Is There Money In Digital Shorts? Zygote – a Case Study

August 1st, 2017 icon / message-square 7
Is There Money In Digital Shorts? Zygote - a Case Study

Sci-Fi Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium, Chappie) has released a new short film called Zygote under the banner of Oats Studios. It stars Dakota Fanning, runs 22 minutes, it’s free – oh, and it’s great, too.  Do films like Zygote mark a turning point for digitally-distributed shorts? I certainly hope so. 

Zygote

Dakota Fanning in Zygote. Credit: Oats Studios

Short films are tricky to monetize. The runtime makes them less than ideal for distribution, so that leads most to the festival route. The short film festival circuit often serves more as a stepping stone to longer-form content or a platform from which to experiment technically and creatively, as opposed to a destination in itself for filmmakers. Others use shorts as a proof of concept for both the creative and technical components of their stories, as in: “Please give me all your money to develop my short into a feature,” AND/OR “You can trust me to get this competently made,”  AND/OR “People like this story; just check out the number of likes.”

Yet, it should not be counted out that shorts are more than just a stepping stone. They are absolutely an art in themselves… an art that is painfully saturated. But you SWEAR you’re the grain and not the chaff, so what’s the path for you?

Like writers, most filmmakers have distances. Some can sprint and run cross-country, but if we’re honest, we all usually have one event in which we are prime to medal. In the past, if you were a filmmaker whose sweet spot was in shorts, you really only had a few options to exploit your talents and make a living: commercials, music videos, and maybe – if you were lucky – you got in early with sites like BuzzFeed or The Onion before web parody became the competitive marketplace it is today. The path to monetization was (and is) a narrow one, and you had to be willing to throw elbows to make your way there.

That said, could we be coming to a point where that path is actually widening? Is there a place for your short out there in the webosphere where you aren’t rocking back and forth eating a Hot Pocket and praying for 4-digit viewership? If that place exists, how does one get there and how does one pay for it? Can shorts find a budget point where filmmakers can make a living on clicks alone? Let’s dig a little deeper to see if an upgrade in handheld cuisine is in your future.

Look at Zygote creator Oats Studios’ YouTube channel which, as of publishing time, has 240,000 subscribers and total channel views of just over 10 million. A modest estimate from “YouTube Money Calculators” estimate earnings on 10 million views at somewhere in the realm of $35,000 total. This isn’t enough money to cover a short film with a crew of over 50 as was the case of Zygote, and much less an FX makeup department that looks like the one below:

Makeup Department on Zygote according to IMDB. Image Credit: IMDB.com

Oats Studios isn’t depending fully on YouTube clicks for their monetization efforts. The studio has come up with another way to recoup production costs: for super fans of Zygote, you can go to Steam HERE and purchase everything from the script for the film to art assets.

While I love the ability to purchase and download character models and other assets from a film I’ve just watched, this seems like a tricky – though inventive – sell for the average YouTube viewer. The ability to buy Zygote art off of Steam would make the chance of a Zygote mod for games like Fallout 4 much more likely though.

It’s worth noting that Zygote director Neil Blomkamp hasn’t fully ironed out the monetization side of digital shorts, but that isn’t really his goal. He’s after the creative control they provide:

“They’re done exactly the way that I want; I don’t answer to anyone,” he explained in a recent  interview with ihorror.com “We built the studio in order to execute them. If eventually we scale up, we can figure out a way to monetize this. At that point, we’ll look at ideas that are coming into the company and see if we want to turn into more of a normal studio and work on other people’s ideas as well.”

What are you waiting for? Watch Zygote below (Content Warning):

I hear you out there:  THIS GUY HAS ALREADY DIRECTED FEATURES AND HAS MORE MONEY THAN ME.  Valid point, but you can still do everything he did on a smaller scale, learn from what’s working in the monetization, and apply.

Zygote may not be recouping its budget yet, but as a short film it’s remarkable. It has long a shelf life, meaning clicks and ad revenue for years to come. As the quality of freely-available YouTube narrative shorts like Zygote improve, the remaining barrier to monetizing shorts is the audience itself.

Image from the short film Zygote. Image Credit: Oats Studios

In many ways, the same issues with indie features plague the short film world. Discovery, or the ability for audiences to stumble upon your project, is elusive for both shorts and non-studio features alike. Places like Shortoftheweek.com, Blackpills.com and curated Vimeo narrative channels try to help with the visibility problem by pointing short-film lovers in the direction of the very best projects to hit the internet, but it still feels like striking gold when your short film breaks through the super saturated sea of content on whatever outlet and manages to catch an audience.

So… does an audience for your short film exist? Look at other films in the same category as yours on YouTube and see how they have performed. Take note of the type of marketing each team employed and gauge if those same types of campaigns might be a good fit for your project. This isn’t the sexy or even slightly fun part of the process for a filmmaker, but developing a market strategy and learning to assess which tactics made similar films sink or swim are necessary skills for career longevity. A little market research can go a long way.

Now is the time for these efforts. The slowly shrinking mainstream network audience discussion has been going on for a while, but the next generation of ticket holders is coming into maturity, and they are going to shake up the marketplace the same way that millennials have with streaming outlets.  More and more children have smart phones, meaning these kids already have more effect on viewership than previous generations ever did in their youths. Three of my four nephews are old enough to choose how they consume their entertainment, and I’d safely estimate that 90% of the content they watch is on YouTube. Their clicks and subscriptions determine whether or not you qualify as an influencer, which can translate into gear, sponsorship, and bigger budgets.

Now the question remains: when will this consumption drive bigger bucks toward short-film creators? I believe the answer is soon. Don’t be deterred by the prevalence of prosumer footage and ring lights on YouTube.  I’ve worked on more than one web series predestined for YouTube with budgets around $750,000 and full crews. Believe it or not, that’s already pretty standard, and the money is out there, although you may have to choose between clout and profitability. For example, many festivals that filmmakers target to garner prestige want your short to premiere during their screening, so you might have to make a choice between monetization and the festival circuit. You might also have to cast or work with someone who already has more of an audience than you do and sacrifice a bit of your art.

In the end, it all comes down to dollars. The target is striking a balance between a budget level that raises the overall quality of the short itself but is still low enough to fully recoup. Rather than saying, “How do I make this for as cheap as possible?” it might mean saving for a few more months to pull on a casting director or hire an actor that is outside your current price range. It might mean renting a better kit of lenses than you currently own to piggyback off the attention that a certain brand is getting (just think how many times you have wanted to see a particular set of lenses put to the test in a narrative setting). If we have learned anything from indie budgets is that smaller equals a better chance at profitability, but you have to spend your money wisely, so arm yourself with the best gear you can afford and surround yourself with talented people who enjoy hard work and wearing a few different hats. Then, get out there and start shooting your next short.

Short films may not yet be a money-maker in the league of longer-form entertainment, but the era of short film profitability is coming, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be ahead of the trend.

Co-written by Rin Ehlers Sheldon.

What are the areas where you’ve found obstacles or success in your short-film making efforts? Share below!

7
Leave a Reply

guest
Filter:
all
Sort by:
latest
 Mike Jones
Member
August 4th, 2017

I hope Mr. Sheldon is right, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t be via YouTube that this revolution in making a profit from a short film occurs. YouTube’s algorithm – and pretty much nothing else – determines if your short will get seen. A typical popular YouTube channel, and I mean the really, really popular channels, average about 10% subscriber views – the rest come from random searches (The Algorithm). So your 500,000 subscribers will only get you about 50,000 views on that video you just uploaded – the rest will occur because of The Algorithm. The Algorithm favors new content over any other content (within a range of relevance). That means once your short is one day old, it will start falling out of favor with The Algorithm and will appear in fewer and fewer search results. So I’m sorry to say Mr. Sheldon is no longer correct – there won’t be clicks and revenue for years and years to come. The Algorithm has seen to it.

Another area where I disagree with Mr. Sheldon is the actual power of a digital influencer to persuade his or her fans to purchase merch. While that still does occur, and quite successfully, I know many YouTubers with very large channels who are discovering that their power to influence is not what it was 3 or 4 years ago. I don’t have a good explanation for this, but here’s my best guess, and it has to do with the lifespan of a digital celebrity. While a mainstream celebrity (e.g. Tom Cruise) can maintain a level of influence for decades (that may wax and wane), a digital celebrity’s lifespan is a year or two and that’s it. There are a few exceptions, but look around you – all the big names in YouTube five years ago are not around anymore. The problem is that they ARE around, but nobody cares about them anymore. Their audience is a fraction of what it was 5 years ago, and they didn’t change ANYTHING, they just got swept away by The Algorithm that favors the new over everything else. So that cute boy singer with millions of views making crap covers is replaced the following year by another cute boy singer with millions of views making crap covers. Last year’s hilarious vlogger is just that – last year’s vlogger. And so on.

So what does that have to do with the power of the influencer? I believe that if a celebrity’s lifespan is so short, it means that their fans are just jumping from one “next big thing” to another, and no longer truly connecting with that influencer. And so the power of the influencer is dramatically reduced. So that’s my theory anyway. And even if I’m wrong in my theory, I stand by my belief that it is MUCH harder to sell merch than 5 years ago, and will be much harder in the future than it is today. Unless YouTube changes The Algorithm.

I say all this from personal experience. My kids have been producing a really popular scripted comedy for kids under 12 for the last six years, and are currently shooting Season 7. The channel has 400,000 subscribers and is pushing 200 million views. Their shows are 8-10 minute sitcoms that are produced monthly, with some form of even-shorter, lower-budget content produced weekly. This channel was my daughter’s career until The Algorithm started favoring content by age over practically everything else. They now make 20% of what they made 3 years ago, even though they make MORE content per season than in the past. Three years ago, an upload would still have a sizable viewership even after it had been on YouTube for a year. Now the viewership of a given video slows to a trickle after a month. Not because no one cares about this kind of content, but because it is no longer “new”. This is the norm, not the exception. Also, it has been impossible to sell merch to children on YouTube – it’s just not the same as selling on television, though I can’t put my finger on why (maybe we suck at selling). (I’m not going to mention the channel name because I’m not trying to promote them or myself.)

You want to get big-time views on YouTube? Make a video every day. Every day. One more time: Every Day. You want to create quality content, whether it’s a short, or a music video, talk show, whatever? Put it somewhere else. Oh wait, there isn’t really a somewhere else yet. And that’s a big problem. So you put it on YouTube and hope for the best. Work those Thumbnails, tweak the Tags, perfect the Name, but if you spent $5000 making that short, YouTube won’t be making you a profit. Patreon exists specifically because YouTube will never pay you back for making quality content. I’m not trying to sell Pateron either, I’m just trying to inform and help.

It did not have to be that way. YouTube could have favored subscribers over non-subscribers (thus an incentive to create an account and subscribe). They could have created a higher bar before you could monetize (to flush out the crap content). And most of all, they could have ignored age as a component of search results. But YouTube isn’t interested in presenting search results to a user based on how good something is, they want to show results based on how NEW something is. YouTube is singularly responsible. And they killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

Mark Aylward
Guest
August 2nd, 2017

Jonny Scribe read up on this one…

Jonny Scribe
Guest
August 2nd, 2017
Reply to  Mark Aylward

This can be summed up in one word.. grueling! I had a strong belief that if I/we made a quality short movie, like we DID with Une Dent, that it would be enough to invite the attention of possible finance to advance our cause toward making a full lenght.. It should be when you find the audience, but what exactly is the “audience?” I showed the movie to my buddy Mike & a group of guys yesterday & where most of them don’t usually dig a french black & white movie, they were entertained by Une Dent & they ultimately liked it.. thanks to the kick ass finale! One of the guys who watched the movie claims that his grandfather actually DID leave him his dentures as an inheritance.. lol! What are the odds.. Anyway, back to this article, the key word is always MONEY, which we don’t have really! Where we stand, why didn’t Une Dent get us anywhere really except to exist on a list of an obscure film festival in it’s first year? Luck factor.. low! I know that there has to be someone with money out there that would see Une Dent & be interested in knowing what other potential projects we might have & fund it! I really thought that with our quality short with a classic Hitchcockian narrative that it would be enough to at least have a potential financier come in & at least fund a next short, if anything! This didn’t happen & it fucks with me every day in realising that no matter what you do, you’re lucky or unlucky, no matter how hard you try! Your idea of a co-op IS ideally the best way to go with other motivated filmakers in an ideal world. As you know, working for free on a long term project isn’t everyones cup of tea especially when you’re stuck with a full time job to survive this bullshit capitalist dynasty! I’ve spent the last 6 years of my life trying to figure shit out & I now have at least one “successful!?”short movie that I’d like to think makes a legitimate business card.. “Here’s what we CAN do.. can you fucking help us with cash so we can make more movies, perhaps!?” .. Alas, this is NOT the case so we limp on trying to evolve. Seriously, if Une Dent hadn’t worked, I would have given up justifying it with we simply don’t have enough talent.. but we DO, and this is the tangent that makes me hold on, however my ambition/motivation isn’t what it used to be, so now I give/produce at a leasurely pace. I’am no longer in a hurry to get anywhere, because I DID get somewhere, to realize I’m STILL kinda nowhere despite all the efforts that I/we put in! So now with this new project were working on.. slowly gaining momentum & hopefully actually get somewhere!

Graham Ehlers Sheldon
Guest
August 2nd, 2017
Reply to  Mark Aylward

Hi Jonny! Thank you for commenting. Where can I see a copy of your short film? Is “Une Dent” available online anywhere?

Mark Aylward
Guest
August 2nd, 2017
Reply to  Mark Aylward

Graham Ehlers Sheldon https://vimeo.com/191073602

Aram Khachaturyan
Guest
August 1st, 2017

There is no money in shorts, unless theaters and broadcast will open doors to it

Glenn Bossik
Guest
August 1st, 2017

I’m really intrigued by the possibilities for monetizing short films.

I went to film school and earned a BA in film production, but, for the longest time, it was shockingly expensive to make a film of any length. Then along came digital filmmaking, which brought production costs down significantly.

Now, the prospect of creating and distributing a short film instead of a feature-length film holds great promise.

I’ve worked in Internet marketing for many years, and I can imagine all sorts of possibilities for monetizing short films. There’s Patreon, YouTube, and some emerging platforms.

Certainly, the advent of smart TVs offers more distribution opportunities than in the past.

Filter:
all
Sort by:
latest

Take part in the CineD community experience