Future Shorts – the international spread of an event model as franchise brand

This spring, a counter-statement posted on the German website of Future Shorts took public a conflict on the German short-film scene revolving around the practices of the Future Shorts initiative. Setting off the controversy was a programme of short films offered by Future Shorts Germany in that country’s cinemas and other venues. The programme included winners of the esteemed German Short Film Award, to which German film distributors and agencies such as the KurzFilmAgentur Hamburg and interfilm Berlin hold in some cases exclusive, and in others non-exclusive, rights to theatrical release.

The initiative launched by Future Shorts in Germany took place concurrently with the official tour of German Short Film Award winners, “Deutscher Kurzfilmpreis unterwegs”, organized by the national short film association AG Kurzfilm in cooperation with the KurzFilmAgentur Hamburg and the German association of “Kommunale Kinos” (non-commercial repertory cinemas). And that tour programme also happens to include the six films Future Shorts had offered for screening – although only on DVD.

There was hence not only a conflict with regard to licensing and theatrical rights, but there is also in general a difference in opinion on various models and business practices for the marketing of short films. As this is not an isolated case, seeing as Future Shorts in the meantime has an international presence, we would like to take up this incident as an occasion for examining the Future Shorts project in more detail.

Founded by filmmakers and short-film devotees, Future Shorts began in 2003 to put on short-film events with a party-like atmosphere in London. The concept of showing entertaining films in popular clubs and watering holes – usually in connection with shows and performances by bands or DJs – proved extremely successful. Future Shorts had soon expanded its model of film events for a mostly youthful audience throughout England. The film screenings usually take place as part of other events, such as film or music festivals. In parallel, Future Shorts has also tried to bring short-film programmes to film theatres, offering a different line-up each month.

Future Shorts programmes consist of a colourful, eclectic mix of genres, including animation, fiction and documentary. Although anyone can submit a film to Future Shorts, the repertoire is made up mostly of titles that have already won awards or been shown at major festivals. In the meantime, representatives of Future Shorts now travel to the various festivals to speak directly with the filmmakers there and invite them to participate.

Very early on, Future Shorts Ltd., a British firm with headquarters in London, began to expand abroad and offer its programmes internationally. These activities were undertaken in cooperation with local partners and were supported by sponsors. In a recent profile, Future Shorts notes 30 sites currently. It does not provide any public information on the formal relationship between the head office in London and the regional Future Shorts branches, though, nor on the legal status of this constellation.

More transparent, or at least more obvious, are the business relationships with its sponsors, who have in the past included Stella Artois, or with its marketing partners such as Nokia or Seagate, with whom competitions are held or marketing campaigns launched. One example is an advertising campaign put on by Seagate: purchasers of a portable hard drive can put together for free their own short-film package from the Future Shorts repertoire.

Today, Future Shorts consists mainly of the business areas: exhibition, distribution, sales and – a recent addition – production. Activities include events at the cinema, online offerings on its own YouTube channel and the sales of films on DVD. Future Shorts also offers event services under the label “Future Cinema”.

In the field of exhibition, Future Shorts assures filmmakers that it is a non-profit initiative. The aim is ostensibly for the short film to be seen by the largest audience possible. In accordance with this objective, filmmakers are offered contracts that ask them to give Future Shorts screening rights, for which they however receive nothing in return, such as the payment of license fees. But this non-profit stance ends at the latest at the box-office. Because admission is of course charged and the cinema operators in turn also have to pay a rental fee to screen the programme.

The concept entails a programme that changes monthly and runs all over the country at partner cinemas. Future Shorts worked in this context with the theatre chain Picturehouse. At present, there are only occasional screenings still at isolated arthouse cinemas. The programme still changes every month, but in many countries the screenings take place not in theatres but at clubs and other event locations, and are referred to as “festivals”.

The short-film programmes are usually delivered on DVD rather than film. A flat rental fee charged – occasionally along with a percentage of the take when it exceeds a minimum guarantee. This is hence a practice resembling that of normal everyday theatrical release. Future Shorts, however, takes a different view of these contractual relationships. At least in Germany, it defends the position that what it does is not distribution or commercial monetization of films, but rather putting on a festival (which is then rented for a fee, so to speak). What does distinguish its practices from those of the traditional distribution business is namely that the event organizers are obliged to show advertisements from the sponsors. And there are also requirements with respect to how the “Future Shorts” brand is presented.

Future Shorts calls itself a “label” – borrowing a term used in the music industry. They have thus chosen a term alien to the film industry that is broad enough to cover every conceivable activity without having to pin themselves down. With the help of the label as umbrella covering all events, Future Shorts tries to make the festival character of these events manifest.

In 2006, during the short film festival in Clermont-Ferrand, Future Shorts announced the launch of worldwide distribution of short films from its tour programme repertoire. Activities thereafter included releasing DVDs and publishing a distribution catalogue. The Distribution Catalogue 2010 lists more than 200 international film titles, among them such recent and successful films as “Please say something” by David O’Reilly. Unlike professional distributors, however, Future Shorts does not provide in its catalogue any information on the type and scope of rights it holds to the films therein. Nor is it clear whether the films in the catalogue are for rental or sale and which parties are being addressed.

In the United Kingdom, representatives from Future Shorts attending industry events usually claim to be responsible for “Sales & Distribution”. The cooperation deals with film producers, studios and television networks referred to on the Future Shorts website point in this direction as well.

In addition, Future Shorts has publicized its marketing cooperations with the advertising industry and the founding of Future Shorts TV. Recently, the company has begun to take on the role of producer as well: for example, four short films were made for the launch of a new mobile phone from Samsung. Future Shorts calls this business unit Consultancy.

With all these diverse activities, films distributed by Future Shorts can now be seen on practically every platform and distribution channel (cinema, DVD, Internet) worldwide. To what extent these are only isolated projects that enjoy the limelight for a short time is difficult to judge. What is certain in any case is that Internet distribution has come very far all over the world. According to a 2009 report, more than 20 million people have already watched Future Shorts short films on FS YouTube.

With the image they project and the efforts they have made to operate in all conceivable business areas, one might get the impression that Future Shorts is a kind of global media conglomerate í  la Murdoch – or perhaps a start-up with similar aspirations. At the latest upon considerations like these, filmmakers who work with Future Shorts may be justified in wondering anxiously with whom exactly they have signed a contract and where their films are being marketed without them earning a cent.

The model propagated by Future Shorts itself naturally looks quite different. They view themselves as a collegial, altruistic initiative that manages through innovative ideas to gain a wide audience for the short form. What’s more, Future Shorts does succeed at least on occasion and for a brief time to lend a touch of glamour to the public presentation of a film or filmmaker.

Many a filmmaker who wants first and foremost for his films to be seen is surely glad to seize this opportunity, even though it doesn’t earn him any income. This is even more so the case when the only alternative anyway would be to put the work on the shelf and write it off.

But if there are indeed alternatives to shelving good work, the whole becomes more problematic. Because a title that can already be viewed worldwide on YouTube – like those from Future Shorts – will hardly be of the interest to a television station or a potential video-on-demand or DVD buyer. In this respect, the Future Shorts business model has a negative impact even on its own marketing possibilities. What is the use of a distribution catalogue of films that can already be seen free of charge anywhere in the world, or which have already been shown on the big screen under contract to others? And what good are simple contracts with non-exclusive screening rights if they leave out the most important details? Conflicts like the one that now occurred in Germany are therefore inevitable. No self-respecting rights purchasing agent, buyer or film theatre company can really be expected to take an interest in works offered on such shaky ground.

Especially problematic are contractual relationships with the various national branches of Future Shorts. Future Shorts Germany for example is to date only a private initiative – one might even call it a letterbox company. There are no published references to a commercial or non-commercial legal status, nor are there any General Terms & Conditions anywhere to be found. The only calling card for the German Future Shorts is a localized version of the website of the British company, which is in turn registered as a business only in England and Wales.

We can at least say for the national initiatives, though, that they are presumably acting out of their dedication to the cause. Involved here are filmmakers and people from the short-film scene who have enthusiastically taken up the Londoners’ idea. And that idea is not a bad one per se, or one that deserves criticism, seeing as the programmes from Future Shorts really do stand out for the quality of their films compared to what is offered by event organizers in the same niche.

The problem instead is that a non-conformist grass roots initiative is venturing here onto territory where, once it attains a certain size and level of attention, is fraught with laws and regulations that it can no longer deal with as one might expect. This perhaps helps to explain why Future Shorts Germany for example is at such pains to refer to itself as a non-commercial “brand” or “festival” rather than as “distributor”, which leads at the latest in its contracts or invoices to irresolvable legal contradictions. It’s perfectly understandable why this would anger those who have concluded precisely worded contracts with filmmakers for the same films and have acquired rights, sent out proper invoices and income statements, paid the required taxes and fees, etc.

Future Shorts will always come up against this problem in countries where there is an established structure for the rental and sale of short films, or a body representing the interests of filmmakers. It is therefore surely no coincidence that the company has up to now only operated in countries lacking structures of this sort. Conversely, this picture also makes it clear why the idea was born in the United Kingdom.

Namely, although the production volume and the quality of short films are both very high in the UK, there are neither major international short film festivals nor any interest groups or organizations for the short film. Moreover, the public agencies for cultural promotion have withdrawn more and more funding from short film in past years. It’s no wonder, then, that frustrated cultural initiatives give rise to the establishment of companies instead, and ones that reach for not only new but, to put it mildly, unconventional business models. One could also view this whole thing as a consequence of Thatcherism and New Labour.

As far as the national initiatives in other countries are concerned, however, we have to wonder whether in some cases well-meaning enthusiasts have all too naively let themselves in for a not-inconsiderable risk. Future Shorts basically works after all with the franchise model. In this business system, the franchisees are in a continuous state of obligation to the franchiser. They have to accept the franchise package complete with marketing strategy, for which they then have the privilege of paying a franchise fee to headquarters. It’s the same with Future Shorts. The economic as well as the legal risks or tax consequences are then the problem of the franchisee, in this case the national branches.

Whether this kind of business model really safeguards the interests of the filmmaker is at least doubtful. No matter how much we try to give initiatives of this sort the benefit of the doubt, the bottom line is nonetheless that such organizations, while certainly making short film more “visible”, earn income on films that they use only to finance their own structure.


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