The Oscar nominated shorts can make or break your Oscar pool. For years, they have been unfamiliar titles, but thanks to Carter Pilcher and ShortsTV, we have more access to short films than ever before. Since 2006, ShortsTV has been the leader of making short films accessible to a wider audience, and Pilcher’s passion for the medium is a real driving force to the service’s success.
There is nothing quite like ShortsTV. In over 100 million households, there isn’t another service that can compete with what ShortsTV does. A Spanish language version of the service launched last year, and Pilcher told me how the service continues to grow and grow. While new services like Disney+ and Apple TV+ continue to duke it out for headlines, Pilcher’s service remains the most dedicated to the medium of short filmmaking.
There is something in Pilcher’s voice that made me really appreciate what his service does. He loves the process of filmmaking and knows how truly honest films can change the minds of people. He references some of the shorts that were nominated in the last few years and noted that short films can sometimes escape the board room shenanigans that feature films may have to go through with studios.
It’s interesting that some of the films in the last few years that make the biggest impression have a shorter running time. Pilcher loves that about short films and he can’t wait for you to find something new to love.
Awards Daily: Just generally, I wanted to ask why you love the medium of short films so much?
Carter Pilcher: Well, maybe because my own personal attention span is so short.
CP: I’ve just loved them forever. I was an astronautical engineer, and I got interested in shorts just seeing other friends make them. I just really enjoy them. After I left engineering, I was an investment banker, and I wanted to try a company that catered to them.
CP: Tom Quinn, who is with Neon now, is a great guy. He was at Magnolia Pictures and we were trying to compete with each other with the same idea. Then we thought why not do it together?
AD: Oh nice!
CP: We still do the Oscar shorts with Magnolia Pictures, and it’s been going on for 15 years now.
AD: There’s nothing like ShortsTV. There isn’t another service like it.
CP: Well, thank you. I love it. With every filmmaker, you’re dealing with their hopes and dreams and they are telling a big story and we are all kind of getting naked together all at once. We are showing everyone everything. It might be horrible and it might work. It’s a fun moment. The first time we did this, a guy named Cary Fukunaga had just finished at USC and he had a film that got nominated. He’s totally confident now, but that first year, we didn’t know what was going to happen. It was really rewarding to see something like that—someone who are starting their career. It’s exciting to see someone do that.
AD: Can you recognize immediately the potential for someone to make it big with longer features?
CP: You can for sure see when someone has a lot of talent. I don’t know if I could’ve predicted that Cary wouldn’t been as big as he was but that guy is a sponge. He absorbs everything and he has a lot of good ideas. Definitely you can tell that there are people that don’t have a chance. I would say now—I’ve done this enough—that I can tell if there is someone worth backing, but I couldn’t tell that when I started all of this. Short film content is exploding in popularity but guess where it’s least happening.
CP: In the United States.
AD: That’s crazy.
CP: In India, people are watching an average of two and half hours of TV a day on their phones.
AD: I feel like I am watching almost triple that right now with the pandemic.
AD: It surprises me that the US is so low.
CP: Yeah, it is behind. Generally, because everyone has fabulous TVs, but in places like India they’re very expensive. There is a big difference in economic freedom and independence, so it’s slightly different. I find that genuinely interesting. The uptick of shorter video is bigger in Europe and US but it’s huge in Latin America and Asia. TikTok came first from Asia to America and now it’s popular, but the biggest number of subscribers are in India and Asia.
AD: I feel like all I see now are TikToks.
CP: [Laughs] Yeah, they are everywhere.
AD: I feel like there are new streaming platforms coming out very quickly. Within the last year, we got Apple TV+, Peacock, Disney+. Does that worry you at all or are you excited about it?
CP: It certainly doesn’t worry us. With the isolation and the pandemic, it really has created a shift in viewing habits. OTT is becoming a thing. It’s gone from us doing short content and people think it’s interesting to audiences needing us. We have a 13,000 title library of shorts. I can say that no one in the world has 6 thousand hours of short films and movies. In the next two or three months, we are planning to roll out at least 8 or 10 different OTT services. Some are a channels and we are testing an app with an algorithm that keeps playing films that you like. You can skip them like Pandora and it’s fantastic because you can save them or share them. It’s very interactive.
AD: Oh that’s cool.
CP: Yeah. We are launching this on lots of TV services globally and, for us, it’s caused an acceleration in viewing and shifting to OTT delivery all over the world.
AD: That’s incredible. I didn’t know that. I have to admit that I have been watching stuff almost nonstop. I wonder what it will be like when things calm back down again and we can go out.
CP: You can take your iPad anywhere, so you can watch TV while you’re gardening. It’s bizarre. You can kind of keep watching all the time. I haven’t thought to have our guys look at this yet, but it must mean that there’s a decline in music listening. I don’t know.
AD: Oh, that’s a good question.
CP: You can’t listen to music and watch video, and we are all watching so much more video now. I have to screen a lot of stuff anyway, but now that I don’t have to worry about traveling I’m almost doubling my viewing.
AD: I find myself using my iPad more and using it in different areas of the house, so you’re probably right.
CP: It’s kind of weird that I haven’t been using my Alexa to listen to music anymore. I’ll have to have my guys check on that to see if it’s true.
AD: Let’s talk about the Oscars.
AD: I remember when the Oscar shorts starting coming out. It played at this one-screen theater in Pittsburgh called the Regent Square, and it was such a new thing that people were coming out for it. If we look at, say, last year, I went to a small theater in Rochester to a showing before noon and it was almost sold out. I was worried I wasn’t going to get it. It’s really become this essential viewing for the Oscar season. Can you talk to me how it’s grown year to year from your perspective?
CP: It’s gotten bigger and bigger every year. We started out showing it in 70 theaters in 2006. In 2007, it played in 90. It took three years to break 100. Now we are in close to 1000 theaters internationally. In the United States it’s in around 700. We did it for three years with Magnolia Pictures which was owned my Mar Cuban. On the fourth year, Mark was tired of losing money, so they asked if we would take it on and our board said yes and they helped us schedule the theaters. Now it’s quite profitable. This past year, our highest number was $3.7 million in box office in the US.
CP: Yeah, and that’s thousands of people. A theater in almost every major city runs it and it’s been a great project. The audiences are really dedicated. I was scared two years ago because the live actions shorts were so dark.
AD: Oh yeah.
CP: Did you see them?
AD: Yes. It was the dead kid year.
CP: [Laughs] Exactly. And they kept getting darker and darker.
CP: You just sweat through those films. When you see kids going through those terrible things, you start to get really anxious, and I was afraid that they were going to tank. It ended up being the most successful year.
AD: Last year, I was so pleased by how many people were seeing them.
CP: They’re authentic. It’s not filtered through a thousand marketers and that makes them more impactful. One of the things I love about short films and I think some of our fellow short film entrants into the market have missed is that isn’t about how short it is. It’s about how deeply it impacts the audience. You can have a great laugh or be shocked. That’s why short content succeeds. Some of these people who create shows that are cut down to ten minutes—and some of them are very good—is that they are more worried with the running time or making it in ten minutes than telling a story that takes our breath away.
AD: You can see that even in the Oscar shorts. They are all different lengths and they all are more focused on the story rather than the parameters that make it a short film. And it helps that we haven’t seen a trailer over and over again for months or we haven’t heard our friends talking it up on social media.
CP: I would agree with that. And I would even say that it is kind of rethinking the times that we are in. Skin had a big part in helping us think of issues in a new light. There was that one and My Nephew Emmett from 2017 which was about Emmett Till by a filmmaker named Kevin Wilson Jr. Those kind of films—which really go into an issue—can really be important in changing people’s minds. If stories are told well, they can do that. In a short format, films can really be responsible for generating a conversation.
AD: Is there a short film that you would like to personally champion right now?
CP: A short film that I thought was fabulous was one called Six Shooter from 2005. So that’s an old one from Martin McDonagh and that’s an amazing film. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Some of the Oscar shorts from this last were interesting for different reasons. I loved Sister.
AD: I liked that one too.
CP: I just liked the laid back story and the whole approach was a new way of storytelling. There’s a TV show that I’ve been watching recently that I thought felt more like short filmmaking. It’s more like how people want to hear a story and they aren’t just cut down TV shows. It’s called Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories on Netflix. It’s a fabulous kind of anthology of stories set in a diner and the stories take place in the bar and it’s focused on food. I love it.
For more information about ShortsTV, you can visit the site and find out how you can start enjoying shorts from all over the world.