You’ve finally done it. After endless months of hard graft, long shoots and endless edits, your short film is ready to send into the world.
Whether from in front or behind the camera, completing a film project is something of a labour of love. It goes without saying that you want to share it with as many people as possible – it’s only what the work deserves after all – and the cinema seems like the best place to go, right? Wrong.
The sad reality is that it’s often simply not viable for a cinema to play your short film as part of their programme. With sites being locked into deals with film distributors, facing pressure to retain a set turnover and trying to appeal to a broad audience, there’s little room in their schedule to take a risk on an unknown quantity. The good news is that there are ways to mitigate these factors, think creatively and approach venues in ways that are more likely to turn that blanket ‘no’ into a yes.
Location, Location, Location
Large cinema chains, circuits and multiplexes are the least likely destinations for your short. Sites like Cineworld, Odeon and Vue rely on turnover above all else. Their programme is pretty stacked with repeat showings of the latest big hitters across all time slots and screens. They cannot alter their business plans to accommodate niche screenings.
Instead, approach smaller, independent or community cinemas that have a more flexible approach to programming and are often far more willing to offer their audiences an alternative to the standard fare.
Speak to the Right People
If selecting a venue is the first step, then ensuring you contact the person best placed to make a decision is the second. Despite often being the face of venues, box office staff hold little-to-no sway in determining what’s shown on site. They are, however, a gateway to those who do.
The contacts you should be after are the programmers themselves, often working remotely or off-site in a central office. A programmer decides what is shown and when and those who operate for independent cinemas are often on the hunt for ways to set themselves apart from others.
At smaller venues, this may be the cinema manager themselves. Strike up a relationship where possible to get a sense of what it is the venue looks for outside the usual titles, research previous events or special one-off screenings that you could use as a basis for your screening.
Make an Offer They Can't Refuse
When approaching a site, ensure that you’re as prepared as you can be. Make the email concise and attach a PDF or deck about the film that covers the major points. If needed, look into existing press releases to get an idea of how publicists market their films. Include a couple of stills, small bios or any previous work or reviews any of the cast or crew have received.
This is a time to shout about your achievements without sounding brash. A typed word doc is unlikely to grab the attention of a busy cinema programmer so make sure what you send looks professional without overcrowding it with unnecessary copy – a programmer will not sift through paragraphs of blurb about the themes of your project.
Safety in Numbers
However film-focussed a venue is, they still rely on turning a profit. To do that they need to guarantee that what they show can command an audience – even a small one. A one-off screening for a 20-minute individual short is a hard sell, regardless of its quality. The same short featuring as part of a wider package, however – that’s an exciting event.
Use your creative contacts or industry friends to partner up and offer a 90-minute package of different shorts. Is there an overriding theme or genre? Can any of the talent introduce their work or take part in a post-screening discussion? Try to take some of the load off the cinema by already having one eye on a marketing angle.
Up-and-coming filmmakers, local actors, animated works, specific genres all come ready-made with a sellable angle that sites can lean on to promote the event. There already exists an array of companies that create feature length short packages and have strong links to cinemas. If you’re able to connect with those, you’re one step closer to finding a venue.
Make it Short, Sell it Wide
Now more than ever, audiences need a reason to come out to the cinema. Venues are well aware of this and it has given them fresh impetus to focus on the cinema experience as a whole. This offers a way in for your short.
After adverts and trailers there is often a gap before the main feature that venues use to show in-house marketing, food promotions or holding slides about future events. While the ads and trailers come provided and earn the cinema money, other promotions are far more flexible. Remove those, and it opens up a short gap that your short could fill.
Pixar know this and has established itself as the only company providing a pre-feature short. These used to be commonplace and, in this age of venues looking to enhance their cinema experience, some sites are looking to reintroduce them as part of their regular programming.
The key here is to restrict your work to a length that would work: anything under five minutes would be acceptable – up to ten if you have a good relationship with those on site. Think about the offer you can make to a cinema and you could see your work run for a whole week of shows.
Timing is Everything
Like all industries, the cinema calendar is subject to peak periods and quieter moments. Familiarise yourself with these times as it’ll make your offer a more appealing prospect. Typically, summer is blockbuster season as cinemas look to tempt crowds indoors with some of the year’s biggest titles. Christmas is increasingly devoted to seasonal and family favourites, often paired with one big new release. After Christmas is firmly award season with venues trying to fit in as many of the hopefuls as possible.
Look to approach venues outside these seasons when they’re more susceptible to thinking creatively and aren’t so beholden to certain titles. If in doubt, seek out an official release calendar which details the scheduled release dates of all titles over the next two years.
Matthew has worked in the film industry for almost a decade. Having started his career at distribution company Optimum Releasing (now Studio Canal), he joined global members group Soho House as Cinema Communications Manager, covering all aspects of film for their members’ cinema spaces as well as their popular public Electric Cinemas in London. He is a freelance writer focussed on film reviews, talent interviews and opinion features.