make a short film, so the wheels kept spinning in my head.

“My last filmmaking venture was in 2001, when I shot on 16mm film. The whole process was excruciating, expensive, and a little unfulfilling because after a couple of so-so festival screenings there wasn't much else to gain from the experience.  But a decade later, things had gotten a lot better for both production and distribution.  One of the best developments was the number of outlets available to screen a finished short film.  The number of film festivals alone had grown exponentially.  Without a Box had matured into an indispensible resource for applying to festivals, and then there's YouTube, Funny Or Die, my own blog, Facebook, and countless other places on the Internet to turn it loose.

“After I finished the first draft of the screenplay for Mayo, and before I rolled the cameras, I developed a clear strategy for where I wanted it to go.  From the beginning, I wanted Hold the Mayo to be primarily a festival piece; this goal informed almost all the rest of the creative choices.  To me, aiming at film festivals meant:

·         Keep the film short, eight minutes maximum
·         Fit it into a very specific genre -- comedy / horror in this case
·         Have a specific pitch to sell the story in 20 words or less
·         Audio.  Audio.  Audio.  It had to sound clean.
·         Be funny.  Stand out.  And push the concept as far as it can go
·         Do not circulate it on the Internet until after the festival run concludes

“Right now, there are so many places for films to be seen, it's critical to know where you want to wind up before you roll your cameras.  That was a big lesson I learned ten years ago, and it's still incredibly important.  Short filmmaking is brutal, exhausting, and expensive, and you have a very slim margin of error to avoid falling through the cracks and being forgotten at the end of the day.  If you don't want to waste your time, energy, and money, you have to have a good plan.

“I wanted Hold the Mayo to take a joke and push it for humor and horror as far as it could go.  Failure to me would be having someone just shrug and forget it.  Overall, I did pretty well in hitting the mark.  One festival that was kind enough to provide reasons for rejecting the film said, ‘The graphic scenes of violence and cannibalism may be too gruesome for all but the staunchest of horror fans... The use of violence was gratuitous, and did not help tell the story. The editing, however, was strong as was the camera work.’  For this particular film, I took this feedback as a compliment and used it in my press kit.

HOLD THE MAYO:  Frank (Damian Samuels) is about to explain the meaning of "the customer is always right"

“In the end, Hold the Mayo did great at getting into festivals.  I applied to about 35 and got into 15 or so, which was a 42% acceptance rate.  I intentionally avoided all the majors and A-list festivals—as proud as I am of the finished piece, it's just not a Sundance, Toronto, Berlin, or Hamptons kind of film.  Instead, I targeted festivals that made more sense for me, like The Valley Film Festival, Dances with Films, and The Palm Springs International Film Festival that are all nearby in Southern California.  I think I also got into seven or eight comedy and horror film festivals as well as a bunch of “underground” festivals.  Applying to fests, even through Without a Box, is about as grueling and expensive as making a short film, so you need to have a solid and realistic plan, or you'll go broke and fill up a folder with e-mailed rejections.  Know your audience, know your festival.  It's great to dream big, but be realistic.  If you've never met any of the programming people at Sundance, you're better off burning a hundred dollar bill to ashes and trying to get high off the fumes then sending your short to them.

“So what did my film and plan get me?  Hold the Mayo didn't win any awards.  It didn't land me a million dollar feature directing deal.  Distributors laughed at the thought of screening it anywhere other than as a 3:00 AM test pattern replacement on channel 791 in rural Germany.  Between production, post, and festival applications, I probably spent around $4,000 over the course of nine months.  Add in the cost of a few weekend trips to screenings and festivals, and there's probably another $1,500 I've spent on this project.  My accountant didn't like it, even though it was a huge business deduction.  (One of the perks of being a professional television editor is that a project like this is a real business expense—it’s called “career development.”)

“So why do it?  One big reason was the incomparable experience of showing the work on a big screen to a crowded and enthusiastic audience.  My favorite screening was at Palm Springs, in a theater full of old retirees, oddly enough.  They freakin' loved it.  They laughed from the opening “splat” sound, and kept laughing all the way through.  My screening at The Valley Film Festival was my second favorite, because it was a smaller / more intimate house packed with friends, cast, and crew.  That feels like a little bit of a cheat on the “satisfaction” scale, but the rest of the program was funny and engaging, and I really felt like I was in good company.

“On the festival trail, I also met a ton of people (learned to always have business cards with contact info), made friends, and was inspired by some amazing work.  There were panels on filmmaking that planted the seeds for future projects, and long talks with other filmmakers about how and why they were pursuing their dream.

“Aside from festival screenings, the most valuable thing I got from Hold the Mayo was simply the experience of making it.  It was like the cheapest grad school class you could imagine.  I learned lessons about writing, personnel management, scheduling, eyelines, lighting cheats, cool gear, how to operate under panic, how to work with actors, how to frame shots better, how to block scenes better, and how to be aware of a ton of the intangibles that fuel good storytelling.  I got to work with close friends, and got to watch some really talented people work their own magic.  I studied the edit, looking for mistakes and learning from them.  I learned that filmmaking is really about the art of maximizing whatever resources you have at hand.  I learned that making a film of any length is like tying yourself to a boulder and throwing it off a cliff.  The only way to do it is to shove yourself over the edge and into a place where you're going to hit the ground one way or another.  If you believe in it, other people will, too.

“The experience of being surrounded by a bunch of other people, who've spent twelve hours on a Sunday working their asses off for you because you asked and because they believe in your story, is an incredible feeling.  When it's midnight, you're three hours over your wrap deadline, three hours behind schedule, and everyone is still giving it their all and you're desperately paring back your shot list to get it in the can, and a PA you've never met before wants to touch up the make-up on your gore-covered lead actor who hasn't complained once; in that moment you're too addled to think of anything except calling action five seconds ago.  But a year later, when you watch the finished piece for the ten millionth time, you think, “Fuck yeah, I got this made,” and the improbable enormity of that simple fact makes the entire venture worth it.


“As the festival trail for Mayo started to wind down, I started to get the itch to work on another short.  Hold the Mayo was a fantastic experience, and I really wanted to put into practice the lessons I learned from it. This time, I wanted to shoot something faster, lighter, and shorter, and something that I could promote and distribute quickly on the Internet.  I worked on developing some material, and when the iPhone 4S was released, the joke I had been looking for dropped into my lap:  an unexpected, contemporary comic riff on HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Living The iDream went from concept to set in three weeks; I spent about $600 on gear rentals and a sound guy. (Even though I made it for online viewing, audio was still a primary concern.  If your sound sucks, your entire film is a waste.)  I could have done it cheaper, but I wanted a couple of toys to play with on set (“career development”), which is why there are so many shots on a slider.

Living The iDream: Dave (Saul Herckis) starts an argument he can't win with his new iPhone

“This time, I skipped the festivals almost entirely and turned the film loose on Funny Or Die, and circulated it primarily through Facebook, and through all the connections I made on the festival trail for Mayo.  It got about 200 views in the first 48 hours, about 500 in the first week, and about 400 more in the second week.  It trailed off about there, and took about a month to go over 1,000 views.  I don't know if that's good, bad, or indifferent, but on Funny Or Die I think it's listed in the 10 top Siri parodies.  I got a lot of congratulatory emails, and the best compliments came from comments when friends (and their friends) re-posted it.  It's now averaging 10 new views a week, most likely on its SEO optimized title, because I've stopped badgering my Facebook friends to watch it again.

“It was unsatisfying to not have a big public premiere, but the video generally seemed like a hit with people.  The best reaction I got was from a co-worker who saw both shorts in the span of a week and said, ‘You’re the only person who could have made those.  They both feel like a Jeff Williams film.’  I got back into filmmaking because, more than anything, I felt like I finally had a distinct voice.  For better or worse, I want my films to be singular, so hearing something like that is big encouragement to jump off that cliff again.  It might not get any easier, but your confidence grows every time out.

“From my experience, Funny Or Die is a good forum for videos like Living The iDream, though YouTube and Vimeo will give you better screening statistics.  On Funny Or Die, the videos are comedy shorts, which makes it almost necessary as a platform if that's what you're making.  YouTube is a chaotic, anything-goes host, and Vimeo is best for displaying your work as a calling card.  If you just want audience reactions from people stumbling on it at random, and the best chance to go viral, right now Funny Or Die is probably the best place for a comedy short to go.

“That said, I have my video posted in all three places and I direct people to different sites depending on how I want them to react.  Vimeo looks great, but tends to stutter the most. The compression on Funny Or Die is easily the worst, but the playback is generally great. Embedding on Facebook or blogs is great too, even if you have to suffer the stupid Funny Or Die logo in the corner of your film.  And even though any nitwit can upload a Funny Or Die video, it's becoming a brand that people really recognize.  Telling people you're making a Funny Or Die short explains an awful lot with very few words.

“I did miss the thrill and other benefits of having a big public screening.  Facebook likes and emails, even in large numbers, just aren't the same.  I didn't meet new people, win any awards, or get a million dollar directing contract.  But two days after it went out on the Internet, a friend of mine told me how impressed he was and asked me to direct a short film he'd just written.  A month later, I was back on a set, camera in hand, calling “action.”

“The third time around, being able to point at two finished films was a huge advantage.  As calling cards for cast and crew, when I ask people to help out on a film, I now have credibility and a track record of finishing what I start.  I've developed some great working relationships with crew members, and have a bigger network of people to ask for advice from.  As I write this, I'm watching the render bar tracking the progress of a program (Dual Eyes) that syncs my dailies, so I can get down to the real business of editing.  In three weeks, I'll have a third film in a growing oeuvre, and I'll go back into development hell for another short film, one I've wanted to make for over a year now.

“The short I’m working on now has the working title Hilarious Cat Video, and will have a hybrid release strategy.  My friend and I have targeted a few film festivals, and then we'll circulate on the Internet.  Look for it on my blog or Facebook page very soon.  With those two shorts under my belt, pulling together an appropriate budget and production strategy was a snap.  Balancing the needs of the story with what we were willing to invest and where we wanted it to go was really easy. The biggest lesson I've learned from my last two years of making shorts is just that – how to make a plan and execute it.

“Think about what your story needs, and think about what resources you are willing and able to commit.  If you're making a calling card to fundraise for a feature, maybe you need to beg, borrow, or steal a RED.  If you're making a Funny Or Die piece, your friend’s Canon T2i will work fine. (But you still need a sound guy, seriously.  Video plug ins can fix dull pictures, but bad audio will kill your project.  For the love of God, get a sound guy.  I know some, and will happily recommend them.)  If filmmaking is your passion, you have to just do it.  It isn't just dreaming about pointing, shooting, and editing.  Filmmaking starts with balancing the initial concept with where you want to screen the final outcome. Then you just jump and trust that you'll figure out a way to get there.

“Filmmakers make films.  It's that simple. You don't have to wait until a studio funds you, or the stars align perfectly before you plunge in. The only way to get them done is just to do them, and on that level, there is no trick to it.  Do it.  Learn your lessons, and then do it again. The trick to doing well is all in the planning – not just your shots and props, but in the scope of the entire venture.  You will lose money.  You won't win awards.  Hollywood will not beat a path to your door.  But what I've learned is that if you plan out what you want for your story and why you want it, it becomes much easier and incredibly satisfying to hit your target.


Edited by James Latham

To Jeffrey Williams, see his email ( ), Twitter ( @jeffrey723 ), or Vimeo page.

We are accepting submissions for VFF12 until mid-July.  Currently, the fee is $50 per film; it goes up to $75 on May 16th.  For more on submissions and The Valley Film Festival generally, visit our website or Facebook page. 

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