A public lecture of the Objectifs Short Film Incubator 2020

The inaugural Objectifs Short Film Incubator presented by Objectifs in partnership with Momo Film Co took place online in Sept 2020 and comprised a month-long mentorship for five projects from Southeast Asia, three public lectures and an online film club featuring the mentors Davy Chou and Pimpaka Towira.

Greta Fornari collaborated with Italian film festivals before joining TorinoFilmLab in 2012, where she works on training programmes for emerging filmmakers, international co-production funds and the annual TFL Meeting Event co-production forum. In 2015, she co-founded the sales company Lights On, a young label focused on emerging filmmakers and committed to supporting independent cinema and fostering international talents. This recap presents key takeaways from her online presentation on How to Get Your Short Film Seen.

Short film distribution through a sales agent

A sales agent is a professional who takes care of the distribution of your short film. They usually work on commission or revenue share and help you sell and promote your movie. They help it reach the widest audience possible and they usually take care of festival strategy and submissions, national distribution, video-on-demand sales, TV sales, etc. 

It is worthwhile to have a sales agent as they have a vision of how to exploit the movie, they know the market and the people and are trusted by them: “They have a lot of connections. They are part of the industry, they are well known by programmers and by selection committees. Usually the programmers know which kinds of films they distribute because they have an artistic identity, and can get feedback on the film. They may also have access to fee waivers.”

Sales agents like to be involved from the very beginning, before the world premiere as they like to map out the strategy from the very start. It’s alright to approach them as early as the script stage, but post-production is the best moment to engage them.

Looking for a sales agent

“In one word, look for someone you can trust.”

  • Feeling: You need to feel confident that this person will take care of your film and its distribution.
  • Cooperation: What is the level of cooperation you will get from your sales agent? Do not be afraid to ask how they work, e.g. how often they will give you feedback and reports on submissions. Talk to other filmmakers and producers who have worked with them before to get feedback. 
  • Artistic Affinity: Your film belongs in a group, a catalogue, which has other films that are somehow similar. Check the catalogue of the sales agent you want to approach and see if you feel your film could fit in there. You can ask if you can view the shorts they’re distributing to get a better idea of which films they work on. 

On whether it’s possible to get a sales agent for your first short film or if they will only consider you once you have a body of work, Greta shared: “Sales agents are eager for first short films. We absolutely love them. Most of those working in this industry are doing so out of a love for cinema, so it’s not about your previous career but the career ahead of you. If a sales agent falls in love with your film, they will take it no matter whether you’ve done anything before or it’s your first one.” 

Sales agents do not buy your short film but charge a fee — typically annually — for the service they provide you. The amount varies from region to region; typically from 700 to 800 Euros (more common) up to 1500 Euros. 

They also ask for a festival submission budget and they will handle it for you. Greta recommends putting aside at least 500 Euros.

Another option is a revenue share, which includes revenue from sales, from awards your film wins, etc. The two models are often combined: a small fee is compensated for with a revenue share. “With a revenue share, you both have the same goal. You both want the film to do well and will both gain from the results.” Lights On usually takes 30% of revenue share which is quite typical.  

Sales agents help distribute across various platforms. You can discuss it when working out the contract. It’s usually easier for them to work on the whole package — festivals, televisions, other platforms — together so they have a full picture of how the distribution is going and know when to take action and when to wait depending on various deadlines. 

Sales agents are not usually geographically bound. You can check a sales agent’s catalogue to easily find out if they are open to films from all over the world.

Sales agents will send reports to their clients, usually every three or six months. You can ask about this when working out the contract. In terms of open communication and transparency on decision making, a company with fewer short films in its catalogue may be very different than bigger ones. Consider this before engaging your sales agent. 

You can email a sales agent to introduce yourself and your work. If the film or a first cut is ready or if you have a previous short, include the link(s) so they can see how you work. If your film isn’t ready yet, you can include your script and a moodboard. “We mainly want to see. Anything visual is good.” 

On what kinds of films Lights On likes, Greta shared: “We have no specific rules to follow. We have no geographical boundaries. We choose films that we love… Our motto is hungry for quality cinema so we have to see something in the films that compels us.” Lights On tries to work on a maximum of 15 short films a year. 

How to distribute your short without a sales agent

Firstly, keep in mind that distributing your short yourself without a sales agent could take a lot of time away from your other projects.

  1. Plan a budget: Include the costs of distribution in your budget: festival submission fees, promotional and marketing costs, screening copies, paying a sales agent, etc. 
  2. Do a self-analysis of your film: Make a match between what your film has to offer and what the festival and buyers want. 
    • Strengths and weaknesses: Define them before planning your festival strategy. For example, if your film has unique visual language, you can focus on festivals inclined towards or focused on this. 
    • Topics and themes: You can target youth-oriented, social issues-themed, environment-related, etc. festivals. 
    • Audience: Who are they and how can you reach them? Consider this both for festival submissions and when approaching buyers. 
  3. Develop a festival strategy: Expenses vs. opportunities / possible results
    • Submitting your movie without a strategy is just a waste of money!
    • MAKE A CALENDAR: note deadlines of the festivals / market and try to catch the early-bird rate. By doing so, you’re also getting your film in while the selection committee is still fresh and not bogged down yet by too many films to view in a very short time. 
    • BE REACHABLE: Programmers and selection committee members actively look for films online, in catalogues, in national directories. Try to be reachable and promote your film from the very beginning. You and your short films need to be easy to find. Email address. Facebook. Twitter. Tags. Press kit. Keyword: availability. 
    • PAY ATTENTION TO PREMIERE REQUIREMENTS when planning the submission calendar. 
      • If there are deadlines for two upcoming festivals and one requires a national premiere while the other has no premiere requirements, make sure to submit to the former first. 
      • If the World Premiere is in a prestigious festival, make sure to include the festival logo in the opening credits for further submissions. It’s worthwhile even if it means redoing your files.

On theatrical screenings and approaching local indie cinemas, Greta shared, “It doesn’t happen a lot but you can contact local theatres if you have the time and chance. You could ask them to programme the short film before a feature or to gather a few works and do occasional short film screenings. If you want to do the former, note the short film should be about 15 minutes long, not any longer.”

Festivals: Submission Materials

Sometimes, festival submissions open long before the festival, so you may have to work on the submission materials while finishing up the film. You will have to prepare both materials required to submit the film to festivals, and the materials that may be required once your film is accepted. 

  • Press Kit: Have a PDF with contact information and all the data about your film. You can include stills and the director’s note as well.
  • Trailer: It can be very short, for short films, but is still useful. 
  • Strong promo image / poster: You can work on this while in the final stages of post-production, before you start working on submissions. Consult with your team and do tests with your friends and families. 
  • Stills of the film (no backstage)
  • Director’s note: “It’s nice to have ready; it’s a more personal view on the short and very nice to share this with the audience, especially if you don’t have the chance to attend the festival and have a dialogue about your film.”
  • Synopsis (different lengths)
  • Dialogue list, if possible with timecodes.
  • Press reviews
  • Social networks: use them to promote the short and create a buzz 
  • Screening copies: DCP or best possible high res file (QuickTime, Apple ProRes). Not too heavy size = easier to send.
  • Vimeo profile: upload your movie and protect it with a password (easy to share + reduce costs). Also include your previous shorts or a reel of your films.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Short length: 20 minutes. “Keep in mind the length of your short, though this should never come before your artistic vision for the film.” Some festivals have restrictions of up to 15 or 20 minutes. The longer your short film, the harder it is for a programming team to include it in a slot. 
  2. Ask programmers to waive the fee. Even a partial waiver can help. 
  3. Pay attention to the early bird deadlines.You will save some money and get to the programmer first.”
  4. Create a Facebook and Instagram page for the short, or any other social media platform that is popular in your region. Visibility in film festivals always helps, and it doesn’t have to be an elite festival either. Especially as a young filmmaker prepares for their first feature, the industry will be paying attention to their earlier short films as well. 
  5. Prepare a good presentation email: who you are, short synopsis, main data –  be short! Especially if you’re submitting your film early in the submission period and the programme team is not overwhelmed with emails, you can follow up on your submission with an email introducing yourself and your short film and can ask for feedback.
  6. Each screening is a little victory that leads to another screening. We don’t always get quick results, especially if we are submitting to very prestigious film festivals. Rejection is common as the competition is very high. It will go more smoothly after the first selections.
  7. Attend the screenings when possible! This gives visibility to the film and helps connect with the audience. It’s valuable and meaningful to see how they perceive and react to your film. Participation in Q&A sessions is a good learning experience for the future of your career.
  8. Try to get press coverage and ask for the contact information of journalists covering the festival. Send them a few lines about you and your film.
  9. If the festival doesn’t cover your hospitality, look for local funds. This may be common as money is tight in the world of short films.

Platforms to submit and promote your short films online

Markets, pitch and networking events

International markets, pitching events and networking events are good opportunities to get your short film seen and heard, even if it is still in the development stage. “It’s good to make your film visible to the industry from the very beginning so they know it’s coming and can be ready.”

Some of the biggest and most established ones are:

A world map showing short film festivals around the world

“Keep in mind you should never forget to take the map and work on each single country in each single area of the globe, to identify festivals dedicated to short film or with good short film sections. Because there are people all over the world who want to see your short films. Don’t be afraid of the fact we may have different cultures or backgrounds globally. The programmers and selection committees are often and more often interested in showing local audiences a wide as possible image of where film is going, from regions whether filmmaking is still at the beginning. And of course the short film is the future of what film is going to be.”

On whether there are festivals, markets, pitch and networking events dedicated to short documentaries, Greta shared, “The main distinction in such settings is between features and shorts. In the world of short films, they’re usually quite open to hybrids, documentaries, experimental works, because it’s the short format that counts.”

“There are also film festivals dedicated to documentaries, like IDFA and CPH:DOX but they mainly focus on features. With a short documentary it may be better to approach short film festivals.” 

On short film incubator opportunities for documentary or hybrid experimental works, Greta shared, “It’s quite recent that there are incubators focused on short films. More of them are focused on pitching and presenting the project though, over script development.

On whether there are festivals, markets, pitch and networking events dedicated to specific genre films and themes, Greta shared, “There are many. You can start approaching those from the beginning while also approaching generic festivals. Short film labs usually don’t have themes to follow; it’s your story and script and vision as a filmmaker that counts, so you can apply to any.”  

Film festivals going online

Film festivals have been forced to go online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a changing landscape with no rules yet. Keep the following in mind if your film is accepted for an online screening during this period: 

  1. Geoblocking: Keep an eye on it for premiere issues. Where exactly will your short be seen online? For example, if it is seen only in Singapore, you can still have a national premiere in other countries.
  2. When and Where: When and how long will it be online? E.g. for the whole duration of the festival, or specific days or screening times. “This may impact what you can do in that moment with the film in the same region. On which platform? Is there a DRM [digital rights management] protection?
  3. Tickets vs Free Access: Will there be a password or an account to see the short? Will the festival know how many people will access the film and is there an audience cap? When to request a fee? (Ticket / commercial platform) If you see they are gaining more from your film than they would if the festival was held offline, you can try to ask for a fee. 

As a general note, if film programmers reach out to you to ask for your short film without having submitted to their festival, you can ask for a fee. It may not be a large sum but could still help recoup some of your other expenses.

Sales: TV, VOD, online platforms, airlines

Sales should not be your main focus in terms of getting your short films seen because the market is very small. The focus should be on film festivals and to become familiar to the programmers and selection committees so you can grow your career. But approaching television, video-on-demand (VOD), online platforms and airlines could be an option to get some money out of your short film. 

Television outlets buying short films these days are limited. They tend to buy works in the languages spoken in their territory, or produced locally and may have artistic restrictions. At the same time, the VOD sector is growing with new platforms emerging each year. Kinoscope, for example, is an online platform that presents short films through curated streaming and VOD.

Airlines usually work with a topic when they curate short films and plan monthly. They may dedicate some programmes to particular destinations eg. films from Colombia. 

Buyers are sometimes hard to contact so it’s easier to reach them through a sales agent. They also try to close deals not just for one but multiple films together to streamline the bureaucratic process. Buyers may also approach you for your short film after seeing it at a festival.

    1. When: Usually after the first year of festival run. “They are often thrilled by festival selections. It’s hard to get their attention without any. The festival run could be two to three years so the contract should start a bit later. It could also take up to a year to close a deal for television because of bureaucratic matters.” 
    2. Contracts:
      • Exclusivity vs non exclusivity: The latter means you can make deals with other people in the same region to show your film. Exclusive contracts are usually better paid to compensate for the fact you cannot earn elsewhere in the same region from your film. Contracts are sometimes non-exclusive where they cannot afford to give you any, or much, payment in advance and might only operate on revenue share.
      • Countries (geoblocking): For example, if your film is financed by national television and they have the right to screen it, you can ask online platforms not to show your film in that country. 
      • Period of validity: Such contracts usually last for three, five or seven years.
      • Payment: per minute in advance / per view in revenue share (typically 50%). The rates can vary significantly depending on the buyer.  
    3. Research: 
      • The right platform / TV
      • Reference audience
      • Type of content
      • Number of views / users 

Go social: often immense catalogue, with audience mainly interested in feature films and series. Thus there is often no promotion of short films. Actively promote yours yourself once it’s online. Information about short films often spreads through word of mouth. 

Look for sales agents by going to film festivals’ — especially A-list ones’ — websites and looking at the shorts selected. There will often be sales agent information attached. There are many companies popping up in the last few years.

On whether a sales agent will take on a new short film before it’s ready, Greta shared, “We do not do so unless we’ve worked with the filmmaker before, in which case we may get on board after reading the script or after viewing at least a first cut. It’s also a matter of timing as we need to plan when we can start submitting the films while keeping the total list small.”

Financing short films

On financing short films, Greta shared, “There’s usually no pre-sales at all, so try to look for local and regional fans to support you. I often see filmmakers put money into their films upfront and the aim is to try and get it back from awards and sales. You could also look for a co-producer from a country where there is funding for short films. Keep in mind that embarking on a co-production is really a journey, especially with different cultural backgrounds, but it can also be interesting and inspiring… Study where financing can come from and approach partners in those areas.”

If you’re working on a little short film, sometimes you just go rock and roll and somehow you manage. But it’s good just to be able to discuss it, so talk with people who have the experience, with other filmmakers. While the instinct with a short film is to just go and shoot it, sharing your film and your ideas and our worries and our doubts is necessary and will help you improve your film. It’s part of the journey if the story changes and you have to do rewrites. It’s also part of the fun of the game. Take advantage of the opportunities and keep the discussions going. Continue confronting yourself in the future.

Also read: