Make it rain: a new chance for short documentaries?

Could the proliferation of online platforms finally mean (some) gold in them short films?

Charlie Shackleton

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Jon Bunning’s urban ping pong study The Tables: ‘If there’s any justice [it’ll] be fighting back suitors from now until its inevitable viral debut online.’

Jon Bunning’s urban ping pong study The Tables: ‘If there’s any justice [it’ll] be fighting back suitors from now until its inevitable viral debut online.’

Save for a few short years at the turn of the twentieth century, back when the art form was young, dumb and thrillingly undefined, cinema has always been ruled by runtime. The line between short and feature filmmaking – wherever we choose to draw it – is a powerful one, that legitimises longer films while relegating shorts to the cultural sidelines. Now, though, new developments in film culture are overturning the received wisdoms of short filmmaking, and heralding a brighter future for films that dare to run less than an hour.

This shift is perhaps most evident in the field of documentary, where lower budgets set a lower bar for sustainability. With that in mind, I set sail earlier this month for AFI Docs, one of North America’s leading documentary festivals, intent on taking the pulse of a film form on the verge of transformation. Over four days, I watched all 42 of the festival’s shorts, and polled roughly half of the filmmakers behind them. What emerged was a portrait of an energised but fractious community with more options on its proverbial table than ever before.

For years, the paucity of distribution avenues available to shorts meant they were, more often than not, a means to an end. Some were intended as calling cards, designed to attract funding for feature-length projects, or generate interest from agents and producers. Others were loss-making promotional exercises commissioned by brands and charities. Such films are still legion, and they were in plentiful supply at AFI Docs. Many were perfectly enjoyable (A Few Things About Robert Irwin is a charming retrospective study of the titular conceptual artist, commissioned by LACMA), but they nonetheless reinforced the image of short filmmaking as ancillary to the wider art world.

More interesting were those shorts that seemed to exist purely on their own terms: a group of about 20 films that ranged from the sublime to the almost unwatchable. These are the films with the most to gain from a renaissance of interest in short filmmaking, and the furthest to fall should that renaissance falter, untethered as they are from any ulterior artistic motive.

Several were funded by state-backed agencies and film schools, meaning some countries were markedly better represented at AFI Docs than others. Exactly half of the festival’s international shorts were either from Poland or the UK, a predominance I’ve noticed at other documentary festivals. Poland’s success can likely be put down to a healthy state funding apparatus (Emi Buchwald’s Education, perhaps the most exceptional short at AFI Docs, was produced by the Polish National Film School in Łódź and co-financed the Polish Film Institute), but Britain’s solid performance is harder to explain. Only one in five UK shorts at AFI Docs received government funding.

Education (trailer)

One indirect driving force may the British Council’s Shorts Support Scheme, which funds the travel of UK-based short filmmakers to 48 major film festivals, including AFI Docs. The scheme serves as a much-needed corrective to the widespread consensus that festivals should pay for the travel and accommodation of feature filmmakers but not those visiting with shorts. It also helps to foster a more sustainable short film culture in Britain, by cushioning the expense of festival travel. (Full disclosure: I myself received a grant from the British Council to travel to AFI Docs; my film Fish Story was one of the 42 shorts included in the programme.)

Fish Story (full)

Cost-cutting is vital in the world of short filmmaking, where margins are tight and funding is exceedingly hard to come by. The vast majority of the filmmakers I polled – a full 80 percent – invested their own money in their projects, and most of them had no outside funding whatsoever. For these filmmakers (not to mention the thousands of working-class young people kept out of filmmaking by this culture of self-financing) the commercial viability of shorts is not merely an academic question – it’s an existential one.

Some told me they were seeking theatrical distribution for their shorts, a notion not half as outlandish as it might have been a few years ago. In April, the newly formed US distributor Neon announced it would be pairing short films with all of its theatrical releases, allowing relatively little-known films to play alongside indie big-hitters like Laura Poitras’s WikiLeaks chronicle Risk and Eliza Hittman’s Sundance breakout Beach Rats. At least one other distributor currently has plans to follow suit.

Other filmmakers said they were hoping – however optimistically – for Oscar glory. Some had already qualified for contention by winning an award at an Academy-certified festival, while others planned to stage qualifying theatrical runs in New York or Los Angeles later this year. Many of the films in question would make for worthy nominees (most notably Patrick Bresnan’s The Rabbit Hunt, which qualified by winning Best Short Documentary at the Florida Film Festival) even if tradition dictates that the eventual winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) will be a self-serious war doc with a 39-minute runtime and an HBO broadcast deal.

The Rabbit Hunt (extract)

The remaining shorts will be jostling for position on a growing number of online platforms. In fact, many of the shorts at AFI Docs have already sold to the likes of Nowness, the New York Times, the Guardian and First Look Media’s new ‘entertainment studio’ Topic. When the earliest of these platforms launched a decade ago, their bargaining power seemed limitless. Safe in the knowledge that short filmmakers had scant few others options, many offered low-to-non-existent licensing fees topped up by the elusive promise of ‘exposure’. Thinking themselves lucky to be selling at all, filmmakers regularly signed unfavourable deals, and unquestioningly agreed to re-cut and re-clad their films in existing house styles.

This power balance has shifted as more and more platforms have sprung up, increasing demand for the most popular shorts. If there’s any justice, Jon Bunning’s The Tables – an electric, freewheeling study of the community that orbits a cluster of ping-pong tables in New York’s Bryant Park – will be fighting back suitors from now until its inevitable viral debut online. That kind of competition might help to push the film’s price tag above the current median average of $2,000, a figure nowhere near high enough to put the majority of documentary shorts into the black (the median budget of the shorts whose creators I polled was $5,000; a few cost upwards of $50,000).

A better deal for a filmmaker like Bunning is likely to mean a less adulterated viewing experience for the rest of us. The corporate tendency to mark territory remains a powerful one, but in competition with one another, platforms are coming to accept the desire of filmmakers to preserve the distinct sensibilities of their films. As a result, a retreat from the obtrusive corporate idents and rigid style guides that once dominated these platforms is plainly visible.

Take perhaps the most respected of all online platforms for short documentaries, the New York Times’s Op-Docs strand, which every year acquires dozens of films for display on the Times’s website. A handful of these films screened at AFI Docs, and the evident stylistic differences between them revealed much about the strand’s evolving approach to branding.

Long Term Parking (full)

Lance Oppenheim’s Long Term Parking, which expertly balances interior and exterior space to paint a nuanced picture of life at an improvised trailer park adjacent to LAX, premiered last year on the Op-Docs platform, and notably, its on-screen titles are rendered in the Times’ house fonts Cheltenham and Franklin. Kate McLean and Mario Furloni’s anarchic biohacking chronicle Guthack, on the other hand, was released just a few months ago, with the privilege of custom-made neon intertitles, better suited to the film’s outré personality. (A pioneer of this free-range ethos was Field of Vision, the well respected ‘visual journalism’ platform which had two shorts at AFI Docs this year.)

Guthack (full)

More ingrained than the branding strategies of platforms like Op-Docs are the subtle, even unconscious, storytelling preferences that inform their acquisitions. These tend to reinforce a number of outdated presumptions concerning online virality – the notion that a good short puts its best shot first, tells its story in three-minute narrative cycles, and certainly isn’t longer than ten minutes – and create an incentive at the very earliest stages of a film’s production to rein in creative risk-taking.

Horizons are beginning to broaden, however. Op-Docs, for one, acquired a number of formally daring films out of Sundance, and any platform looking to do the same at AFI Docs was faced with a raft of exceptional candidates. Sam Peeters’ Homeland (trailer) observes the quiet creep of right-wing populism in a small Flemish suburb with the eye of an arch census taker; Rawane Nassif’s Turtles Are Always Home (trailer) tests its audience’s patience with a enigmatic tour of an as-yet-unfinished housing complex in Qatar; and Khaula Malik’s How the Air Feels conjures an air of heightened but precise sensory perception as the filmmaker testifies to her own childhood abuse at the hands of a spiritual leader.

How the Air Feels (trailer)

Looking ahead, further progress may be found in a wider movement away from transactional modes of film viewing, and towards subscription services. Just as Netflix long ago rejected the rigidity of fixed-length TV episodes, it may one day become home to a diverse array of short and feature-length films, with no distinction made between the two. Audiences who today would balk at the idea of paying to watch a short documentary are unlikely to mind a sliver of their monthly subscription fee being used to support short filmmakers.

At that point, of course, events like AFI Docs may come to be seen as a secondary showcase for such films, rather than a natural habitat. Already long gone are the days when film festivals constituted the beginning and end of a short’s life cycle. Today, the few hundred AFI attendees who catch a film like Riders of the Well of Death – which offers the remarkable spectacle of daredevil fairground workers riding clapped-out vehicles round a vast cylindrical track – are dwarfed by the 100,000 who’ve already watched the short online.

Riders of the Well of Death (full)

Around half of that viewership can be attributed to the film’s selection as a Staff Pick on video sharing site Vimeo. This badge of honour, bestowed by a team of professional curators, more or less guarantees a video a degree of virality among the site’s user base. As a result, inclusion among Vimeo’s Staff Picks has become an immensely valuable asset to short filmmakers, rivalling even the most prestigious of festival laurels. More than one AFI Docs filmmaker told me a central appeal of festival travel was the increased likelihood of putting work in front of Vimeo’s curators, who regularly scour the circuit for content. Indeed, of those AFI Docs shorts that are already online, two-thirds are Staff Picks.

In the last year, Vimeo has introduced a premium version of the scheme called Staff Pick Premieres, which offers various benefits to filmmakers who forego distribution deals and instead upload their work directly to their personal Vimeo accounts. If selected as a Staff Pick Premiere, a film is given an editorial write-up by a Vimeo staff member, and guaranteed 100,000 views on the site (most have considerably more than that).

Needless to say, this does nothing to directly improve the financial viability of short documentary filmmaking, but it does undermine those platforms that would seek to offer ‘exposure’ as a kind of remuneration. It’s not that exposure isn’t important to filmmakers – on the contrary, 90 percent of those I polled said reaching as wide an audience as possible was their primary goal – but now that getting a short out to audiences isn’t the impossible task it once was, the industry’s one-time gatekeepers need to work out what else they have to offer.

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