Just as many filmmakers overvalue film festivals, many also undervalue their online releases. One of the top regrets we hear from filmmakers is that they waited too long to put their film online.
Unknown to many filmmakers is that most major festivals don’t care whether or not your film is online. Make submitting to online sites part of your initial submission round - don’t sit on it. Take advantage of the fact that online sites can evaluate your submission year-round, get you a response quickly, and publish weeks or months later at your discretion. Your best position is to know all of your options upfront so that you can plot your optimal release strategy.
1. SECURE YOUR PREMIERE
Once you know what options you have, pick your premiere partner carefully. A high-profile premiere at a top-tier online site or film festival can provide the validation you need to propel your film’s release. Choose an online site or festival that can reach your film’s audience and has the clout to open further doors.
If you premiere at a festival: One strategy is to secure a premiere at a big-name festival then ride the buzz and drop your short film online soon after—not a year later when the buzz has died down and everyone has forgotten your film.
If you premiere online: Secure a premiere on a prominent online site and use the momentum to reach other sites and festivals. It’s not uncommon for films that make a big splash online to be solicited by bigger festivals and offered entry fee waivers.
2. DON’T BUILD AN AUDIENCE
The internet has no shortage of advice on how to maximize views on YouTube, hack Facebook to reach millions of fans, or write the perfect tweet to make your work go viral.
Ignore all of it. Over the past decade, the web has become exponentially more crowded and sophisticated such that the effort to build an online audience from scratch today is largely done by specialized professionals.
Here’s a simple question to ask yourself: Do you want to spend your valuable creative time learning to become a digital marketer or a better filmmaker? The truth is that very few filmmakers have a knack for digital marketing. You don’t need to become a digital marketing guru.
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. You didn’t make your film all on your own, and you don’t need to strategize, distribute, and promote your film on your own either.
All you really need to know is how to pitch your work. Think about it: it’s much easier to win over one person with an existing audience of a million than to win over a million fans yourself.
Focus your marketing effort on fostering relationships with curators, programmers, and influencers that believe in you and your work. Engage people with clout on Twitter, Instagram, and film blogs. Learn how to craft a great email pitch. You don’t need to win over a lot of people if you win over a few with big audiences.
3. IT AIN’T ABOUT THE MONEY
There are many great reasons to make a short film, but making money is most definitely not one of them. The harsh reality is that most short films will make no money at all. A few lucky films will make little cash-winning prizes or licensing to TV or SVOD. But none, regardless of how big they get, will earn enough money to fully cover all of their hidden costs.
As a struggling filmmaker, you may be offered some money for your film by a distributor or licensor. More often than not, that money comes with strings attached like exclusivity that will limit exposure.
The best approach is to ignore money in these deals. It can be difficult to do when you’ve poured everything into your work, but the little money you make now is not worth the opportunity cost. Keep your focus on maximizing opportunity. Your short film may not make money, but it can lead to another job, finding a producer for your feature, or signing a deal with an OTT platform that will get you a much more significant payout.
4. AVOID EXCLUSIVITY DEALS
Most distribution deals for short films don’t amount to much. But the worst ones, the ones that do real harm to filmmakers’ careers, are those that demand exclusivity. Exclusivity can tie your hands from doing anything with your film for months or years.
Read every agreement carefully. If a partner requests an exclusive time block—ask them to remove it. If they won’t, reconsider your options. Exclusivity always helps the distributor and hurts your film.
5. GO CROSS-PLATFORM
Go wherever audiences are—don’t expect them to seek you out. There was a moment years ago where you wanted to consolidate your views on a single video platform like YouTube or Vimeo to reach critical mass. But today, every major platform now supports native videos and prioritizes videos uploaded directly to their platform over others. This means a short film uploaded directly to Facebook will get more views and engagement than a post that links out to YouTube or Vimeo.
Maximize your exposure and put your film on all the major platforms. Vimeo is great for reaching a filmmaker audience. But more and more short films are doing as well or better with general audiences on YouTube, Facebook, and emerging platforms like Instagram TV. Every platform serves a different community and offers a new audience to reach.
6. GO INTERNATIONAL
Being everywhere means everywhere! The internet connects your film to the entire world—all you need are subtitles.
Once painfully difficult, subtitles are now quite easy and affordable to add to your film and can triple your worldwide exposure. Ask the professional writers to write the subtitle in their native language than asking your good friend to do it for you. Start with English, Spanish, and French and target other languages as needed.
7. COMPRESS YOUR TIMELINE
Don’t string out your release over the years. The more outlets you can be on and awareness you can drive "all at once", the greater the chance you have of breaking through the everyday media noise.
Release a teaser 1 or 2 weeks in advance to build buzz and establish a core audience to amplify the release. Put your release date on the teaser. Coordinate a date with all of your launch platforms to push the film to live simultaneously.
Most trending lists are built on algorithms that measure momentum (views/ time). Your goal is to get enough views quickly to move up the list where bigger audiences and film curators have a better chance of discovering your film.
8. LAUNCH, ENGAGE, & RE-CALIBRATE
It’s finally the launching day! You have a great premiere partner, you’re on most of the major platforms, and you’re prepped for international success. But you’re not done yet.
The bulk of views of your film will hit within the first 1-2 days following your online release. Plan to spend a solid week amplifying the release, engaging with your audience, and re-calibrating your plan.
Amplify the release to your friends and fans on social media (the threshold for annoying your followers with self-promotion is way higher than you think).
As your film makes its way into the world, you’ll quickly learn who’s connecting with it. Everything up until now has been a guess. Now that you have people watching your film, identify the communities it resonates with most.
Use this to re-calibrate your release strategy to target these communities. Use Google to identify publishers, interest communities on Reddit, Facebook groups, and influencers that have featured films similar to yours. The metaphor we use is dropping a stone into a pond—the waves are biggest in the center where they are tightest, but the weaker ripples extending out have more reach. Move from the center outward.
9. HAVE YOUR NEXT PITCH READY
If your film takes off, things will happen quickly. Your inbox will flood with messages and you’ll soon begin fielding interest from a lot of interesting people. Everyone in these discussions will want to know where you want to go next. Be prepared to carry this momentum forward with a pitch:
If you want to turn this short into a larger feature film or series, have a script or treatment ready to pitch.
If you have other ideas you’re interested in pursuing, have those pitches ready.
If you want to land a producer or OTT platform, have a handful of ideas and goals ready.
If you want to join a film collective, have your reel and resume ready to share.
If you’re hoping to generate more work from this, clear your schedule.
In any case, anticipate the next step. Even if someone isn’t the right person to directly help you, there’s a good chance they may know someone who might. This is an industry built on relationships.
Some of the most successful filmmakers know what they want to get from their short films before they even begin making them. You’ve worked hard up until this point—don’t be caught off guard by success.
Know what you want and start strategizing your release before your film is finished. Maximize your exposure and Be Everywhere All at Once:
Secure your premiere with a top-tier festival or online site.
Find partners—connect with film curators to reach their audiences.
Don’t prioritize money—it’ll likely hurt your exposure.
Don’t sign away exclusivity—hang on to your right to "Be Everywhere".
Go cross-platform and get your film everywhere.
Internationalize your film with subtitles to reach even further.
Compress your release window over days/ weeks rather than months/ years.
Launch, Engage and Re-calibrate during the week of your release.
Be prepared to pitch your next idea or project.