Short films offer a huge profit opportunity as new media markets hunger for short-as-product

After decades of film school/festival exile, the film short-as-product is back, feeding a huge and growing entertainment market in international television, web-based film and cell cinema venues.

And Chicago filmmakers are in an ideal position to take advantage of the scores of dedicated short subject distributors dropping serious acquisition coin.

Hoping to boost sales, Sony is sponsoring a series of short films designed for its PlayStation Portable (PSP). Verizon and Fox Entertainment Group launched three “mobisode” series for cell phone screens.

Sprint beat Verizon and Fox to the punch with its cell phone drama “The Spot.” CBS spent the latter half of 2005 inking deals to deliver programming, including its own “micro-series” “The Courier,” through every available medium?the net, cell phones and iPods.

Sony, Fox, Sprint and CBS aren’t charting new territory?they’re playing catch-up. They are desperately trying to carve out a niche for their brands in one of the few filmed entertainment venues whose market-share is actually growing rather than shrinking.

TV, internet and mobile device are hungry markets

International television markets in Asia, Australia, Canada and Europe are starved for American-made short films.

Canada’s “Movieola Channel,” for instance only exhibits shorts, and Canal Plus, Channel 4, and the German pay TV channel Premiere have made them an everyday feature of their lineup.

U.S.-based cable outlets from Showtime and Bravo to the Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel are following suit.

Similarly, web-based short film specialists like AtomFilms, IceBox.com, and Big Film Shorts gobble up independently-produced short subjects.

The 60-second mobile device short may be new to the U.S., but Indian and Chinese teenagers are downloading them to their cell phones and iPods by the hundreds.

According to distributors, anyplace where people wait for more than a few minutes has become a venue for shorts.

Air Canada and Delta Airlines but them to show in waiting areas, and airports in general along with cruise ships are widely considered to be quickly developing markets. Amtrak buys short films for its overseas lines.

Short subjects are also generating additional revenue through product placement the same way that producer Mark “Survivor” Burnett’s reality shows do.

Companies like Miller Brewing, Ford, and AT&T place their products in the films or run ads attached to the film’s online runs.

Profit-to-cost ratio favor boutique filmmakers

To the ambitious Chicago filmmaker looking to get in on the action, don’t let the big boys discourage you. The profit-to-cost ratio that makes for a short film success doesn’t fit the way giant media conglomerates operate.

Just as the micro production studios of Mack Sennett and Hal Roach were once able to dominate the short subject market in spite of the major studios best efforts, today’s short film entrepreneurs will be able stay in front of a market the majors are wary of.

“I don’t think it’s a wise idea to throw everything at the wall.” Fox Entertainment’s president Peter Liguori said in a recent interview. “We’re taking a more measured approach to what works and what may not work.”

He means that the profit margin on a 60-second short subject doesn’t exactly make it worth the time invested in “24” or “The Shield.”

Our time, on the other hand, comes considerably cheaper. Consider this: A short that costs $2,000 to produce can be licensed to an international television or online distributor for between $5,000 and $50,000.

It’s easy to see how a boutique production company boasting a slate comparable to AtomFilm Studio’s dozens of projects a year could turn a healthy profit.

Typical of online short subject distributors, AtomFilms pays as little as $500 per film, up front. But Atom also offers filmmakers a cut of the advertising revenue generated by their films. According to Atom Entertainment CEO Mika Salmi, popular shorts have made more than $200,000.

Shorts distributor and Apollo Cinema president and founder Carol Crowe said, “The majority of overseas territories are purchasing shorts by the minute. A 30-minute short has the potential to make $30,000 plus.”

The challenge for Chicago

Do the math. The question isn’t “Can short films be profitable?” The question is: “Where will the shorts be produced that feed these burgeoning markets?”

The overwhelming consensus among distributors is that there is a built-in bias favoring both comedies ? among the international market’s biggest sellers — and American-made films. But that advantage has been largely ignored and the door won’t stay open forever.

This is a tremendous opportunity for Chicago as the area boasts unusually deep wells of comedic and filmmaking talent, as well as investors looking for new opportunities.

Tom Friedman’s popular “Flat World” theory goes both ways. We’re sitting on the cusp of the kind of opportunity that only vision can properly exploit.

Dirk Archer is a journalist and entertainment writer, a founding host of the MovieWeb.com column “The Daily Spin,” and a co-author “Science Fiction America.” He can be reached at arsonplus2@aol.com.

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