Here at Directors Notes, we are always excited to dive deeper into the logistics and various issues facing short films across all facets of the industry, from production to festivals to distribution. That’s why it’s great to hear the fascinating insights of an industry leader such as Stéphanie Charmail, a British-based producer with experience creating BAFTA-nominated films, such as Bazigaga, as well as over eight years experience working as the Head of Production at ShortsTV, a short film broadcaster available worldwide dedicated to screening the best short films out there. A crucial part of the short film ecosystem, ShortsTV is a dedicated home for bite-sized work, elevating the importance of this important yet regularly underappreciated art form. We had the pleasure of joining Charmail to discuss working with the Oscars, her own experience making critically acclaimed work, contributing to the Kingston International Film Festival, and various tips and tricks for filmmakers to stand out in an ever-crowded field.

[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be involved with ShortsTV?

I came to the UK to finish my master’s degree, then I started working in the film industry. It was a bit by chance, which I know people get angry about. I wasn’t necessarily seeking to work in the industry, but I got a runner’s job and then began production managing. For about ten years, I was a production manager and line producer on independent feature films in the UK. Then I saw the opportunity for ShortsTV and I was like, “Oh wow, an in-house position” that seemed to fulfil everything I was looking for, including working with short films and working with Oscar shorts every year.

You work as the Head of Production at Shorts TV, can you break this down and perhaps explain your role?

It’s a small company, so I am aware that my role might encompass a lot more things than the usual Head of Production definition. I’m in charge of all the production for the channels and all the assets, whether it’s on-air, online, graphics and videos. And we also produce some documentary-style shows about festivals. We travel to a lot of film festivals around the world, and follow short filmmakers on their whole journey, from nomination to awards. We interview festival directors, curators and programmers, just to give the audience a bit of a behind-the-scenes look, because there’s a bit of mystique around this industry. There’s this myth that it’s all red carpets and gowns so it’s interesting to actually see the industry side of it. I also organise pitch competitions and mentoring initiatives that we’ve done around the world in partnership with film festivals.

There’s this myth that it’s all red carpets and gowns so it’s interesting to actually see the industry side of it.

What kind of festivals do you work with? Is it the big ones in Europe like Cannes and Berlin or are there specific short film festivals as well?

We’ve worked specifically with short film festivals in Europe and around the world. These are big for short films, but not necessarily super famous to the average audience. But then we also work with Cannes. Last year we did a big partnership with IFFI-Goa (International Film Festival of India) for the first time, which we will repeat this year. We’ve also worked with festivals in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, and in the USA we work with the Oscars every year. And in the UK, we work with smaller festivals, but also big organisations such as the BFI.

Do you feel that the shorts world is quite different than what people might expect from a big event with a red carpet? Because I’ve met a lot of short filmmakers at festivals, and sometimes it’s a bit prosaic, and it can be like nothing’s really happening when you’re there. Have you found that yourself?

Yes, to me, that’s a big lack of education. With short filmmakers, very often you make a short film, especially if it’s your first one, and you don’t necessarily have a long-term vision of where this is going to take you. And you think it might just be proof of concept or an extract from a bigger project. A lot of short filmmakers don’t always make a short film just to make a short film. So I feel like the awareness of what’s supposed to happen after is quite small. So often they go to film festivals and it’s like, “Ooh, what’s happening now?” They don’t always capitalise on the opportunity available at film festivals in terms of industry meetings and really making the most of it.

But actually, the small ones are the ones where you make the best connections because people are a lot more approachable without the glitz and glamour, and I think that’s usually a bonus. One of the best ones I’ve been to is BOGOSHORTS in Bogotá, Colombia. It’s 100% short films. It’s a big festival and has been going on for over 20 years. It’s incredible: the whole university area of Bogotá is transformed during their summer holidays in December to accommodate short filmmakers. There are screenings, there are food pairing events with short films, there’s music, there are barbecues, there are masterclasses, meetings, pitching, and networking — the energy there is just fantastic. It’s one of the best ones I’ve been to and really makes you feel like, oh wow, as a short filmmaker, what you do is important and what you do matters.

What would your tips be for a short filmmaker at a big festival where they are often an afterthought to the main event? What can they do to stand out and get people to see their work?

For that, I would say, it’s like most things in life and work: research. You can see who’s attending via LinkedIn or other avenues and there’s often a list available once you’ve got accreditation. See who is giving a masterclass or who is on panels and send an invitation or a message saying, “Hi, can I meet you for a coffee,” and try and get a meeting. You might not get a response, but if you don’t ask you’re not gonna get. So a lot of it is in the preparation. But also be realistic. Don’t think, “Oh, I’ve got a short film and Spielberg is coming; let me get a meeting with Spielberg.” And if you’ve got a short film that’s horror, don’t contact comedy programmers.

Everybody’s got experience, everybody’s got a job that matters and fits somewhere in the matrix.

It’s all about targeted research not just finding who can make you the next big Hollywood director because that’s unlikely to happen right now, but rather who can be useful on that next step. Because the more you meet people, the more you will meet people, and yes, at some point, you might get to that big hotshot person you wanted to. But it’s not just about that ‘one’ person, I think it’s also about being realistic that there are thousands of people in the industry who can help you, recommend you and be beneficial to you. Everybody’s got experience, everybody’s got a job that matters and fits somewhere in the matrix. I think just soak in any knowledge or meetings you can do. None of it is wasted.

Talking about high visibility, I’d love to ask you a bit about having the Oscars on ShortsTV. It seems to me that shorts that are Oscar-nominated seem to get a lot more traffic than any others. Have you noticed this?

100% Even our viewing figures go much, much higher in February or March, depending on when the Oscars are or when we show the Oscars from the previous year. It’s a big big draw. It’s marketing. It just goes with the name. People hear something is nominated and get automatically curious. And it’s not always the best films. I mean the films are excellent, but like everything, it’s very subjective. It doesn’t mean it’s the five best films that were released in the world that year, but it’s the five best films judged by human people with tastes and preferences that happened to watch those films. There are a lot of steps such as having won at a pre-qualifying festival. People don’t just get nominated for an Oscar by magic.

Yes, I often find myself watching films I’d never otherwise watch just because they were nominated for an Oscar. But you’ve also produced award-nominated films yourself like the DN-selected and BAFTA-nominated Bazigaga. What did you learn from the experience of making short films and how does that feed into your current role?

I’d say both roles are very different. Bazigaga was a 100% love and passion and body and soul piece of work for me. It was with my best friend, the writer/director Jo Ingabire Moys, and it was an important story that was very personal because of her experience and the experience of people who worked on the film. I’ve since been to Rwanda and been able to meet people and see it for myself. It was just so much more than a film for us and that’s what I want when I look for projects to work on. I need something to drive me and not just something to say, “Oh, I’ve produced a short film” because I don’t really care for another line on IMDB.

Bazigaga was a 100% love and passion and body and soul piece of work for me.

I’d say the experience of working on films makes me a lot more attuned to what I do at ShortsTV because I work with a lot of filmmakers and can bring my own experience. And I’ve learned from them as well because everybody’s got a story of what they learned on set and should or shouldn’t have done. So ShortsTV has been the best film school I could ever have wished for.

How does it work when looking for short films on the TV channel? Do you actively search out new films? Do you take submissions? Do you look for them at festivals?

All of the above. We’ve got a Director of Programming, Jade Tan, who is absolutely amazing. She comes from like 15 years at Sky, launching films and channels with them. There’s a curation team, there’s a programming team and there’s an acquisition team. So in terms of acquisition, you can submit your film through the website, but they also go to festivals, to a lot of the major film festivals for short films and acquire this way.

When you tune in, everything is programmed by blocks of an hour to two hours, according to genre themes. That’s not something I have anything to do with. But it’s flexible: you might have an hour of crime or comedy or awards or French films. Because otherwise, when you watch TV channels, if it’s a feature film channel, then there will be something there, like a star, that keeps you tuned in with that channel. For ShortsTV, usually, the title of a short film is not going to draw you in because you’ve never heard of it. And they can finish every three or ten minutes. You might have an ad break very often. So there are many opportunities for the viewer to flick the channel. So it’s about giving coherence to the programming and trying to be sensitive about how, even within an hour of comedy, what films are within that, in terms of duration, topic and style, so there is coherence there.

Talking about curation and programming, you’re also the deputy festival director at Kingston International Film Festival. I’d love to know more about what the festival focuses on and what your role is there.

It’s only the second edition and just finished in June so it’s a brand new festival with huge ambitions. It’s all about emerging filmmakers and new voices, but also with big potential, so we went really big with the first and second editions. We also try and involve as much of the local population as possible. We also have short film packages as well, to introduce people to different art forms and different stories and voices. It’s been really interesting. The first year I was helping with setting everything in place, and I was on panels and doing curation. This year I did a bit less as Bazigaga was nominated for a BAFTA, but I was still supporting the festival by recommending filmmakers and organising networking events.

Let’s talk beyond festivals. I recently read that only 30% of short films have distribution. What are your tips for filmmakers looking for visibility, both financially and in general, beyond film festivals?

First of all, not all films necessarily need to go to film festivals. When I talk to filmmakers, it’s always about really trying to understand the film industry. And the word ‘industry’ is a big word because it’s about the business of it. Because if it’s a hobby, make your film, show it to your parents and bam, you’re done. If you want to make it a viable option for your career, then you need to take it seriously as a business. Even if you’re the director and think, “I don’t do distribution”, you don’t need to be a specialist about it but you need to understand because it’s like creating any product – you need to know there’s an audience for it. There might not be as much relief with financial remuneration for a short film, but you need to know there are people out there for whom this is going to be a film that they want to see.

Festivals are not always the best strategy for a film. Usually, it costs money to enter a film festival, and then if you get selected, do you travel there? Do you pay for it? What are you going to use that for? Does it make sense for you to pick four or five festivals where you think, “OK if I get selected for those, I will invest my money and use those as networking opportunities”? You need to think about how the creative vision fits with the business vision. Once you’ve figured that out, there are so many avenues. There are a few distribution platforms like ours, there are great online platforms, and you can also do university tours or screenings in your city, depending on who your audience is. Then in terms of monetising, there are different platforms, but I would never make a short thinking, “I’m going to become rich from this.” I don’t think anybody becomes rich from making short films unless you live in Europe, in certain countries.

If you want to make it a viable option for your career, then you need to take it seriously as a business.

That’s interesting because I do know that France has production companies that exclusively make short films and they are profitable. Is this something that the UK can learn from?

100%. I feel there is no pride and appreciation of arts and culture in the UK. I don’t mean from audiences, but from the government, it’s always an afterthought. I think that’s a real shame. And all of that trickles down through everything because there’s no pressure or demands on broadcasters to invest in short films and that all has a knock-on effect on budgets available and funding opportunities.

In France, the main broadcaster has a slot every week, late at night, around 10 or 11 p.m., and they show short films. They pre-buy short films, based on the script, and the pay-per-page is incredible. So you can get a really decent amount of money to make a decent short film where you can pay people a decent rate to work on your short films. And they do the same in Belgium and in Spain. In France, you have the CNC, which is the big national group, a bit like the BFI, but they actually have a lot of money. They give it out at the national level and each region has their pot of money. And there’s an incentive that if you do broadcast, you can unlock more opportunities for funding — a bit like a video game.

It’s crazy because in the UK there’s nothing like this. I think we’re missing out massively because you see it in the slow death of the British film industry. There’s a lot of work to do here, but it’s definitely not the government’s priority right now.

With that in mind, what is your advice to a filmmaker to make the biggest possible impact with their short?

Well, have the strongest script that you can possibly have. And really spend time on the script. Ask for advice. Send it to someone you’ve met at an event and ask them to read it because you can always make it better. Surround yourself with the strongest people, who know what they’re doing and who follow your vision, because ultimately, you know it’s also about human connections. Then on your next project, you might all work together again. Then in terms of impact, it really depends on the story. Be very realistic about what the film is, what avenues there are, and what agencies there are to strategise on festivals or private screenings, or where you’re sending your film. And then just go from there.

Getting a document that says, “My film was booked by a broadcaster” really helps for finishing funds or financing on a new project.

For those who do make it onto ShortsTV, what is the value proposition for filmmakers?

I’ll tell you what I know because there’s an acquisition and legal team for that. But for a filmmaker, being bought by a broadcaster is a big deal for the investors or for the filmmakers. Even getting a document that says, “My film was booked by a broadcaster” really helps for finishing funds or financing on a new project. Then depending on the film, because we have channels in the US, Latin America, Europe and South Asia, a minute rate is paid to the filmmakers. But I’d say that in terms of exposure, having a broadcast deal is a good, rare thing to have.

I’m interested in what you said earlier regarding film festivals not necessarily being the best thing for a short film. There are, of course, online platforms, such as Directors Notes, which is now BIFA-qualifying! What do you think the role of online platforms is in order to create impact instead of or in addition to film festivals?

I think they’re great but it really depends on your film. If you think your film has festival potential, I’d say do that, because there’s something special about seeing your film on the big screen with an audience. But that doesn’t mean you need to do 15 or 50 festivals. Because a lot of festivals are scams, they just want to take your money and there’s never really anything happening apart from getting a laurel.

But I think online platforms are great because you can make a short film and tell your friends they can watch it here. So there’s something about doing it while it’s hot. Especially on Directors Notes where there’s amazing curation and interviews that you do which really take a deep insight into the filmmaking aspect.

What are ShortsTV working on next?

ShortsTV are getting ready now for the second year at IFFI-Goa, to do mentoring and filmmaking with the NFDC in India. We also have partnerships with UN Women in Europe where we curate programming and events on the channel. And we’re going to start looking soon at the Oscars because we also qualify films as well before the deadline at the end of September.

And what are you working on next as a producer?

I’m working on a documentary feature about Venezuelan comedians in exile who have had to flee the country due to the lack of freedom of speech. And I’m also working on a couple of short films. I’m trying to get those off the ground and see what happens with them.

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