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Finding a wider audience for short films

Entrepreneur looks to extend filmmakers’ reach

“We’re giving filmmakers a chance to be seen,’’ says Carter Pilcher, CEO of Shorts International. “We’re giving filmmakers a chance to be seen,’’ says Carter Pilcher, CEO of Shorts International. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)
By Ryan Nakashima
Associated Press / September 7, 2010

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LOS ANGELES — Some years back, investment banker Carter Pilcher stumbled across some really good short movies made by a few talented friends, and the money-making and artistic sides of his brain suddenly clicked.

The idea was to buy rights to those shorts cheaply from wannabe filmmakers who sought fame more than fortune. He figured he could make a business by showing them to new audiences for just the right price.

“I just felt like I’d discovered a part of the world of content that didn’t take a lot of money to create but was really riveting,’’ said Pilcher, a 49-year-old American who was working in London at the time and still has his office there. “In 10 minutes, you’re in tears, or you’re shocked, or you laugh really hard.’’

Pilcher gave up his career in finance to pursue the idea. With his own money and help from family and friends, he started what has become Shorts International, a company that now runs subscription TV channels that show shorts in six countries to about 12 million homes. That’s not a lot of homes for a channel, although he hopes to expand its reach. AT&T Inc.’s U-verse video service began carrying ShortsHD in the United States last summer, and Dish Network Corp. did so in April.

While giving thousands of filmmakers a potentially huge new audience, Shorts International won’t necessarily make them rich. Its licensing fee — a few hundred dollars over several years — is not enough to transform what is a money-losing venture for most filmmakers.

But his business adds to the many outlets that are now trying to make money from their work.

“It’s a fair price,’’ Pilcher said. “What’s even more important: We’re giving filmmakers a chance to be seen.’’

For filmmakers, making short movies is a kind of necessary proving ground. No one walks into a director’s job at a Hollywood studio without a track record. For many, it’s either lose money making your own short or fetch coffee as a production assistant and try to rise through the ranks.

Tarique Qayumi, a Los Angeles filmmaker who is trying to sell the company his short, “Last Supper,’’ called the few hundred dollars in payment “ridiculous’’ given the hours he invested and the favors he pulled to give his movie a professional look and feel despite its $3,000 budget. Yet if such a deal is offered, Qayumi said he “would grudgingly sign.’’

“I just want as many people as possible to see my film, so I really don’t have any bargaining power,’’ Qayumi said.

A few filmmakers whose shorts are being featured on the channel say that making them has had a career-changing impact, even if the movies lost money.

Mark Osborne went from teaching animation at the California Institute of the Arts to directing DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc.’s “Kung Fu Panda’’ after his stop-motion animation short about worker drones, “More,’’ won an Oscar nomination in 1999. The movie has yet to recoup its $100,000 budget, but it was more than worthwhile, he said. “I always tell everyone, ‘Make shorts, make shorts, make shorts.’ ’’

“Shrek’’ director Vicky Jenson added a twist to her animation-heavy career by making the short “Family Tree’’ in 2003. The mystical, humorous short littered with personal references gave her the experience directing real actors that she lacked. It led to a directing job for a live-action feature six years later. “It was my own personal director’s camp,’’ she said.

For at least one major studio, shorts can be a way to develop new moviemaking techniques and nurture talent while keeping employees on the payroll.

Pixar was a struggling imaging device company in the 1980s, but its early shorts helped pioneer the current golden age of computer-generated animation. Formative shorts such as “Tin Toy’’ helped spawn the colossal “Toy Story’’ franchise, and the company sold for $7.4 billion to the Walt Disney Co. in 2006.

“It’s a great opportunity to give people a chance to exercise those creative muscles on something that isn’t a beast like a multimillion-dollar movie,’’ said Kevin Reher, Pixar’s development producer in charge of ancillary franchises. The unit continues to make new shorts that debut before every Pixar movie.

Very few filmmakers actually make a living creating shorts.

Animator Bill Plympton, a pencil-toting evangelist for the art form, has three iron-clad rules for those who want to make a living from shorts: Make them short (five minutes or less), make them cheap, and make them funny.

He sells a wide variety of products, cuts TV deals, sells DVDs, and doesn’t rely on online advertising.

“If you can get the budget down to less than $5,000, then you can make it,’’ he said.

Film festivals, such as the LA Shorts Fest in Los Angeles or Dam Short Film Festival in Boulder City, Nev., still provide a forum for new artists, but most filmmakers pay to have their material screened. A handful of filmmakers receive token fees for appearing. “For the most part, there’s no money in it,’’ LA Shorts executive director Bob Arentz said.

Services such as YouTube’s Screening Room and Atom.com depend on Internet advertising to support shorts, but the revenue is often too small to cover the costs of making one.

Apple Inc.’s iTunes store offers shorts for sale, but few filmmakers sell more than token numbers.

Scott Roesch, general manager for Viacom Inc.’s humor site, Atom.com, said making shorts provides artists with a way to keep their creative pumps primed.

“We have creators who’ll do stand-up, they’ll do work in feature films and television. They’ll create Web videos. It all adds up to not only a good living, but a diverse slate of projects that keeps them going creatively.’’

And in a sign that the shorts business may be gaining traction, Shorts International has received the backing of media mogul John Malone’s international cable TV business, Liberty Global Inc. Its connections in the industry could provide Shorts International with greater distribution going forward.

ShortsHD’s audience is still too small to measure, but Pilcher expects it will eventually be large enough to sell advertising, which should help it build its library beyond the 3,000 titles it has licensed so far.

“Our hope is to be able to pay a volume of filmmakers so that lots of people will at least be able to recoup some of the costs of their film,’’ Pilcher said.

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