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Whether a first-time indie filmmaker or a serial short-film writer-producer-director veteran, you’ve probably found yourself asking the age-old question: how do short films make money?
Or how about: Do short films ever make money?
Or better yet, am I wasting my time and money making short films?
If you’ve asked yourself any variation of the above, you’re in luck!
This article aims to tell you everything there is to know about how to make money off short films – if it’s possible at all – and some tips and tricks on how to do it the right way so you can earn some* money from all that hard work, time, and yes, money you’ve sunk into your short films.
First: Do Short Films Ever Make Money?
The short answer: yes… well… kind of.
The long answer: so, if you’re asking if you can go out, make a short film, and sell it to a big distributor like Netflix or Disney… not a chance in hell!
But if you’re asking if the investment you put into a short film can pay off in any kind of financial return, then the answer is a resounding yes.
But then the question becomes: how?
How Short Films Make Money
The most obvious answer to this question is, first and foremost, online monetization.
Online Monetization on Youtube and Vimeo
You won’t necessarily be selling short films to Netflix anytime soon, but you could post your short film on Youtube or Vimeo and attempt to monetize it.
Online monetization through an online platform is when the platform pays you a percentage of money per a certain amount of views.
For example, according to recent data as of October 2019, content creators on Youtube can make, on average, $18 per 1,000 ad views, equating to $3 – $5 per 1000 video views.
Getting more specific, Influencer Marketing Hub breaks it down like this:
“Google pays out 68% of their AdSense revenue, so for every $100 an advertiser pays, Google pays $68 to the publisher. The actual rates an advertiser pays varies, usually between $0.10 to $0.30 per view, but averages out at $0.18 per view. Around 15% of viewers on average watch the requisite 30 seconds of a video ad to count for payment. This means that for 1,000 views, 150 people are likely to watch an ad. At $0.18 per view, Google will charge the advertiser $27, keeping 32% ($9) themselves. The YouTube channel will receive $18 per 1,000 views.”Source: Influencer Marketing Hub
If you think that sounds pretty good, hold on.
What Counts as an Ad View?
The goal is $18 per 1,000 video views. But what counts as an ad view? For an ad view to count on a CPM ad, which is the cost per thousand views, someone needs to watch an ad for more than 30 seconds.
I don’t know about you, but I hit the skip ad as fast as possible when it comes to ads.
Someone needs to click on the ad for a cost-per-click (CPC) ad to count towards your ad revenue.
Again, hard to click something you’re skipping after five seconds – unless you accidentally misclick the ad itself. Maybe that’s how all those Youtubers make so much money…
How likely is it for your short film to make ad revenue?
To review: to get reliable income from monetizing your short films with ads, you would have to bring in tens of thousands of viewers per video.
That would require hundreds of thousands of subscribers and at least 2-3 short films a week to keep them coming back.
For that model to be financially successful, you must make dirt-cheap no-budget short films weekly.
This is why, among successful YouTubers, the vlog and video game streaming formats are so popular – not making high-budget short films.
That said, if you are creative, hungry, and relatively self-sufficient, you could create enough no-to-low budget short films consistently to start seeing revenue.
Admittedly, that’s how every multi-million dollar Youtuber today got their start – so by all means, it’s not impossible.
However, there’s a degree to which consistency and quality need to merge, and while “virality” can be engineered to a degree, it takes a lot of good luck and good timing for your short films to start reaching a wide enough audience to bring in the number of subscribers you need to take off.
Online Monetization Through Branded Content
There’s another method entirely for creating money off your short films online through Youtube or Vimeo. Influencer marketing is when businesses and brands reach out to prominent Youtubers with big subscriber followings and pay them to create branded content.
If you don’t know, branded content is paid for by a “brand” to promote its brand or product.
So, for example, if Tide paid popular Youtuber Devin Super Tramp to create a slow-motion drone video of laundry being folded while stunt actors do parkour, that would be branded content.
Branded content can come in product placement, product review videos, educational video content, how-to videos, or any type of video under the sun.
The holy grail for indie filmmakers is branded narrative content, where you can get paid to make a short film.
What is branded narrative content?
A branded narrative short is a short film with its own unique story – a.k.a narrative – but because it’s bought and paid for by a big brand, it is either loosely tied to the company sponsoring it or includes the company’s content or product in it in some way.
The most famous example of this type of short I can think of is the very popular branded series “The Hire,” starring Clive Owen as a getaway driver in all sorts of action or dramatic scenarios united only by him driving a BMW. The series was created for, you guessed it, BMW:
What’s cool about this series is that it invited all kinds of amazingly talented directors on board to pretty much do whatever they wanted as long as it showed off how cool it is to drive a BMW.
By giving these directors total creative freedom (as far as I can tell) to write and tell their own original stories without needing to promote BMW directly, they let the narrative take the front seat and left the hard selling to the car salesman back on the lot.
Another great example is making content for camera producers when they need to launch a new camera. Of course, you still need to be a big enough name, e.g., on YouTube, but it is possible even though you’re not a Hollywood producer.
Take for instance, the short film “Radio 88” by Johnny Derango about when Panasonic launched the EVA1 camera:
Or the short film “Kepler 138,” directed by Jacob Schwarz, shot on the Panasonic Lumix S1H as part of their launch campaign:
There are a few different approaches to getting these opportunities, some of which we’ll explore later. For now, let’s explore the other options to make money with your short films.
Online Monetization Through Video-On-Demand
One of the last ways to monetize your short film online is through a video-on-demand, or VOD, service. VOD services are sometimes referred to as streaming services, the only caveat being VOD usually refers to video titles you buy or rent from a distributor like Amazon or iTunes.
These VOD services usually offer opportunities for Feature Films, either more mainstream titles after they’ve finished their theatrical runs or even for indie features with a limited theatrical or direct-to VOD release.
However, one of these services provides online monetization for filmmakers with short films through their VOD service, a service known as Amazon Video Direct.
Amazon Video Direct allows you to upload your short films directly to Amazon and monetize them either through earning royalties based on hours streamed, shared revenue for direct rentals and purchases, or shared revenue based on ad impressions like the model above.
What videos can you post on Amazon Video Direct?
While Amazon Video Direct does let you post short films, there are some requirements. For starters, your short has to follow their specific guidelines, which can be somewhat touchy. Here are a few of the main ones:
- Your videos must meet minimum HD quality thresholds.
- Your video also has to come with its own closed-captioning scripts that need to match the video as closely as possible.
- Your video needs to have its own key art thumbnail assets to help customers discover it.
- Lastly, your video needs a title language file to track the language of your metadata to determine the locations your video can be published.
Suppose that last one had you scratching your head. In that case, all it means is that Amazon Video Direct uses the language of your metadata file, which includes all the electronic information associated with your film, like your closed captioning, synopsis, keywords, etc., to figure out what countries will see it.
If you’re like me and this is the first time you’ve heard about this service, you might think it sounds too good to be true. For sure, it’s a bit tricky to set up and use, and the returns will probably end up being pretty low to non-existent, but it’s another avenue for you to try.
For more background about Amazon Video Direct and how it came to be, check out these very informative videos from Youtuber J. Horton:
What about licensing to other streaming services?
Currently, Amazon Video Direct (Amazon Prime) is the only streaming service that licenses short films, but a few companies here and there will still license your shorts.
ShortsTV is probably the most well-known company that buys and licenses short films from filmmakers worldwide, plays them on their cable network channel (in addition to streaming them online), and is willing to pay a couple of hundred dollars ($300-$500) per short.
However, these deals typically come with exclusivity licenses – meaning if you sell them the rights to your short, you sign it away to them for a set period of time, so you can’t publish or promote it anywhere else online or enter it into any other festivals, for the set duration.
These deals can be quite nice, especially because it creates a new life for short films that have run their course in the festival circuit, which we’ll get into in a minute, but it’s usually better to hold off on deals like these if you want to create and manage your film online yourself.
How else can short films make money?
While online monetization and multi-millionaire Youtubers are pretty common concepts by now, you’re probably wondering what other options you have to make money off your short films.
You might even have raised a large sum online via crowdfunding or put your own savings into a passion project and want to see that project succeed.
If you are this type of filmmaker with this short film, you’re probably wondering about film festivals.
For many aspiring filmmakers, the festival circuit, not Youtube, is seen as the holy grail at the end of the production schedule. Film festivals still offer the main source of exposure, networking, and even the occasional financial return for indie filmmakers.
But unlike screenplay festivals, which almost all offer some cash incentives as prizes at the end of the submission tunnel, film festivals rarely offer any real financial incentives in the form of a cash prize award.
While most film festivals don’t offer cash prizes for any awards, some do – but only for the top awards.
I was surprised to find out, through researching this article, that any film festivals offered any kind of cash prizes to the top winners each year.
Here are the few rare exceptions I found that do offer cash prizes to festival winners:
- Berlin Film Festival Audi Short Film Award: € 20,000 for the top prize.
- Melbourne International Film Festival: $56,000 split among all competing filmmakers.
- Toronto International Film Festival: $10,000 award for the top prize.
- 48 Film Project: $10,000 award for the top prize.
- Seattle International Film Festival: $2,500 award per jury winner.
- San Francisco International Film Festival: $1000- $2,000 award per jury winner.
Now, one huge caveat: It is highly unlikely that you will get into one of these festivals, let alone earn the cash price. So if you see that shortlist up there and think you’re going to walk away from this article, enter one of those contests, and recoup your losses, you’re sorely mistaken.
There is no guarantee that just by making a short film, you will be accepted into these festivals, and even less guarantee you will win the top award.
Even if you win, it’s not like you can make a stable living off festival prize money. Just because you win once doesn’t guarantee you’ll win again.
At best, you might be able to recoup your losses, pay back friends and other crew members who worked for free or use the money to invest in your next short film. But again, unlikely.
However, as one filmmaker friend of mine pointed out, if you were to be accepted into one of the above, like, say, the Toronto International Film Festival, that in itself is equivalent or even superior to winning a cash prize due to all the opportunities that come your way from being accepted.
Instead of any rare prizes, the film festivals are the real money-makers in the form of future opportunities for you to continue working in the industry. This leads us to the last and most important way short films make money…
What’s the main way short films make money?
You’re not going to like this, but it’s true: they are an investment in your future.
Ugh, so cheesy! I know, I know, but it’s TRUE!
Whether shared online or through film festivals, short films are most profitable as a calling card that will get you more work. Look at it as a resume, but for your film career.
Every short film you write, direct, produce, and -most importantly – share will lead to more work.
Here are some examples:
- Use your short film to convince a company to hire you to create videos for them.
- Use your short film to get hired on another filmmaker’s production in a role you can do.
- Use your short film as a proof of concept to sell a feature idea.
- Use your short film in a festival to network with indie producers, agents, or managers.
- Use your short films to gain a following online and create a Patreon account.
I’ll go through and explain each of the above examples a little more in-depth so you can see how creating short films can indirectly lead to making money, with this caveat:
The goal of any short film you create should not be to make money. If your goal is just to make money off the short film itself, you will never reach that goal.
Instead, the goal of every short film you create should be to explore and grow your creative talents while telling a great story.
That said, here’s a little more about how a great story (well told) with the short film format can lead to future opportunities:
1. Use your short film to convince a company to hire you to create videos for them.
One of the most direct ways to profit off of creating a great short film is by using it to convince small to medium-sized businesses to hire you to create great videos for them.
The term “corporate video” has a bad connotation – which is why, as you market yourself in the age of content marketing, you should highlight your ability to tell a great narrative story.
After all, that’s all marketing is… storytelling. The story you’re telling just happens to be about a company or product as opposed to a character with an arc – but that doesn’t mean you should overlook characters or arcs in your branded video content.
That’s why, as a videographer, leveraging any type of video content. Still, narrative shorts is paramount to getting work creating that type of video content for businesses and brands – but leveraging the right short films to promote your work is key to landing the job.
Because the companies hiring filmmakers sometimes lack the same images we filmmakers have, they will want to see specific references, so genre and tone are important.
Short films made a certain way, be it a specific genre, tone, or subject matter, technically only prove you can do films specific to that short – at least to the execs doing the hiring.
As one friend of mine put it, “You could have the most epic action thriller short set in the swiss alps, and they’ll still ask, ‘How can this help my banking firm?’”
Example: you make a hard-hitting drama short that wins many awards. It still might not be useable to convince a car company to hire you. But if your short has some sexy car shots in it, you’re suddenly directing Toyota’s answer to “The Hire” called… “The Tire!”
Even a few production companies and agencies specialize in creating branded video content for their clients.
Some of them accept outside content, meaning they’ll take stories you’ve already written and pitch them to related brands to fund them as branded shorts. Finally, someone to finance my six-page car-caper comedy “The Tire!” Thanks, Toyota!
2. Use your short film to get hired on another production.
You’ve probably worn multiple hats as an indie filmmaker creating your own short films. You, at minimum, directed your own film, probably had to do the lion’s share of producing it (if not produced the whole thing yourself), and might have even shot, edited, wrote, or acted in it, too.
All of these skills are marketable jobs that you can do on someone else’s movie, and you can use your short film to showcase them to other directors and producers that are looking to hire someone in those positions for their own short films – as long as you did a good job!
To get work off of your own work, you will need to show it to people, which is easiest to do by putting your short film online and sharing it on filmmaker forums or entering it into festivals where other filmmakers will be attending to network and find future collaborators.
3. Use your short film as a proof of concept to sell a feature idea.
This idea may be becoming outdated, but as of 2020, I still think there’s validity to using a short film to launch a feature through a proof of concept.
The idea of a proof of concept is to showcase the validity of an idea by creating a smaller sample version. Instead of getting the money to produce an entire 90-minute feature, try to condense the core idea or essence of the film into a two to a seven-minute short film.
Why two to seven minutes, you ask? While short films can be as “short” as 40 minutes and still be considered a short film, a great two-minute scene can easily be enough to prove a concept, and seven minutes is about that sweet spot that festival programmers look for in short films.
Now that doesn’t mean telling a feature’s entire story in seven minutes. That would make a terrible short. But if you can find a standout scene from the feature film as a standalone short, you can use that to showcase both the magnetism of the story and your skill as a director.
This has worked before, most famously in the case of La La Land director Damien Chazelle creating a scene from the movie Whiplash as a short film starring J.K. Simmons that led to the production of the feature film, which also starred J.K. Simmons.
If you want to get inspired, check out this video essay comparison between the two below:
4. Use your short film in a festival to network with indie producers, agents, or managers.
As I mentioned above, putting your work out there is one of the keys to getting more work in the future. Why would they ever hire you if no one knows what you’ve done or what you’re capable of?
Another way to get new work from your short film is by meeting indie producers, agents, and managers through networking events put on by festivals. Some festivals now introduce filmmakers to managers and producers directly in speed-dating style networking sessions.
Even just attending the festival mixers and chatting with others after the screenings can be a great way to connect with these types in attendance.
This comes with a pretty obvious caveat – networking is all about building relationships. It’s not about meeting someone and automatically asking them for work, to buy your short film, or to represent you.
This will scare these types of connections away faster than lighting yourself on fire – well, okay, maybe not faster than, but almost.
Instead, focus on building genuine connections with whoever you meet. At most, offer yourself as a resource if they need anything, like referrals to other talented filmmakers on the indie level or other work you think they should check out.
Then, just keep in contact with them long after the event. Update them on any milestones you achieve like placements in other festivals or share cuts of newly finished projects with them, but with the understanding that 1) their time is valuable and 2) you’re only sharing, not asking for anything.
Do both of those things, and if the timing works out, they may offer you an opportunity later down the road. Otherwise, there may be an opportunity to ask them for a favor, but only when the timing is right – because you only get one chance, so save it for when it counts.
5. Use your short films to gain a following online.
Technically this tactic would fall under the online monetization route. Still, I want to differentiate between using your short films to gain an online following and creating weekly content with the hopes of making money off of Youtube.
Being an indie filmmaker is a lot like being the founder of a startup. It’s a very entrepreneurial endeavor and needs to be treated like it in many ways. That means the same rules about finding your first 1,000 “loyal customers” apply to finding your first 1,000 true fans.
As you go about your journey creating and sharing your short films online and through film festivals, you should constantly be building a following of fans of your work.
You can track them as subscribers when you do this online through something like Youtube. Still, you need to build a separate marketing list you can contact, usually through email or social media, to reach out and contact anytime you release new content.
By sharing updates with an email list or social following, you are training your fans and followers to look forward to your communications and keep track of your work. You can eventually use this list you are nurturing to become your first “customer,” just like a startup would.
One of the best online tools created for this exact purpose is Patreon.
Instead of Kickstarter, Gofundme, or Indiegogo which are intended to raise money for a specific project or cause, Patreon is a monthly membership platform for fans and “patrons” to support creators they believe in financially with monthly donations.
In the same way, a startup might start selling memberships to a new app or monthly service, you can start reaching out to your list of fans and provide exclusive rewards and incentives for them to back your future short film projects with recurring monthly donations.
While Patreon isn’t the only tool you can use to support future projects, it’s one of the most well-known and trusted, which makes it a viable starting place for promoting yourself – as long as you’ve built up enough goodwill with your following… by keeping track of them via email or social media lists!
The Real Key to Making Money With Short Films?
Make good short films! How do you do that? Make more short films!
The best thing you can do for your film career is always to improve and work on your craft by creating and learning. Don’t be afraid to take risks and try and fail a few times – but don’t go into debt making a single short film, either.
If your finances are a burden, keep it simple. Think about what resources you have at your disposal and make the most use of them you can. Low-budget shorts with a great story are just as powerful (if not more so) than high-budget shorts with a lackluster story.
Here’s an example of putting it into perspective: One year, a friend of mine made one short film that cost him $13,000 dollars. Another friend spent $1,000 dollars and made 13 short films. Who do you think learned more about filmmaking that year?
Regardless of budget, the most important thing for a good short film is to tell a good story. For more on that, check out our recent article about how to write a script for a short film.
That’s it! Feel free to leave any questions, comments, or success stories in the comments with your thoughts!
Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.