Short films have grown tremendously in popularity in recent years with the explosion of video content online. Though lower budget than feature films, short films have still produced major directing talent and won acclaim at film festivals like Sundance and Cannes.
But for all the artistry and acclaim, an important question hangs over many short films – how exactly do they make money?
With tighter budgets and more limited distribution reach, short film monetization requires creativity and strategic thinking. While short films can be a great creative outlet, they can also be a pathway to sustainable filmmaking careers.
In this article, we’ll explore the various models and strategies for generating revenue from short films.
Defining Short Films
Short films are generally defined as films with a runtime of 40 minutes or less. This contrasts with feature films which usually run 60 minutes or longer.
Some key attributes of short films:
- Low budgets – Often self-funded or crowdfunded with less than $10,000. Significantly lower than feature film budgets.
- Made by indie creators and artists just starting out. A way to hone skills and develop a reel.
- Limited distribution reach – Rarely score wide theatrical releases except alongside feature films. Mostly seen at niche festivals and online channels.
- Can serve as early drafts of eventual feature films. Allow testing of concepts.
While earning potential is lower, short films provide more flexibility and room for experimentation. They can also function as a stepping stone to feature filmmaking down the line.
Monetizing Film Festivals
For many short films, the journey starts with film festivals. These curated events are a prime venue for short films to gain exposure and critical acclaim.
While just getting accepted to a top festival is an achievement in itself, there are also monetary benefits:
Film Festival Prizes
Many festivals offer cash prizes or grants for winning films in various categories. Amounts range from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. For example, Sundance awards up to $5,000 for domestic short films. The prize money helps offset production costs.
Exposure to Investors and Distributors
Film festivals put short films on the radar of potential investors and distributors for future projects. A well-received short can demonstrate skill and vision for bigger ventures. Films may attract media coverage, which further raises the profile.
While often fairly minimal, entry fees are a revenue source for festivals. Fees help cover administrative costs and validating submissions. Top fests like Sundance charge $65-$105 to submit short films. Submitting to multiple fests generates more income.
In summary, film festivals crucially boost the credibility and exposure for shorts. While entry fees and prizes recoup a bit of costs, the major monetization benefit is in opportunities it can open up down the line.
Licensing Short Films for Streaming and Broadcast
One lucrative avenue is licensing short films to streaming platforms and broadcasters. This provides a nice income stream in return for distribution rights.
Subscription streamers like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have acquired shorts to add exclusive content and fill out their libraries. For example, Netflix acquired the 2018 Sundance short Zion.
Shorts can also find homes and revenue on free, ad-supported streamers like Tubi, Pluto TV, and Crackle.
Additionally, short films can sell broadcast rights for networks like HBO, Starz, and Lifetime, which program shorts in between shows and in anthology time slots.
Rates vary tremendously based on the streamer/network and perceived quality, but licensing deals regularly reach the thousands up to over $100k for exclusive streaming rights.
While not as profitable as a full feature release, streaming/broadcast licensing provides reliable income from shorts with their limited distribution options. And by getting on major platforms, shorts gain valuable additional exposure.
Monetizing Short Films on YouTube
YouTube has become a popular hub for both viewing and monetizing short films. Here are some of the ways shorts make money on YouTube:
YouTube Partner Program
By joining YouTube’s partner program, creators can monetize their short films with ads and receive a cut of the revenue. YouTube pays out around $0.01 – $0.03 per view for ad-supported videos. Channels need 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 watch hours over the past year to qualify.
Shorts likely won’t earn massive amounts this way. But adding ads provides some degree of passive monetization, especially if shorts gain decent viewership. YouTube also pays revenue for Premium subscriber views.
Selling Directly to Viewers
YouTube allows creators to enable paid rentals on videos. This allows setting rental fees for individual shorts or libraries. Viewers pay a fee like $0.99 to unlock access and view for 48 hours.
Filmmakers can drive viewers to rent their shorts through YouTube ads. The revenue split on rentals is typically around 60% for the creator.
Offering both ad-supported and paid options can maximize YouTube earnings from shorts. Viewership and reputation determine how much income each method drives.
Premium Ad-Free Content
Another YouTube option for monetizing shorts is offering them as premium, ad-free content to users who pay a subscription fee through Channel Memberships. This allows monetizing from devoted fans.
Enabling channel memberships starts at $4.99/month. YouTube takes 30% of membership revenue.
This can work well for creators with an established fan base who provide exclusive extras. For shorts, ad-free viewing and behind-the-scenes content rewards subscribers.
YouTube provides a major destination for shorts to build an audience and generate revenue directly from viewers. While revenue per film likely remains modest, YouTube participates in ads, memberships and rentals provides monetization not available on most other platforms.
Turning Short Films into a Series
One effective monetization strategy is expanding a successful short into an ongoing series. This allows creators to leverage existing stories and characters without having to continually come up with new concepts.
Series also benefit from audiences growing more invested in the characters over time. Many popular long-form series actually originated as shorts, including:
- Boondocks – Based on Aaron McGruder’s comic strip, Boondocks started as a 15-minute short film before becoming a long-running Adult Swim series.
- Apex Legends – The hit multiplayer shooter game Apex Legends was based on the short film Titanfall: Operation Endeavor set in the Titanfall universe.
- In a Heartbeat – The adorable 4-minute animated short about a closeted boy crushing on another boy went massively viral online. The creators now continue the story through an ongoing web series.
- Whiplash – Damien Chazelle’s acclaimed feature was adapted from his 18-minute short film of the same name, which won Sundance. Both feature J.K. Simmons.
- Pixar SparkShorts – Pixar created the series of animated SparkShorts to discover new storytellers and incubate ideas. Several shorts have already spun off into greenlit features.
- Love, Death & Robots – This anthology of animated sci-fi shorts has been a big hit for Netflix, which renewed it through a fourth season.
Continuing shorts into series provides existing momentum while allowing creators to go deeper into stories and characters. And as series grow an audience over seasons, so can their monetization.
Crowdfunding Short Film Production
With their low-budget nature, short films are especially conducive to seeking crowdfunding. Platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow creators to raise funding from fans and others interested in supporting their project.
Creators set campaign goals like $5,000 – $20,000 and offer backer rewards at various contribution levels like digital downloads, merch, or set visits.
Successfully funding shorts demonstrates appeal to investors for future projects. It also gives creators access to donor email lists for marketing efforts down the line.
Notable short films funded fully or partially via crowdfunding include:
- Code 8 – Jeff Chan’s sci-fi short raised over $200k on Kickstarter and involves powers being outlawed. It launched a feature film franchise.
- Agape – Writer/director West Liang raised over $14k on Kickstarter for his drama short about a young boy’s friendship with a monk. Premiered at LA Shorts Fest.
- The Grey Matter – A psychological horror short by James Quinn has earned over $18k on Indiegogo and involves apartment hauntings.
- Smithereens – Chris Lam raised over $5k for his award-winning animation short about two robots battling over a battery.
Crowdfunding enables creators to cover short film costs through fan support rather than self-funding or seeking private investors. While contributors don’t receive any share of profits, crowdfunding at least helps get shorts made and shared with the world.
Grants and Contests
There are a variety of grant programs and contests that provide funding for short films and emerging filmmakers:
- Vimeo Short Film Fund – Up to $50k in production funding granted annually for the creation of 8 short films with strong, distinctive voices.
- Tribeca Film Institute – Grants up to $30k for feature and short narrative films from diverse new talent.
- Sundance Institute Short Film Program – Development grants up to $10k for shorts early in production.
- SFFILM Rainin Grant – Up to $25k for California filmmakers to create narrative shorts under 30 minutes.
- Panavision New Filmmaker Program – Free camera rental grant for student short films up to $60k.
- State/Regional Arts Councils – Many states and cities offer grants for the production, and creation of short films.
- Screencraft Short Film Production Fund – $1 million in grants for shorts and early projects from emerging filmmakers.
- Adobe Creativity Shorts – Monthly competition for creative shorts with $1k – $5k prizes.
In addition to grant funding, filmmaking contests offer prizes for winning shorts. While granting organizations retain no rights or IP, contest winners usually must hand over certain rights and licenses to the platform.
Through a mix of grants and contests, short films can monetize during the production process itself. This helps enable the creation of the work and offsets costs.
Strategic Distribution Options
While lacking the distribution power of major feature films, short films can still leverage options in creative ways:
Limited Theatrical Release
Some shorts may score limited theatrical releases, often just showing locally or during niche midnight movie screenings. Cathedral Arts showcases shorts monthly in various US cities. This provides promotion and a nominal box office return.
Release Short Alongside a Feature
Booking shorts to premiere on the undercard before feature presentations helps provide big screen exposure. Pixar often runs shorts before features. THR reported the Oscar-nominated short Feeling Through grossed over $500k during its theatrical run preceding features.
Screen at Niche Events
There are opportunities to screen shorts at film conventions, comic cons, animation festivals, and other relevant events. Filmmakers can also rent theater space for one-off local screenings. Such niche events cater to engaged audiences.
Educational distributors acquire rights to quality shorts for curriculum use in schools and universities. This includes streaming access. Typical high school/college license fees fall between $300 – $900 per year.
Shorts can potentially work distribution deals with airlines to program their shorts as part of in-flight entertainment systems. Airlines pay for content and the captive audience provides great exposure.
While unlikely to drive big revenue, theatrical and event distribution provides promotion and potential for ancillary sales. Niche physical screenings keep shorts circulating beyond just the internet.
Make Money with Merchandise and Brand Partnerships
There are opportunities for shorts to make money through branded merchandise and partnerships.
By selling custom t-shirts, posters, DVDs and other merch related to a popular short, creators can generate sales from fans. Sites like TeePublic, Redbubble, and Zazzle allow setting up merch shops easily.
Shorts may also appeal to brands for partnership opportunities:
- Sponsorships – Brands might sponsor the production of a short film or provide funding in exchange for subtle product placement.
- Native Content – A short created to organically showcase a brand’s product or values. For example, Google’s Android “Friends Furever” shorts.
- Equity Crowdfunding – Brands invest in a short film project in exchange for a potential profit share. Helps build brand relationships.
When shorts resonate with audiences, they can leverage that interest into creative monetization through merchandising and mutually beneficial brand partnerships.
While short films exist far outside the mainstream Hollywood studio system, they nonetheless have pathways to generating revenue:
- Film festival prestige and exposure to industry insiders help attract future opportunities.
- Streaming/broadcast licensing deals provide upfront income to offset costs.
- YouTube ads, rentals, and subscriptions offer ways to monetize directly from viewers.
- Expanding shorts into series allows creators to extend successful concepts while retaining rights.
- Crowdfunding, grants, and contests help secure production funds.
- Merchandising, brand sponsorships, and other partnerships tap into audience engagement.
- Screening shorts theatrically and at events maintains community and promotion.
The smartest short filmmakers think holistically across the entire lifecycle – funding, production, distribution, licensing, and monetization. With so many viewing outlets today, shorts have more potential than ever to recoup costs and even generate decent income with the right strategy.
While making millions is exceedingly rare, approaching shorts as both passion projects and business opportunities unlocks more possibilities. At their best, short films act as a runway leading to sustainable filmmaking careers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does anyone buy short films?
Yes, short films can be bought by streaming platforms, broadcasters, educational distributors, and brands. Netflix, HBO, Starz, YouTube, Tubi, and many other digital platforms license short films to acquire content. Broadcasters like ABC and CBC also buy shorts. Rates vary, but licensing fees from $1,000 to $100,000+ are possible from major platforms for exclusive rights.
How much does it cost to make a 20-minute short film?
The average cost to make a 20-minute short film is around $10,000-$30,000. At the lower budget end, costs include gear rentals, actor payments, locations, craft services, editing software, music rights, festival fees, etc. For higher production quality, budgets range from $20,000-$30,000. Large ensemble casts, extensive travel, and special effects can push costs higher.
Do short films on YouTube make money?
Short films can make money on YouTube through the Partner Program ad revenue sharing, paid rentals, Channel Memberships for ad-free viewing, and selling merchandise. However, earnings are fairly small – perhaps a few dollars to a hundred dollars per short film. YouTube payments depend on views, subscribers, and audience engagement. The platform gives shorts wide exposure.
How do you make a short film with no money?
Tips for making shorts with no budget include using your own gear, filming on phones/DSLRs, getting actor friends to volunteer, using public locations, editing on free software, finding royalty-free music, submitting to free festivals, and releasing online. Barter and trade for services. Crowdfund small amounts if needed. Focus the story on dialogue and creative visuals over technical elements.
Can I sell my short film to Netflix?
It is highly unlikely as an unknown filmmaker that you can directly sell your short to Netflix, as they rarely acquire films that way. However, you can apply to festivals where Netflix scouts talent, or pursue relationships with producers/managers who have connections at Netflix and can help broker a licensing deal. Having a high-quality short that gains online buzz would help attract Netflix interest down the line.
How much does a 10-minute short film cost?
A 10-minute short film can be made for $3,000 to $10,000 on average. At the lower end, student films cost around $3,000-$5,000 funded from own savings, crowdfunding, school grants, etc. Higher-end shorts with more actors, production value, and festival submissions will run $8,000 to $10,000. Short runtimes limit costs versus feature films.
How many pages is a 40-minute short film?
A 40-minute short film generally equates to 35-45 script pages. The standard page-per-minute ratio for films is 1 page per minute. This varies based on the amount of dialogue versus action. Leaner, faster-paced shorts trend closer to 1 page per minute. Those with more dialogue and slower pacing may reach 1.5 pages per minute. A 40-minute runtime hits the sweet spot of short storytelling.
How long should a short film be?
Ideal short film length is typically 15-30 minutes. Very short 1-5 minute films can’t tell a full story. Shorts under 15 minutes may feel too minimalist. At 30-40-minute lengths, shorts start to feel drawn out and lose their compact narrative power. The 15-30 minute range lets filmmakers tell a meaningful story in a tight runtime that fits today’s quicker content consumption.
How many hours does it take to shoot a short film?
Most short films take 2-5 days to shoot all scenes and footage. Assuming 10-12 hour shoot days, that equates to 20-60 hours of total production time on set. Very simple shorts may wrap in a day or two. More complex projects require a full week or more. 2-3 days allow enough time for most shorts without stretching resources too thin. Focus on filming efficiently.