Q&A with David Russell of Big Film Shorts

David Russell is the go-to man for all things short film. In 1996, he started Big Film Shorts, a distributor which specializes in the unsung short form. Eight years later, Russell and his company are getting ready to partner with Canadian short film channel Movieola to launch the first short film cable channel in the United States. We talked with Russell about the business side of short filmmaking.

Fiona Ng: Talk about the Movieola merger.
David Russell: It’s still unofficial, but it’s underway. Movieola has been up and running in Canada for over three years as a digital, 24/7 cable channel for short films. They decided it was time to launch in the US [and that] they need to have a little bit more control over their content. So they were either going to have to create their own distribution arm or find someone to merge with. That’s when they approached us. One of the inspirations for us to consider the offer was so we can get into the exhibition business ourselves.

FN: Movieola will be the first short film channel in the United States. Why hasn’t that been attempted before?

DR: I think it’s because it’s so labor intensive. People have talked about [doing] it, but it’s such a gargantuan effort to program and to get the number of films for content. Most people, unfortunately for now, don’t know enough about short film—they can’t conceive of it, they don’t know how it should be programmed. Another big problem is marketing. Say we have a new, great short film, even though it is a festival winner, it’s still not enough. Most wide audiences don’t even know what a short is, or they have a preconception that it’s a student, grainy thing. So our focus has to revert to the old tried-and-true, genre-specific stuff, be it DVD collections, video-on-demand, or pay-per-view packing. The niche of short film is a niche; then you actually have a niche within that. [It’s important] that an audience understands [they are watching] a comedy, gay/lesbian, sci-fi, etcetera. To just say, “short film channel” is too broad.

FN: What are some other avenues of exhibition for shorts?

DR: We have buyers and renters, and we have broadcasters all over the world. We have our video-on-demand, pay-per-view in Canada and in the US. We also work with Frontier Airlines, providing shorts for their Cloud 9 film festival, which is a monthly inflight film festival. Many new technologies coming out are going to need the short form, like cell phones and PDAs—it’s happening in Asia and parts of Europe already. One of our filmmakers just did a 120-minute soap opera series for a cell phone company in Denmark, all in one minute episodes. They are delivered daily thru people’s cell phone subscriptions. That’s a new kind of film idea. The general 20-minute shorts we’re used to seeing in festivals would not be right for some of these markets. Hopefully, if filmmakers know that there is a viable market that will actually pay them, they will come up with some great ideas for that kind of stuff.

FN: How big is your catalogue?

DR: About 500 films.

FN: How do you acquire your titles?

DR: We go to some festivals and markets, and we get a lot of referrals from filmmakers we already rep. And a lot of what I call “overthe- transom” submissions. People just send us their films. It’s generally those three ways films come to us. We preview each of them to decide if we think they are commercially viable for distribution.

FN: What do broadcasters, buyers, exhibitors generally want?

DR: Short comedy, no matter what country you are talking to. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a good little drama, or any kind of genre-specific stuff. They generally want five to 12 minutes, max. But I do rep a lot of 30-minute films. Each buyer has their own calendar—how often do they buy, how big is their budget, and their criteria.

FN: What are the advantages of being represented by a short film distributor like you guys?

DR: It’s not so that they can make more money, that’s for sure. What we can bring is our expertise and relationship with buyers around the world. We’ll put our best effort to getting their film out there to commercial markets so that filmmakers can hopefully move on to their next project. A lot of them are very dubious about distributors. But it’s such hard work. Be it feature or short, part of the [filmmaking] process is about including the people who know how to get the film out there. If they want to do that themselves, they’ll find that that’s pretty much all they do—it takes that much time and effort. Forget [about finding the] time to move on to another project.

FN: Do you have any advice for short-makers?

DR: Make sure your film can be seen legally. If you are going to go through the effort to make a film, why not make it legal? Then you might have a chance to actually get some of your money back. We’ve received wonderful films that we wished we could rep and knew would sell, but [the filmmakers] can’t afford to clear their music, or have side contracts that are prohibitive, or owe way too much money to SAG. Sometimes it’s [violation of ] trademarks, logos, or locations, depending on how the locations are used. [Before I rep a film], I have to see all the contracts the producer has with everyone—composers, record companies, etcetera—to make sure that they really got permission to use them.

FN: Is the “calling card” rationale behind short film a myth?

DR: One of the things that [Hollywood] will pay attention to is a successful short film. If there’s some buzz around it, then you’ll probably get someone to sit down and watch it. But the short film as the calling card is only good if you have a feature script in your back pocket, because it’s only good for a meeting. There’s nothing they are going to do with it. The filmmakers I know who’ve got great meetings in Hollywood have done it based on very successful five to eight-minute films that are not three-act structure. But they are exciting enough and interesting enough as talent to get a meeting. It’s up to them from there on to convince someone they should be taken seriously for another project.

About :

FIONA NG lives in Brooklyn. She’s written for The Los Angeles Times, Black Book, Bust, RES, and other publications.