The State of the Short? (Part 2: $)

docnyc2So you made a short documentary – now what? Who’s going to pay you for it?  Or, you have a great idea for a short – who can you get to pay you to make it?

DOCNYC’s “All About the Short” day of panels included discussions of content, style, and new platform possibilities, but the audiences displayed the most hunger for information surrounding how to get paid for short documentaries.  The second panel of the day (“Who’s Buying?”) focused on this issue, although the subject was also raised during the general panel.  People are clearly interested in how to leverage this new zeitgeist of short filmmaking and what options exist for funding.

“Who’s Buying?,”moderated by director/producer Trish Dalton, presented the perspectives of folks in the corporate, online sphere – Sarah Lash (Acquisitions) and Jed Weintrob (VP Production) for Conde Nast and Dan Silver (Director of Development) and Andrew Jenks (filmmaker) for ESPN.

I never would have expected that the most creative approach to short docs would be coming from ESPN, but Silver impressed me with his interest in finding good stories and collaborating with filmmakers.  ESPN has gained recognition for its 30 for30 series.  While one might write off the ESPN avenue as being only for popular sports, he indicated that they’re interested in all sports (even something obscure or amateur) and are also developing data-driven films (for 538) and pop culture films (for Grantland).  Most important for him were story and execution.  And passion.  “I’m interested in giving people starts, to nurture filmmaking.”  They don’t buy short documentaries so much, but produce and distribute a lot.  “We collaborate with filmmakers to see what the project is together.”


Jenks had that experience during the process to make “Posterized.”  “[It] was an idea for a film that wouldn’t have been a feature, but not a CNN 5-minute piece either.”  ESPN helped develop it and now has it and millions of people can watch it.”  This process of development is something that he thinks is missing in film and TV: “[Commissioners] want to know exactly what the idea is, how it’s going to work for them… as filmmakers know, these things change.”

Conde Nast too is interested in developing content, but they also acquire finished pieces. Lash revealed that she’s looking to smaller film festivals to find great content, noting “films that win big prizes don’t often have the same grabbing potential in the digital sphere.” They’re also are open to feature filmmakers to “think creatively about a 5-10 minute short we can put online.”  An interesting fact – up to 10% of your film can exist on other platforms and still be up for academy award consideration. Weintrob noted that their interest in content is about its ability to grow organically, be shared and start conversations. They look at how many people are watching (millions of digital views?) and how much they’re sharing.  “This is your chance to build an audience…you’re better off [with your pitch] if you come in knowing your social space,” he noted, especially if you have a conversation going already, an audience.  Lash also noted that, as Conde Nast has an established reputation, the standards for quality are very high.

 It seems like across the board of the digital media sphere, high digital views are the pinnacle for filmmakers and platforms alike.  Silver agreed the numbers pointing towards social are huge, but their hope is also that everything they do reaches the best quality, from television to digital platforms.  When asked about success metrics for the 30 for 30 series, he stressed that for him, the return on investment can range from views to just blowing up on twitter.  “Our basis of success is that people are watching them, that they are well-received and are of a high level of quality.”  He noted that success is also determined by the way you distribute something – how and when you release it – so that you can have peaks and valleys and generate interest.

Of course, a panel about “who’s buying” begs the question “for how much?” When the question was asked, everyone dodged it, saying they don’t discuss it.  Of course, it’s difficult to answer that question when you’re talking about developing ideas vs. acquisition, and neither Conde Nast nor ESPN do a “pay per minute” commission. (Earlier in the day Adnaan Wasey (POV Digital) and Jeff Seelbach (AJ+) agreed that prices ranged around $10-15,000 for a 7-10 minute short.) Without having a standard, I’m sure payments fluctuate depending on the filmmaker and how well commissioners think the piece will do.  Both Silvers and Lash pointed out that their payments are more toward budgets funding production than outright payment.  Jenks seemed to have the most honest answer: “You’re not going to make a living off of short films as it stands now.”

– Karen Cirillo