Wouter Jansen, Some Shorts
By: Ryan McDonald
Some Shorts is a film festival distribution agency started by Wouter Jansen in 2013. Through his years of experience at film festivals he noticed that there is a gap in the knowledge of filmmakers about the festival scene. With Some Shorts he tries to make strong films more visible and give directors a push in their career.
I was lucky enough to talk with Wouter, who lives and works in Holland, back in July. He gave us some incredible insights into the inner workings of film festival distribution. Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Can you give us a little background on Some Shorts and how it was formed?
I've been working with short films now for the past 10 years. I started working at a film festival in the city where I'm based called Go Short, which is a film festival specifically for short films. I started programming there, and until recently was head of the programming department. While traveling to international festivals, I noticed that I never saw a lot of the films that I really loved from Holland. So because of that, I kind of got the feeling like, okay, something is going wrong in the chain of how things work. And then I started talking to a lot of starting filmmakers, and found out that this whole festival thing is something they had no idea about. And also because people often move onto their next projects, especially with graduation films, they just don't put any effort into it (submitting to festivals).
So noticing that gap, I decided to do something with it. I started working with a filmmaker that I knew and our whole production was quite small. We just started writing DVDs on my kitchen table, putting them in envelopes, sending them out in that way. And then after two years, I really started the company. So that's now five years ago, and I started out really working with only Dutch student filmmakers because the first couple of films were quite successful. It kind of grew and grew.
At the moment, I'm working with a lot of international filmmakers. And for the past two years, I’ve also been working with feature documentaries. One of the first filmmakers I worked with, I did two of his student films, and then he started developing a feature documentary, and he wanted me involved with that as well. So it grew naturally.
Was there a conflict of interest when you were starting Some Shorts and programming for another festival?
It was in discussion quite often. We always had a number of different programmers involved and I also rejected my own films if I didn’t think they fit in the program. We always tried to have different voices to weigh in.
So there seems to be a lot of confusion with independent filmmakers, on distributors and sales agents. I consistently hear that they don't know the difference between the two. Can you help add some clarity on their distinctions?
It's difficult when you talk about short films, because for short films, distribution doesn't really exist or hardly exists like it does for feature films. So what I do is kind of the closest thing to distribution you have for short films, but it's only for festivals. In the US, a big one is Shorts International that does the Oscar nominated shorts. This is one of the few real distributors, I think, that exists for short films. But above all, it is often the sales agent that really handles almost all the rights. So the sales agent is really somebody who has an overview, and has all the right connections, and while a distributor works often more locally, or nationally, sales agents often work worldwide. It's really only a handful of short films that, in the end, get a sales agent, but those are really the people that can push the film best to TV channels, in-flight programs, and some online channels. It's just that there's such an abundance of content that a lot of the buyers only go to sales agents and don't do anything directly with filmmakers because it’s already quite a task for them (watching everything the sales agents have). Sometimes not having a sales agent will mean that you can hardly do anything with your film commercially.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that sales agents have quotas to meet whereas the distributors can sometimes submit to film festivals separately without requiring a screening fee. Is that correct?
Sales agents can actually sell the film and ask for a screening fee where certain distributors will distribute the film to a festival or submit to a festival and not necessarily require a screening fee. It really depends on the agreement you have. I mean we all have to earn our money some way, and a lot of sales agents don't get paid upfront, so they have to get income one way or another. I think the same goes for distributors, although a lot of distributors also have an agreement that we don't ask for fees ever. With feature films, screening fees are a basic thing, but with short films, it's hard to say. And also, if you play (a feature) in-competition with a short film, that almost immediately means you don't get a screening fee. When playing with feature films, it’s not that black and white, often, even in competition, you get fees. Because it’s just too much work, sales agents leave festival distribution over to the festival distributor, or the filmmaker himself. If the filmmaker asks for a fee, that's up to them.
Can you take us through the process of acquiring distribution rights for a short film specifically and then we'll continue on from there? It's a two part question.
I really only work with a handful of films - around 15 short films a year. So acquiring for me is maybe a bit different. But a lot of the films I acquire because I hear about them, or I know the filmmakers because they approached me, but in the end a lot of people also just send me their films. If I get a film in my email, I watch it, and if I like it, we could work together. What happens then, is that I usually do a proposal of the festivals I would like to send the film to, and kind of the strategy (short film strategy is not as big of a deal as with feature film) so it's just where we are aiming for to premiere, how long are we keeping the film on the site till it premieres and that's the starting point of the strategy. For instance I say, okay, we're aiming to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Then what will we do with the film afterwards?
The first proposal will be around 150 festivals and there's a cost connected to that. So I send this proposal to the filmmakers, they say yes or no, and we negotiate it. From that point on, I take on everything. I handle all the submissions to the festivals and if they are requested, festivals approach me, and if the film gets selected, I make sure the festival gets everything. I get the filmmaker up to date on all the selections they get and they just have to get back to the festivals about a possible visit. It's really that I take everything out of the hands of the filmmaker. Also, when a festival approaches us for requesting the film, I go back and say, okay, what was the initial strategy that we had? Is this too early to submit this film to them? This is maybe something we want to do in a while from now. So all those thought processes always go through my head when communicating with directors.
How does acquiring the distribution rights for a short film and setting up a plan for premiering it differ from that of a feature film?
I think there's more at stake nationally for a feature film than with a short film where you can screen in a lot of festivals after you premiere it in a country. In the US, there's not that many festivals requiring a (national) premiere for shorts. This only happens when you have a really big film. For instance, at the moment, one of the shorts that I am working with won Cannes, so then you're really looking at, okay, what will be its North American premiere? Will it be a Canadian, or an American premiere? And in this case, every selection you get, you have to say, which other festivals will be canceled out because of this selection? But if you just have a short that's good but that has no major attention, you don't have to look at which festival is first. Also, with short films usually you don't get news in advance, but with a feature, sometimes they have a festival set eight months before the festival actually happens to arrange the premieres. Whether it’s for a short or feature film, you also take into consideration maybe you want to go to this film festival because they pay a fee compared to this festival that doesn't pay a fee. Or maybe some festivals are inviting the filmmaker with everything paid? If there's more of a festival budget for the filmmaker, there's a lot more that you can take into consideration when deciding which festivals you want to go to.
Every few years we have this public service announcement for the industry to trust in the visions of artists without commercial success. Recently, we had Eric Allen Hatch write about it in Filmmaker Magazine, we had Steven Follows in his blog in 2017, and even in Eric's piece in Filmmaker, he actually linked Stephen Soderbergh’s 2013 state of cinema address. Where do you think we are right now with independent cinema? Is there an audience that can financially support this? I know it’s a tall order of a question, but I think this is the seminal part that's really important for independent filmmakers to know.
Yes, I mean, there's a huge difference between Europe and the US specifically in regard to funding. In the US, you hardly have any - at least public funding that is. While in the Netherlands, a lot of independent filmmakers do get funding easily and a lot of films get made. But then our biggest challenge, and I think it’s also a challenge in the US, is getting people to see those films. Where we have less problem getting films funded, we do have a lot of problems getting films seen by an audience, so I really focus on festivals. For instance, I had a feature that played at 80 festivals, so even if only 500 saw the film at each individual fest, it was quite a lot festival wise, but in the end not that large of an audience. And then in Holland, only about 500 people visited the film in the cinema - hardly anybody - because it's a documentary about refugees.
Overall, I think that there's a lot of interesting talent and a lot of good films being made. But the cinema distribution models are still not really up to date, at least (the model) in Holland is really old fashioned. Also the people going to the more independent cinemas are older people, a lot of them are 50 plus. In Holland, we don't really screen independent US films. Recently, THE FLORIDA PROJECT may be the most independent and we had THE RIDER a while ago, but that’s really it for independent films. Everything else doesn’t get released here because there's just not an audience (specifically a younger audience) going to the cinema to watch those films. So I think, at least in Europe, a lot of good films are being funded, but not many people know about this. And you're kind of spoiled if you're in the festival scene because you know about all this talent and all these films, but you just know nobody will see them. And in Europe, that's one of the biggest problems we have - getting people to go to the cinemas and rejuvenating this whole scene.
If you were in charge of all of it, you know, if you could wave a magic wand, do you have a sensibility about what could be done to make that shift?
Festivals have always been about building an audience and building trust from that audience. For instance, in the US, you have True/False Film Festival. I know that people in their city just trust what the festival does, and that's why people go to it. In Holland, there’s a couple of cinemas now run by really young people. They don't really stick to taking films from distributors just so they can get the “big” film down the line - they just program what they like. And then people come to find that they can trust their sensibility about everything and more people start coming. The younger generation knows it's young people working there and figure it will maybe match more with their taste compared to the older status quo programming of other cinemas. So I think it's really about building a connection to your audience, and also taking a film that doesn't have a distributor and playing it in your city to give it a voice. I think that’s the biggest problem now - that everybody relies on if a film has a distributor or sales agent. Without one of the two, you will never see a film in your country because so many films offered already have distributors, so people are like “why would I look for something else?” Even if you see a film at Cannes, and you're like, I would love to see this film in our cinema, most venues just go, I don't think they have a Dutch distributor, so we won’t be able to play it. I think with festivals there is already quite a direct connection between filmmakers, but with cinemas it's super difficult to have this direct link. I think that's something that could really improve.
When we started, we kind of made a pact that we would open the doors to independent filmmakers who don't necessarily have a sales agent or distributor, just so that way we can add to the pot and give a voice - especially if it's quality cinema and on par with the filmmakers who might have been putting out great content for many years. Do you think it's our responsibility as film festivals to offer more waivers to those specific artists? Do we have to change is basically what I'm asking.
Yeah, but I don't know if more waivers is the answer because, as a programmer, I know that you also get a lot of films that are not necessarily worth it. So how do you know if it’s a voice you want to support or not? I think that it's more about how you can highlight the filmmakers you do want involved and then maybe as a festival, give them a platform and share them with your network of other festivals by saying, okay, this is an interesting voice and recommend them to get waivers. But without that, how do you know if it’s a film that's worth a free pass?
I totally understand. I'm suggesting perhaps you have the filmmaker submit trailers (not teasers because people will send ones that barely showcase what the film is about). But if we get a trailer that has two or three minutes to highlight the film, we have an idea of what their approach is.
Yeah, it's a difficult thing. I mean, with a distributor or sales agent you always have a gatekeeper of sorts. What I try to do when I say no to a film, but I like it, is still recommend it to festival programmers that I know and try to help the filmmakers get their films out there. I mean, waivers are one thing, but a lot of people already know that submission fees are just part of how it works, so they aren’t really problematic. Perhaps being able to give something back, like in the form of a screening fee. Doing that means they can submit it to a couple more festivals. Or if you are not able to pay for screening fees, just returning the entry fee afterwards is kind of a way to give back in exchange for being able to showcase a film. I think that maybe doing something like that, or collaborating with a couple of festivals spread over the US, for instance-
Like a consortium of festivals where you pay one screening fee, and potentially it goes to maybe five independent film festivals?
Yeah, or presenting to other festivals your recent lineup, like a selection of five filmmakers that you think other festivals should definitely pay attention to. And then maybe those festivals say, okay, you can enter those films for free, not necessarily saying they will be selected, but at least giving them a chance. I think this kind of talent development is a really important thing about film festivals.
Festivals try to go for the big titles, because that will draw in an audience. But you also want to be open to new filmmakers, and how can you give them the best exposure possible? I think this really is mainly about what are you able to do for the film throughout the year? Is it exposure, or maybe featuring it on your website, or an interview… stuff like that.
On a lighter note, do you think short films have become the industry standard for upcoming filmmakers looking to make a feature? And if so, why?
I think short films are definitely the place where you can spot interesting upcoming filmmakers. A lot of the people I'm working with now are developing their first feature, and they have the feeling that through their short films they have already laid the groundwork for festivals and people will keep an eye out for their debut feature. I watched HEREDITARY recently, and then I saw that he only did short films before that. So short films can really help you find interesting voices. Although this is all true, I’m also always advocating that short film is more than just a stepping stone into making a feature, but so many filmmakers I talk with say they are working on a new short and like three feature scripts. I think that when people do a short (even if they just did it because they wanted to do that short) they probably are working on (feature) scripts as well. A lot of the time when they meet people, they also talk about this feature project they are doing and I mean, doing a good short kind of proves that you can probably pull off a feature. At the very least it shows you have a vision or that you know what you're doing, instead of just being this random person pitching a feature project. And if a filmmaker has a number of short films, they can really show that they are somebody who can articulate what they want to do. I don’t think making a short film is necessarily a strategy to getting to a feature, but in the end, you go to festivals, you meet people, and you have this feature laying around or this script laying around. So, of course, you talk about it and it goes from there.
Do you think there is a foreseeable shift in the way that independent filmmakers will need to present their work to make it to the next step as a professional?
A lot more is happening online. That's not really a recent shift, but I think that people are more and more paying attention to the fact that you can get your career started by having a viral film online. For instance having a Vimeo staff pick. I think stuff like that is becoming more and more important compared to having a successful festival run. A friend of mine did this three-minute horror film, kind of like LIGHTS OUT and then got a deal in the US to make a horror movie feature. Everybody just wants to get their hands on the newest talent.
What are the things that you notice when you start watching a new piece of work presented to you, and what are the main qualities you look for when selecting a film for distribution?
With short films, I try not to go over 30 minutes, because it's just super hard. When I acquire a 30 minute film, I will say to the director, we won't get that many selections because it is more difficult to get this film programed since it takes such a big chunk out of a festival program. A lot of the short films I'm working with now are under 15 minutes. But I did just start working with a 30 minute short again so, in the end, it’s just that I like the film. The collection ends up being quite diverse.
I'm really a sucker for beautifully shot, slow films, but at the same time, I can work with a really straightforward comedy or something just because I respond to it well. In the end, it's really about my personal taste and if I have the feeling that it will also resonate with film festival programmers. When I have doubts about a film, I will show it to some people around me who also program to get their feedback on it. I don't really look too much at the technical aspects and stuff like that. It comes down to: if I like the film, I think other people will like it as well, and that'll mean that it will get into festivals.
For the filmmakers who come to you with something that's around 30 minutes, have you ever had any filmmakers who go and decide to recut the film to bring the time down based on your feedback?
I mean, I try to say it as soon as possible when I talk to people. Ultimately I think that you have to make the film that you want to make so if that’s a 30 minute film, that’s a 30 minute film. But there are cases in which filmmakers will adjust their final cut. One of the first films I worked with, it was a 25 minute film and we got that down to 20 minutes. Because of the changes, we got it into the selection in Berlin that required 20 minutes or less. During the process, the director also realized that it was quite easy to cut off those five minutes, especially when two minutes was just credit. So I will sometimes say to a director, sorry, I think the film is too long, but I never insist on making it shorter.
So other than time, what are the most important elements to you when watching a film?
If I just think the film looks beautiful, then I'm already halfway there. But I'm also super difficult with acting. Often, I think it doesn't feel naturalistic. It ends up being that a lot of films that I work with are with non actors.
Would you consider distributing a film that's already had a premiere and how do you acquire those films? Do you search them out? And if so, what festivals do you lean towards to find more rare, quality independent cinema to distribute?
Best case, I get approached when the film is rough cut, and I can help them with getting a premiere. But in the end, I scout a lot of festivals for new films, but I only scout festivals that screen a lot of premieres. I will request all the films that play at Cannes, Locarno, Venice, Toronto, Berlinale, Hot Docs… I try to keep the strategy so focused, and if I get involved too late in the process, I get the feeling that I can’t add too much to the film's life anymore. Because of that I rarely start working with a film that has premiered more than three months ago and ideally I always try to approach it before the actual premiere happens. However there are certainly exceptions. For instance, the 30 minute film I talked about that I just started working with won the main award at Hot Docs this year for Best Short Documentary. So that film already had four or five selections and he already submitted it to quite a lot of festivals. But I liked the film, so we started working together.
Right now, what countries, if any, do you feel are on the verge of creating a new independent wave of cinema…(Holland aside)?
I mean, not a country, but Asia is really doing a lot of good stuff. So many of those films are getting played at festivals. For instance, last year, GENTLE NIGHT won Cannes. It was the first Chinese film ever to win the Cannes short film category. And since then, China has had shorts constantly playing at festivals and I think filmmakers in Asia are finding their way better to festivals now. Africa is also doing more and more great work. I think generally areas that we consider more third-world are finding their way within filmmaking, and really interesting stuff is happening there. It’s also quite often a different cinematic language. Really though, there's still a lot of good short films being made everywhere. I'm always surprised by countries where I thought I already saw everything.
Are there any aspirations for Some Shorts to produce shorts or features in the future?
Everybody's always asking that! The thing is, I'm just by myself doing this now, and now I'm doing like fifteen shorts and five to seven features a year, which is already quite a lot of work. So at the moment, I’m not really thinking about this, some people have approached me about it, and talking about how that could work is interesting. But at the moment, I'm finally getting to focus on representing Some Shorts, and that's already quite nice!
That’s right! That must feel wonderful, congrats!
So if you were to personally mentor a new filmmaker, what would be your biggest piece of advice?
Really visiting festivals, seeing a lot of films, meeting people - discovering the industry. That's really, I think, the most important thing. I also try to give filmmakers as a distributor some direction, like go to this festival, you will meet a lot of people there. Go to this festival, their selection is great. That's something I see with a lot of Dutch filmmakers… that they don't really see the importance of this. But I’ve worked with some filmmakers who just started going everywhere and you really see what kind of influence it has on their career. They suddenly seem to know everybody and know the context they are creating work in and get to be inspired by other directors.
I think we have a pretty good idea at this point, but I’ll ask it anyways. What makes Some Shorts unique, and a place that filmmakers should consider when looking for someone to champion their film?
I think what makes it unique is that I take on so few films, and that it's really me doing it. You're always in touch with me, and I’m quite direct with everything. I only work with films that I like so that I also feel a personal connection to it. I really try to champion the films instead of it being that you’re just one of the many films that I have. When I have a film that isn't really doing well I also feel bad about this and I try to push it harder because I think people should see the film. I think this kind of personal involvement is really where the films benefit.
Excellent. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been great getting to talk to you!