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Albums & Anthologies: The Future of Short Film?

In recent years, big streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have birthed a new trend within the film and TV market: short film anthologies. And as The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, which is part of a short film anthology for Netflix, went on to win an Oscar for Best Live-Action Short Film this year, we just have to ask – could this be the future of short film? And might this trend cross over into the realms of indie filmmaking or is it completely reserved for big names and even bigger streamers? Let’s find out! 

Firstly, what is a short film anthology? 

Well, a short film anthology is a series of short films with different narratives and/or from different writers or directors all centred around a specific theme. As an example, think about Guillermo Del Toro’s recent anthology for Netflix, Cabinet of Curiosities. Released in 2022, Cabinet of Curiosities is a horror anthology featuring 8 episodes centred around the traditions of gothic horror and are each heavily influenced by Rod Stirling’s Night Gallery. While Guillermo Del Toro wrote two episodes of this anthology, the remaining six episodes featured different narratives and were written/directed by different filmmakers. Some who were seasoned professionals and others who were newcomers to the industry.  

Though, it is important to point out that Cabinet of Curiosities, much like Amazon Prime’s Solos, resembles more of a television series rather than a series of short films. And most (not all!) indie filmmakers only have the resources to make one film at a time rather than a vignette connected by a singular theme. But more on that later. 

Back in 2003, Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed Coffee and Cigarettes, a series of vignettes, where people simply sit and talk about the most mundane of topics over a cup of coffee and cigarettes. And while this series did feature pretty big names such as Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and Steve Buscemi, the beautifully simplistic idea of using the same set as a running theme while exploring different character perspectives, makes short film anthologies seem more achievable. Each vignette could easily be a short film on its own and many other films have experimented with this format including Four Rooms, which consisted of four different short films from four different directors including Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.

In fact, it could be argued that short film anthologies and vignette features offer indie filmmakers a creative and distinct medium to experiment with their unique style and voice. Say, for example, a filmmaker had three ideas for short films that all followed a particular theme but varied in terms of characters, narrative or even genre they could, in theory, film all three and connect them as vignettes in the same way Jim Jarmusch did with Coffee and Cigarettes. Sounds good in theory, but how would this be accomplished?

The Big Hurdles

The main issue that has dogged independent film is the same issue that leads people (both in and out of the film industry) to the conclusion that short films cannot make money - distribution. As a quick oversimplified explanation, film distribution is the process of getting a film from its makers (producers) to the outlet where an audience can experience it (cinema, television, streamer, DVD/Blu-ray, etc.). A distributor will purchase distribution rights in a given territory e.g. UK & Ireland or North America (USA & Canada) from the producer of the film then licence the film to a cinema, where they collect a percentage of the ticket sales. They also licence the film to a streamer or TV channel or pay for the production of physical media like Blu-ray disks and sell copies to high street retailers like HMV.

Crucially, in the case of theatrical distribution, a distributor is responsible for promoting a film and encouraging audiences to go see it in as many cinema venues as possible. The box office taken is then used as leverage when negotiating licensing to home entertainment platforms like streamers or TV. This is the key issue that makes the funding, creating and distributing indie short films in the UK such a huge hill to climb. Assuming a team of filmmakers are able to get a film made and distributed, that distributor has to compete with the promotional budgets of Universal, Sony, Amazon and Disney. A cinema needs to be able to programme films that audiences will show up to see, and the likelihood is that the general public will be much more aware of the next Ghostbusters, Marvel or Fast & Furious film than they will be of an indie film from a director they don’t know starring actors they may be vaguely aware of. How good the films actually are barely factors into the conversation.

In a nutshell, the primary consideration for a cinema-goer and thus a distributor and cinema is, ‘I want to be entertained. What’s most likely to do the job?’ A star, director or franchise backed by the huge resources of a studio has a track record in this area. An indie filmmaker does not. Anyone financing a film needs to be confident that an audience exists so they can be confident that they are not throwing their money into a black hole. No promotion, no audience. No audience, no funding. No funding, no film.

Did you say…album?

So how does this factor into short film and short film anthologies? The answer may lie in a different kind of art - music. One of the established practices of short film that often leads filmmakers astray is that short films are treated (promoted) like feature films. This suggests that they are consumed (sorry, that sounds gross!) in the same way, when the truth is that there are more similarities in the consumption of music and short film than there are between the consumption of short film and feature film. Individual songs are short and thus can be consumed en masse by any given listener. A listener may decide to binge to a playlist of hip hop in the same way that a viewer may decide to watch 4-6 horror shorts back-to-back. A feature film will be the centrepiece of a social activity (e.g. let’s get a bite to eat before we go see the film. Or ‘shall we get a takeaway and watch the film?’). A single song or short film cannot operate in such a way - but a selection of songs can. Attending a gig featuring a selection of artists performing 1-2 songs each or one artist performing multiple songs is a long established social entertainment practice and more often than not, attracts audiences by establishing a brand name that tells people what to expect from the experience; such as a Taylor Swift concert or Glastonbury.

So would it not make sense to loop together short films in the same way? Could there not be a name that signifies an entertainment experience featuring short films that makes an audience feel comfortable in what to expect? To a certain extent, this job has been half done already in the form of the film festival. Film festivals across the UK attract tens of thousands of attendees every year. Even people outside of filmmaking circles are familiar with the Edinburgh International Film Festival or the BFI London Film Festival or the Aesthetica Film Festival. These are events that promise an experience beyond just the films themselves and as a result continue to attract audiences in huge numbers, regionally, nationally and internationally. It has also been (sort of) done by the short film anthologies that we mentioned earlier. An audience knows to expect fantastical horror presented in imaginative and unique ways from Cabinet of Curiosities when you put Guillermo Del Toro’s name on it. The same is true of short film adaptations of Roald Dahl books directed by Wes Anderson. 

The part of the process that largely remains undone is doing the same thing with the artists themselves. 

Being able to invest in film, as a financier or film lover, means being able to invest in a name, be it star, filmmaker or franchise. This is something that is critical to the independent or short film creator. Without the means to heavily promote and increase the visibility of a film project among film audiences, theatrically or online, building the brand associated with the key creative team is essential. This is difficult to do when relying on short films that are released individually months, sometimes years, apart. On top of this, individual short films are released into the film festival or online landscape where the ability to stand out is diminished. Additionally, as previously mentioned, a single short film cannot engage an audience on a social activity level, unless presented in a group or under a wider event banner, where once again, the individual creative teams are restricted in their ability to stand out, thus diminishing the opportunity to invest in their ‘brand’.

The answer may have been given to us by Wes Anderson himself, with his Oscar-winning short film being one of a number of short films from an anthology presented under the banner of not one but three known ‘brands’ (himself, Roald Dahl and Netflix). With the number of short film creators with a deep bench of incredible short films, should we not encourage them to invest in this kind of presentation? By giving us 4-6 short films under the name of a writer or director, we could potentially open up a whole new avenue of theatrical film presentation. 

Filmmakers in the modern era have the advantages of building an online presence, social media promotion and the likes of short film platforms such as Omeleto or Short of the Week to provide visibility and hits. While many creative individuals or creative teams may create their own websites, very few will push a theatrical or other in-person event focused solely around their work. Additionally, the funding bodies most accessible to filmmakers operating in the short film space, will usually only find a single short film project rather than a collection of films. Even the platforms doing the most effective work to present and promote short films are structured to only present one film at a time.

A feature-length short film album can utilise named actors in each individual film, thus negating the kind of time and financial commitment required for a feature film. This also makes it potentially possible to feature multiple name actors in an album, not just one. An album compiled under the name of a writer could feature the work of several directors, each one bringing their own unique style to the connective narrative of a single screenwriter. A filmmaker developing a film with an album in mind can do so with an established theme or genre and pre-plan creative methods of weaving in narrative or thematic threads from one film to another. Additionally, because the concept would utilise the model established by the music industry, the filmmaker would retain the ability to release and circulate individual short films from the album online, submit others to festivals or make others only available with the album in its entirety. The album being feature length also makes it possible to distribute the film to cinemas, essentially benefitting from the best of both worlds, gaining the accessibility of an online platform and the visibility of a theatrical platform. With cinemas struggling to return to pre-pandemic levels and the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild strikes, along with the pandemic itself exposing the cultural and financial peril of being fully dependent on Hollywood studio films, it can be argued that now is the perfect time to offer up a new offering to the theatrical experience. With the right promotional strategy behind the right creative force, short film may well be the answer that cinemas and audiences are looking for. 

Short Film Anthologies: The Future of Short Film?

So, will short film anthologies become the future of short films? Possibly. But at present, there needs to be a shift in terms of distribution models and promotional avenues available to indie filmmakers to make this distinct medium more viable. Perhaps if short film anthologies continue to be made by the big streaming services, this may start becoming more of a standard production practice, which makes its way into the independent film arena. Film festivals may even become more open to offering an ‘anthology’ category just as they would a short and feature film category should the practice become widespread. 

For now, it is fair to say that short film anthologies are largely the domain of big streaming services to further experiment with. But the more they experiment, the more likely it becomes that short film anthologies will crossover into the world of indie filmmaking. This is not to say that indie filmmakers cannot also experiment with short film anthologies—because they absolutely can! But better infrastructure in terms of distribution and promotion needs to be fully implemented before this becomes a norm in the indie filmmaker space. 

What do you think? 

Do you see short film anthologies becoming the future of short films? Let us know!


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