Documentary Short Films : Why they are here to stay and how you can be a part of it.
Some people might think you need a full two-hour documentary to produce an award-winning, emotionally-charged, beautiful work exploring the nuances of the Second World War and its traumas. The must-see short doc Colette (2020) would prove them wrong, winning the 2021 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).
Directed by Anthony Giacchino and produced by Alice Doyard with The Guardian, it is only the most recent example of a new genre which continues to go from strength to strength with impactful stories that speak to the world.
The Rise of the Short Form Documentary
We often hear that we’re in the golden age of documentary filmmaking, and maybe it’s even more appropriate to say that we’re in the golden age of documentary shorts – as editor-in-chief of Nonfictionfilm.com Matthew Carey pointed out in 2016 yet.
In the past decade, the short-form documentary has become more and more prominent. Two concurrent trends have facilitated the rise of this format: a widening of the avenues by which audiences consume digital content online, and a narrowing of consumer attention spans.
Indeed, short docs offer a chance to reach wider and younger audiences who are used to digesting shorter social media videos, but are still keen to immerse themselves into engaging stories which stay with them for a long time.
As the Internet has become an increasingly prominent avenue for distribution for short films, there are a raft of new opportunities for filmmakers willing to make short docs and get them produced and seen, including archive-driven short docs.
Jean Garner, Executive Producer and mentor for Global Short Docs Forum has argued ‘because the media world is exploding in terms of platforms, short form documentary is finding its home’. With short-docs rising in prominence on Netflix, Prime, Youtube, established news media websites and tailor-made platforms like Field of Vision, there is a vibrant short-doc ecosystem out there.
While there are limitations that come with having to concentrate narratives into minutes rather than hours, this distillation can spark creative genius. On top of that, many documentaries are ideally suited to the short form, for its quicker production timeline enabling filmmakers to match the contemporary relevance of their story and the immediacy of their access. Sometimes, it’s all about the right time.
Whether it be hard hitting social commentary like the Academy Award-winning Period. End of Sentence (2018, dir. by Rayka Zehtabchi), or archival-heavy work such as the dreamlike A Love Song For Latasha (2019, dir. by DOC NYC Directing Award-winner Sophia Nahli Allison) or the fascinating IDA Award-winner short John Was Trying to Contact Aliens (2020, dir. by Matthew Killip) – all available on Netflix – the short documentary is here to stay as a key landmark on the media landscape.
3 must-know platforms that help documentary shorts to come to life
To help you best navigate the short-doc world and the opportunities it offers to both experienced and emerging filmmakers, we’ve selected three of the most interesting platforms available to you to fund, distribute and promote your documentary short films.
1. Short form documentaries on The Guardian
In 2016, the UK-based Guardian relaunched its Guardian Documentaries series, commissioning and curating short documentaries from around the world.
Head of Video at The Guardian, Charlie Phillips, who previously worked as deputy director at Sheffield Doc/Fest, describes their process: “we make films of 15-30 minutes – comparatively long for an online video – that take us in-depth into untold stories about real people.”
The Guardian works hands-on with filmmakers of all experience levels and backgrounds from across the world, acting as executive producers in a process which can take up to a year (with an average of 3-6 months). In terms of viewers, the documentaries released by The Guardian reach large online audiences globally, as The Guardian News & Media website network attracts 140 million monthly browsers.
For Charlie Phillips, telling impactful stories to their audience is the main priority, and takes precedence over thinking about film festivals. That said, several of their short docs have also won critical acclaim. Two of the works produced by The Guardian illustrate this brilliantly.
Firstly, there is Black Sheep (2018), directed by Ed Perkins. It is a poignant exploration of identity, racism and violence, which blurred the boundaries between documentary and fiction. Black Sheep went on to win Best Short Documentary at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and was also nominated at the 2019 Oscars.
Secondly, there is Colette (2020). While succeeding in capturing people’s hearts and minds with its unique approach bridging the past and the present, the short doc film went one step further this year as it has been declared the Oscar winner 2021 in the category Best Documentary Short Subject.
Black Sheep and Colette are just two films in a diverse range of Guardian documentaries, sharing a common interest in unique creative visions. They work with filmmakers of all experience levels and backgrounds from across the world, and could be the perfect partner for your docu-short!
Don’t hesitate to submit your documentary short ideas to them here.
2. Short documentaries on The New York Times’ Op-Docs
On the other side of the Atlantic, there is another newspaper with global reach churning-out top-quality video content – The New York Times’s Op-Docs.
Begun in 2011, Op-Docs is a series of award-winning documentary shorts made by independent filmmakers. Op-Docs former producer and curator Kathleen Lingo explains in Documentary Magazine (IDA) that their mission is “to provide a platform for voices from outside The New York Times to give their point of view on issues of the day”.
In the past decade they have helped make around 300 short, interactive and VR documentaries, with a broad range of styles and subject-matters. They help with publicity, distribution, funding and archival footage and music access.
Each Op-Doc is generally 5-10 minutes in length, although some are noticeably longer, depicting a unique story to spark conversations across the globe. They say they consider “written pitches (…) as well as completed videos” but cannot consider film trailers or videos which have already been posted online. Short-pieces adapted from longer works in progress are also eligible.
Like The Guardian, they strongly encourage a diverse range of directors from all over the world, and they work with first-time doc-makers as well as with established contributors.
Op-Docs collaborates with festivals such as Sundance and have gone on to gain widespread critical acclaim, picking up official selections at leading film festivals, Emmy nominations, News and Documentary Emmy Awards, Peabody Awards, and Oscar nominations. As an example, the vibrant and intimate A concerto is a Conversation (2020) directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers was nominated this year.
Op-Docs have also gone on to form the basis for later feature films. One notable example is Time (2020) by director Garrett Bradley.
The factual film followed a prisoner’s wife fighting for the release of her husband, who Bradley met when working on her Op-Doc Alone in 2016. Time was meant to be another short film, but the last day of filming, central character Rich Fox gave Bradley an incredible archive of home video footage! The 81 minute film won the Documentary Directing Award at both the Sundance Film Festival and the IDA Documentary Awards, and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Time is streaming now on Amazon Prime.
If you think Op-Docs is the right platform for your short docs, you can submit your pitches through this form or contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
3. Documentary short films on Field of Vision
When it comes to short-documentary specialists, Field of Vision are some of the best in the game. Co-created by the Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras who directed Citizenfour and Risk, they describe themselves as a ‘filmmaker-driven documentary unit that commissions, creates and supports original’ projects (shorts, features and episodes).
According to their submission guidelines, they seek to support work that ‘uses innovative and artistic ways to explore contemporary global issues through a cinematic lens’. They look for work which pushes boundaries, offers unique access or new perspectives on the world, and they support independent filmmakers who are often taking risks with their investigative and journalistic work.
Field of Vision commissions filmmakers to develop stories they have already identified, but many of the films are cold submissions. To apply, you need to fill in their online form.
Of the many notable successes that have come from Field of Vision, Do Not Split (2020, dir. by Anders Hammer) is particularly exciting. The film documents many landmark events in the Hong Kong protest movement, and it received the DOC NYC “Courage Under Fire” award. It was also an Oscar contender for Best Documentary Short Subject this year.
Since July 2020, Field of Vision has also included IF/Then – previously a part of the Tribeca Film Institute. This is a mentorship programme for underrepresented filmmakers making world-class short docs that ‘break barriers to access’. 2021 is the inaugural year of IF/Then’s partnership with Hulu, where winners will receive mentoring and $25,000 in funding. While applications have closed for 2021, watch them carefully for future announcements!
Pitching your short documentary ideas in 2021 and beyond
Whether it’s the funding, distribution or mentorship opportunities, that appeal to you most – you need to nail your short documentary application if you want your short documentary project to find success with some of these brilliant platforms.
With all of them there are some core elements which they will want to see :
- A one-page proposal : Can you articulate a compelling, timely and original story in a concise way? Did you think about the narrative arc and story structure of your documentary?
- A rough budget: Have you carefully thought through the costs, taking time to estimate the budget needed to produce your short doc – including potential licensing fees of archival material?
- Visual elements: How will the story translate cinematically, what is your filmmaking approach to it? Mood boards and 1-minute trailers are great tools to convey the look and feel of your short doc project.
- Unique access: Why are you the right person to tell this factual story? Who is your main subject or character and what access do you have that others don’t to tell a great investigative or character-driven story ?
Whether you want your short doc to be led by observational material or archival footage – or a mix of both – make sure your story feels like it speaks to the present. All of the platforms above support short documentary ideas motivated by a concern for the contemporary world.
While there are similarities between the requirements of all the nonfiction video platforms we’ve discussed, not to mention the many other fantastic opportunities out there, make sure you take the time to carefully research each one, ascertain your eligibility and dig around in their FAQ sections.
There are other opportunities for documentary short films to pitch or submit at festivals, and we’ll make sure to talk about this in an upcoming Archive Valley‘s article focusing on documentary film festivals – so stay tuned!