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Short Films Conquered Online, Now They’re Finding Homes Everywhere Else, Including Where They Started

To paraphrase Sally Field when she received her second Oscar, you like short films! You really like short films!

Short-form videos are everywhere these days, busting the long-held 22-/44-minute straitjackets of traditional TV as online platforms freed millions of creators to go as long or as little as they wanted. For most creators, and their audiences, that usually meant something like 3 to 5 minutes a segment. But going short paid off big online.

These days, according to Allison Stern, the CMO and co-founder of online video-measurement company Tubular Labs, more than 150,000 YouTube creators have at least 1 million views of their videos. At least 30 YouTube channels, from all over the world, have piled up at least 10 billion views of their content. Even in YouTube’s new demonetization era, which will hit many small niche creators, there are plenty of fans and views to go around.

Facebook stars can build even more gaudy audience stats, thanks to the site’s 2 billion users worldwide, though the company’s recent algorithm changes and emphasis on its separate Watch section are still too new to be adequately evaluated for impacts on creators and content viewing.

But short-form video is finding lots of other places to go beyond the duopoly. Snapchat, of course, has built an average daily user base of 187 million, despite endless, shameless copying of its functions by Facebook and subsidiaries such as Instagram.

Along the way, Snapchat pioneered new mobile-friendly storytelling forms, with a vertical format and jittery, quick-hit experiences that are transforming the video products of even traditional media brands such as CNN, Cosmopolitan and the Wall Street Journal.

How short can shorts go these days? The short-lived Vine app featured 6-second videos, though wrapping ads around them proved too difficult, and their nascent star influencers fled to other platforms where they could make money as well as build audiences. Apple’s Photo app features editing options such as Boomerang, to allow a 1-second video to endlessly loop forward and back again.

And shorts are thriving in lots of other places, too, on TV and even where they started 110 years ago, in theaters. Here in the midst of Oscar season, three of the most interesting and competitive categories will be the short film nominees in animation, live-action and documentaries.

The animation category in particular features five serious contenders, including work from the BBC (a Roald Dahl adaptation) and Pixar. Other contenders include a stunningly hyperrealistic piece from a French collective of students, a gentle stop-animation project from two indie veterans, and “Dear Basketball,” former NBA star Kobe Bryant’s farewell love letter to the game that made him famous, animated by Disney veteran Glen Keane and set to music by five-time Oscar winner John Williams.

Both the documentary and live-action categories feature hard-hitting, deeply emotional, and highly topical work touching on issues such as school shootings, and racial and religious hatred and bias. “The Silent Child,” out of England, focuses affectingly on a deaf child born into a world of silence, who is finally taught the gift of communication. Its lead actress is a hearing-impaired child in her first role. She’s the first deaf performer to be recognized by the Motion Picture Academy since Marlee Matlin won Best Actress three decades ago in “Children of a Lesser God.”

The pay-TV channel ShortsTV, which is carried by operators in the U.S. and several European countries, is itself constructed around a library of 5,000 short films, as its name suggests. This time of year, however, the company moves beyond its TV roots to bring the Oscar-nominated shorts to theaters.

“Not since the days of Greta Garbo have short films reached such a big audience and seen returns that exceed most independent feature films,” said ShortsTV CEO Carter Pilcher. “We are seeing a growing global shift in entertainment preferences towards short-form content.”

Pilcher, a Motion Picture Academy member, has overseen that annual compilation of Oscar-nominated shorts for the past 13 years, building an awards-season tradition for many fans (and secret weapon for those filling out their Oscar watch-party ballots).

This year, the three feature-length nominee compilations have proved more popular than ever. They opened Feb. 7 in New York and nationwide in nearly 200 theaters two days later, setting a series record with more than $700,000 in opening weekend grosses.

The entire first week brought in nearly $1.1 million, and the second week was even stronger, cross the $2.1 million mark well ahead of last year’s record pace. The theatrical release, now on about 250 screens, will eventually be shown on about 500 worldwide in the U.S. and overseas.

“The theatrical release has become an Oscar-season tradition that just keeps building and building,” said Pilcher. “There is no better way to feel like you’ve participated in the deepest, darkest of Oscar secrets than by seeing these wonderful short films on the big screen, their best possible viewing format. It’s a great night out.”

And for those who can’t make it out, ShortsTV makes the Oscar nominees available online. This year, beginning Feb. 27, the nominees compilations are available from electronic sell-through services such as Apple iTunes, Google Play and Amazon, as well as the VOD services of major pay-TV providers such as DirecTV, AT&T U-Verse, Comcast and Charter/Spectrum.

Shorts haven’t quite taken over the world. But as online distribution platforms and subscription offerings such as Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime Video bust the ad-driven strictures of traditional TV, creators are able to to fit the format to the story’s needs, instead of the other way around. It’s a win for creators, audiences and the outlets that feature those stories.