Which Funding and Support Does Short Film Need?


Several years have already passed since the “right” funding and support for short film was discussed under this motto during the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. And the answer still remains simple and of little surprise: As much support as possible. With as much money as possible. You can never have enough.

But the reality is that almost none of the far more than 2,000 short films produced annually in Germany have adequate financing. And even when film funding bodies and TV stations are onboard, there is still usually an enormous financial gap left. One that can normally only be filled by the filmmakers exploiting themselves and the team around them by deferring payments for their work – if there were any payments planned for them at all.

So why is it that short film production is not a viable business model? One important reason may be that there is no market for short film here in Germany. Hundreds of good, exciting and interesting short films, or at least ones worth seeing, have just a few broadcast slots and licensing options from distributors available to them. In other words, the vast majority of the short films have no economic or commercial value. And in fact the percentage of short films which manage to refinance their production costs (including the deferred costs, items provided and own unpaid work) is in the low single digits.

The consequences of this are dramatic. Not only because it means that professional commercial short film productions intended to achieve a profit or at least some financial returns are almost impossible. A far more profound fact is the idea fixed in the heads of everyone involved that “short film has no commercial value”. With the result that screenwriters, directors and all the other creative individuals who would like to earn a living from their work move over as fast as possible to the feature length format, or take a bread-and-butter job. The producers are looking for some lucrative mainstay to finance their firms. And the funding bodies and TV stations? They exploit exactly this behaviour and place short film even further back in the “talented, up-and-coming filmmaker” pigeonhole.

It is true that you can learn the tools of the trade in short film – and most of today’s directors did first make a name for themselves with shorts. And it is true that the risk of failing (commercially) with short film is low. But it is also true that not every filmmaker who makes brilliant short films is able to master the feature film format equally well. And the other way around.

Short films are not short feature length films. Which is something that cannot be said often enough. Just the same way that a poem is not a novel, a drawing is not an oil painting and a song is not an opera. And just like poems, drawings and songs, short films are part of our culture. They have a cultural value that deserves to be accorded the highest possible attention and promotion.

According to our research, 71 short fiction films, 28 animated films, 10 documentaries and 4 experimental films were supported with €2.36 million in project funding in 2013 in Germany (see chart). When you add in the roughly €650,000 so-called reference funding from the German Federal Film Board (FFA) and the €275,000 in prize money from the German Short Film Awards, a total volume of funding of about €3.1 million is available for short films up to 30 minutes in length. This figure does not take into account further prizes which are coupled to the production of a new film, such as the Saxony State Ministry of Fine Arts Promotion Prize awarded annually at Filmfest Dresden.

At first glance, short film does not seem to be in such a bad position here. However this impression is placed in perspective when one looks at the share that short film funding has in the complete volume of support provided. According to the German Federal Film Board (FFA), cinema release, short and documentary films as well as talented newcomer projects received total funding of approximately €224 million in 2013. Thus about 1.5 percent of the annual funding volume is available for short film.

For the makers of short films, however, the question of the amount of funding per film is more important that the overall volume of funding. In 2013, the average amount of support provided for short film project funding was just about exactly €15,000, which also happens to be the precise figure reported as the standard amount of support funded in the Production Support section B from the German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media (BKM) and by the Kuratorium junger deutscher Film (Young German Film Foundation). The differences between the various genres were relatively minimal here – with short documentaries tending to receive lower amounts and animated films usually getting higher sums. However, significantly higher variances become apparent once the statistics are viewed on the level of the individual films. The amounts of funding then range from €360 to €50,000 per individual film. In this regard, about two-thirds of the films received funding of less than €20,000, but for that 17 were awarded €30,000 or more each in funding. The large commercially oriented federal state funding bodies proved to be more generous here, while institutions which come under the cultural or municipal film funding umbrella distributed the limited resources available to them in the form of micro support ranging from €500 to at least a few thousand euros.

In this way, the filmmakers have project film funding of €1,333 per film minute on average available to them (while by comparison, the production costs for a TV movie from the ZDF public broadcaster run to about €15,000 per minute). Thus the formats really do clearly drift apart when these figures are considered. As expected, the highest amount of funding per minute goes to animated film, where is seems that the higher workload (assumed here) is remunerated compared to the other genres.

Now some people might think that this all sounds fine. Yet in fact short films are funded to a disproportionately lower extent compared to their big filmic brothers and sisters. This is exemplified by the production funding awarded by the German Federal Government Representative for Culture and Media (BKM): It regularly supports feature length films with sums of between €200,000 and €250,000. At an average assumed length of 100 minutes per production, this corresponds to funding of €2,000 to €2,500 per minute of the completed film. Which is a sum that is about double the comparable funding provided for short films.

What is the reason for this? It is fair to assume there is a widespread mindset that filmmakers “can also work a few days for free now and then” when this concerns a short film. And rightly so – because this is the accepted practice. And a shameful one at that. Ultimately one fact must be clear here: Short films fundamentally require the same time and outlays in terms of the technology, personnel and creativity per completed film minute that feature length films do. The sole difference is with regard to the number of shooting, pre- and post-production days involved. Actually a minute of short film cannot be produced for less money than a minute of a feature film. Actually. Unless you deliberately seek to find ways to radically minimise the production costs.

There has been, and still continues to be, much discussion about the German film funding system. A discussion that does not need to be furthered here. However it does seem that overall, the funding options for short films are even more diverse than those for feature films.

The most important German institution for the funding of short film is the German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM), which supports short film with its Production Support section B and the German Short Film Awards. Together with the Kuratorium junger deutscher Film (Young German Film Foundation), the BKM provides the sole option for short film filmmakers to receive project funding which is not connected to a regional requirement. At the same time, this funding is available to all makers of short films and for all genres.

The second largest body in the world of German short film funding is the German Federal Film Board (FFA) with its reference funding. The principle behind the reference funding is simple: Anyone who produces a successful short film gets funding for their next one automatically. Various factors are taken as the yardstick for success, such as for instance being awarded the “especially worthwhile” rating from the German Film Rating Commission (FBW) or having screenings at top name film festivals. The major advantage with this system is that it works without funding committees and juries. And used cleverly, the filmmakers can fund their next project on the basis of the last one, thanks to the reference funding. At least in theory. In practice however, the funding sums recently awarded for films which reached the reference level only amounted to about €3,500. Not a sum with which a cinema compatible short film can be produced. But it remains to be seen how the amendments to the regulations laid down in the current German Film Funding Law (FFG) will impact here. However, as there were only minimal fluctuations over the last few years in the total amount of funding available, the consequence of this would be that any increase in the reference funding per film will cause a reduction in the overall number of films funded.

In addition to the funding on a federal government level, the major German federal state funding bodies play a central role in the support of short films – and indeed of long films too. Except that, unfortunately, most of the federal state funding bodies do not have a funding scheme that focuses specifically on short film. As a rule, short films share the no or low budget funding options with feature length self-exploitation films, or they can be submitted as up-and-coming talent projects, such as to the FilmFernsehFonds Bavaria (FFF) fund. But for established makers of short films who have exceeded the age limit for up-and-coming talent, the only funding route left to them here is the German Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media (BKM), or else to head to another federal German state.

In addition, a major stumbling block for many filmmakers is the at times very high bureaucratic hurdles that the federal state funding bodies especially place in the way of creative short film productions. As no funds are provided specifically for short films, they are often assessed on the same requirements level as feature length films in order to facilitate the regulatory and approval process. An example of this is that the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg funding body requests proof that a distribution contract has been signed or that at least interest in the project has been shown on the part of a TV broadcaster or from sponsors. Yet everyone in the industry knows that such proofs are a “worthless model”, which at best can demonstrate that the submitter of the project has good connections with short film distributors and TV broadcasters. Even more annoying is that it first costs money in order to apply for the low funding amounts provided by the funding bodies. Films receiving German Federal Film Board (FFA) funding for instance first have to be submitted with costs to the German FSK and FBW film rating bodies for a rating. And short films are subjected to the same cultural quality test that feature films are. Likewise, the requirement by most of the federal state funding bodies that either the credit institute distributing the money or an external auditor has to audit the proper and correct use of the resources allocated is linked to relatively high costs (and time especially).

Are there any alternatives? The makers of short films who live in regions or federal states where film funding is still provided in the tradition of self-management or within a general cultural funding context can regard themselves as lucky. Among the major funding bodies, these are the film funding body Filmstiftung NRW in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, which has assumed the funding activities from the Filmbüro NW, and the Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein with the Filmwerkstatt Kiel. This is also true but to a clearly lower extent with the federal state MV, Bremen and Franken Filmbüros (film offices), which try to support regional film production with small and micro funding sums. And while there may not be much money available there, for that the bureaucratic hurdles are clearly lower and the funding bodies’ willingness to take risks frequently higher.

So which kind of funding and support does short film need? Funding at any rate that is simple, fast and tailored to short film. Which accepts and strengthens short film as an autonomous form of culture. Funding that is not linked to up-and-coming talent or concentrated on film school students. And funding that is courageous.

This article was first published in “SHORT report #6” by AG Kurzfilm – German Short Film Asscociation, Dresden, November 2014. The “SHORT report” can be ordered as a print version from AG Kurzfilm and it is also available for download at www.ag-kurzfilm.de.