Covid has been a horror show for the movie industry.
Cinemas have been forced to close, blockbuster releases delayed and filming schedules cancelled in the face of lockdowns and travel bans.
But one London producer today says the pandemic had provided an unexpected boon for one corner of the industry – short films.
Traditionally seen as the little sister of the mainstream movie industry, where directors learn their craft before graduating to full length features, short films are getting their time in the sun, according to Carter Pilcher, chief executive of distributer and producer ShortsTV.
His company produces and distributes short films from around the world.
It sells them to pay TV subscribers in the Americas, Europe and India, enabling it to find and fund new talent.
He says the amount of spare time people have had during lockdowns has led hundreds of thousands of them to try out short films for the first time.
The rising number of TV platforms around the world mean they can access services via payTV and try them for the first time.
ShortsTV has seen customer numbers jump in many countries around the world, particularly India, where subscriber numbers are up 35%.
“When our audiences have time on their hands, we’ve seen them say: ‘I’m exhausted with watching the big networks on TV – let’s try something new like ShortsTV instead.
“We have seen a growth in numbers of short film fans in 2020 that would have taken years to grow in normal times.”
He admits to losing some customers as people ditched their cable channels in the US but says growth is now coming via the digital providers, particularly Amazon.
He has recently signed deals to distribute ShortsTV through Amazon Prime to audiences in the UK, Holland, Italy and Spain, while his latest platform deal in India sees his service offered potentially to 342 million Airtel mobile customers.
The vast, movie loving nation of India was also providing cause for celebration at ShortsTV today because an Indian short documentary called Tailing Pond had just qualified for consideration to be nominated for an Oscar.
The film is about the horrendous impact uranium mining has on an east Indian community and is voiced over by Sex In the City star Cynthia Nixon. Director Saurav Vishnu is from the region where thousands of children are falling sick and dying from radioactive waste pollution.
ShortsTV has the exclusive distribution rights.
Pilcher, an astronautical engineer-turned-banker-turned film executive, says: “Tailing Pond is just an amazing story and would have been lost in India were it not for Cynthia Nixon picking it up and saying – hey, I’m going to lend my name and be part of this.”
The story, from such a remote region, told by local people, would probably never have been heard in the old days before streaming and digital TV channels.
“As the world has more and more platforms, more voices can enter the global conversation that would never have been heard before,” says Pilcher.
While covid has brought new audiences to the short-film world, it has also blighted budding filmmakers’ efforts to get noticed. In normal times, the most promising new releases would find distributers at film festivals around the world, but these have all been cancelled this year.
Pilcher explains: “It’s terrible for filmmakers. They couldn’t just wait until next year’s festivals because by then it’s like they’re trying to present last year’s film when there are all these new ones to compete.”
However, ShortsTV tried to fix some of the damage by offering to screen the key short film festivals on TV instead.
One was the Guanjuato International Film Festival in Mexico, another was the Bengaluru International Film Festival in India.
“It was great for our audiences,” says Pilcher. “For the Latin American festival, we let them keep the ads and the sponsorship revenues and showed the films for the 12 nights of the festival. So someone thousands of miles away in Argentina could see movies at a festival they’d never have a chance of seeing normally.”
ShortsTV didn’t only have the virus to contend with last year. It also had a monster rival suddenly appear on its doorstep in the form of billionaire Jeffery Katzenberg’s near-$2 billion short film venture, Quibi.
The former DreamWorks Animation tycoon raised $1.75 billion and hired former Hewlett-Packard chief Meg Whitman to form a start up producing short movies to be streamed digitally on mobile phones.
The idea was to launch 5000 “quick bite” videos of under 10 minutes. Walt Disney, WarnerMedia and other major studios signed up.
“What do you do when you’re facing Covid and a $2 billion new competitor? You pray a lot,” laughs Pilcher.
Whoever he sent his prayers up to, they were quickly answered. Quibi crashed and burned, folding in December after having dismally failed to reach its targeted number of subscribers.
Where did it go wrong?
Pilcher says: “They said it was the pandemic but I think it was their content.
"They brought in all these Hollywood stars but the idea was to make 90 minute movies and break them into 10 minute episodes. In that format, they just didn’t have the impact that a complete short movie has.”
In the event, ShortsTV had a pretty decent year, all things considered. Revenues were up from $9.5 million to $10 million despite losing US subscribers and, with the Amazon venture bringing it to Europe in force, it is now growing in four continents. Its new Indian deals are hoped to boost revenues there 78% this year.
Covid has been a disaster movie for the film business, but for Pilcher, at least, it should be a short one.
Pilcher’s favourite 5 shorts:
The Silent Child (Oscar winner 2017, UK)
Starring Rachel Shenton (Hollyoaks) and directed by Shenton’s fiancé, Chris Overton. This amazing film was the 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Live Action Short Film. Co-starring a young, deaf first-time actress, the story was inspired by Rachel Shenton's personal experiences and her concerns for the education of deaf children.
Pear Cider & Cigarettes (Oscar Nominee 2016, UK/Canada )
Oscar-nominated animation produced by Cara Speller of the UK's PASSION Pictures, the film and the graphic novel of the same name are based on a brutally honest true story of director Robert Valley's turbulent relationship with his self-destructive childhood best friend.
The Eleven O'Clock (Oscar Nominee 2017, Australian Comedy)
Inspired by a sketch from the acclaimed UK television series A Bit of Fry and Laurie, a session between a psychiatrist and his patient, delusively believing he is the psychiatrist, gets out of hand.
My Nephew Emmett (Oscar Nominee 2017, USA)
Directed by Kevin Wilson Jr, a student of Spike Lee’s, this heart-wrenching short is based on the true story of the 1955 murder of Emmett Louis Till in a time of deep racial division. 64-year old Mose Wright tries to protect his 14-year old nephew (Emmett) from two racist killers out for blood. 65 years later this story is sadly still relevant and a glimpse into America’s deeply troubled past and present.
Some Boys Don’t Leave (USA, starring Jesse Eisenberg)
A short film directed by Maggie Kiley as part of AFI's Directing Workshop for Women which picked up awards at several high-profile US festivals including Palm Springs and Tribeca. Funny, touching and bittersweet, with great performances from Jessie Eisenberg and Eloise Mumford.
A Short Film About Ice Fishing (USA)
This HILARIOUS eight minute comedy is set in rural South Dakota, where two friends go out for a day of ice fishing only to cause total destruction. Nominated for South-by-Southwest Grand Jury Award.