How to Distribute Your Short Documentary: The Ultimate Short Doc Film Distribution Guide

So, you’ve made a short documentary. Congratulations. Now, how can you get people to watch your film?

The most obvious idea is probably to throw it up on YouTube or Vimeo, post the link on Facebook and hope it goes viral. But we’ve got some more sophisticated ideas. Check out our short documentary distribution guide below.

Submit Your Short Film to Film Festivals

The festival circuit may not be a good fit for every short documentary but with so many film fests out there these days you can probably find a few venues for a mini-doc on just about any topic.

Festivals will typically program shorts either as companion pieces for short feature films (showing them as an appetizer before a thematically related feature length film), or in blocks of shorts in which a handful of shorts are programmed together to fill up a normal film’s time-slot.

Knowing what types of films a festival is looking for will radically improve your chances of acceptance. Film festivals can be grouped into roughly these categories:

  • Top tier prestige festivals (e.g. Sundance, TIFF, etc)
  • Local film festivals (Chicago International Film Festival, San Diego Film Festival, etc)
  • Thematically programmed film festivals (Bay Area International Children’s Film Fest, Austin Music Video Festival, etc)

There are also film festivals that program documentaries primarily or exclusively, and even specific sub-genres of documentary (like music films). Choosing fests that are either thematically or location-wise relevant to your film will often improve your chances of getting programmed. Getting your film accepted into some film festivals (and maybe even wining an award or two) can help market your film and also help market yourself as a filmmaker for future projects.

What length is your short film?

In addition, it’s worth considering what length of films fests are looking for. It’s easy for a programmer to find slots for short docs that are 1-5 minutes long. It’s a tiny bit harder to find room for films that are up to about 10 or 12 minutes long. After you get past 15 minutes it becomes increasingly difficult to find time-slots to program your short in. If your documentary doesn’t fit into these time-slots, you may have difficulty getting selected unless your subject matter is extremely relevant to the festival. Each fest will have a different cutoff for how long a short film is but it may be worth shaving down your film to fit into an easily-programmed lot.

Resources for finding appropriate fests and submitting your film to festivals: Film Freeway, Withoutabox.

Submit Your Short Documentary to Broadcasters

Many short documentaries may not be a good fit for broadcast because of their length but if you have a film that’s too long for many film festivals, you might consider trying to get it broadcast in a half hour time-slot. For documentaries, local PBS affiliate stations may be a natural fit, especially if the subject of your film is location-based in the same area as the broadcast (i.e. a half hour documentary that explores housing issues in Miami might be a good fit for WPBT, South Florida PBS). You can generally find information for the programming director of PBS affiliates by searching, or using the Contact Us page on their website. If all else fails, you can call them up and ask for the email address of the person you can submit to. If you can get a local broadcast, you might end up with tens of thousands of people watching depending on the size of the market and the number of times the program is repeated– many times more than any film festival can accommodate.

PBS does also occasionally gives national broadcasts to truly exceptional short documentaries through its POV strand.

Submit Your Short Documentary to Online Outlets

There are several online outlets for short films. Depending on the style of your film, one or more of these might be worth submitting to. Here is a selection of a handful though you may find others by searching.

New York Times Op-Docs – The NYT pays a license fee for exclusive short documentaries, typically under 10 minutes. These can also be part of a longer work, cut down to fit their length requirements, although films should also work as a stand-alone film without any other context required. Submission information is available here.

Upworthy – A venue for short uplifting videos that get shared on various media platforms. They are looking for “original stories that support our mission of creating a better world.” Submission information available here.

Field of Vision – A clearinghouse for short documentaries with a global focus (although US-based films are welcome too). Submission information is available here.

and its video-only siteAJ+ – Provides visitors on multiple platforms with newsy topical short documentaries and news pieces. Submission information available here.

Subject specific websites – Depending on what your short documentary is about, you may be able to find a great home on a website that’s about that topic. For instance you could imagine a short film about a soccer player might earn ESPN.com‘s interest.

Depending on the style and content of your short doc, you might also have luck pitching the film to outlets that don’t normally accept solicit video submissions like BuzzFeed, Vox, Vice, NowThis, or The Guardian. Local newspaper websites in your area might also be receptive to your pitch depending on how “newsy” or “current” it feels if the topic is a local focus.

Upload the film to YouTube, etc

Once you’ve researched, submitted and perhaps exhausted all other outlets first, you should consider uploading your film to YouTube. Some outlets like the NYT’s Op-Docs have exclusive submission policies, meaning if you upload your film publicly to YouTube first they won’t consider it. So you may want to save posting the film to YouTube for last. But when the time does come to post the documentary online for everyone to watch for free, here are some ideas for success:

1. For general distribution, YouTube videos are more easily shared than Vimeo videos. Most non-filmmaker people aren’t quite as familiar with Vimeo but everybody knows how to share a YouTube video. As a result, videos posted to YouTube have a higher chance of going viral than ones posted to Vimeo. Of course you can always post to both as well, but the YouTube version is the one we’d use to share on social media.

2. Speaking of that, share it to social media! Be sure to give it appropriate tags and a nice long text description to help search engines find it. Post the video on Facebook and other social media accounts and invite your friends to share it too. Email a batch of your friends, colleagues and family and ask them to help you share it with others. You may also have luck submitting to various communities on sites like target=”_blank”Reddit which feature niche forum boards who may be interested in your film. Posting your video to topic-related Facebook groups may also be a good idea. (Be careful to avoid the appearance of shameless self promotion however.)

3. Make sure your description or the end of the video gives people an opportunity to learn more about your work, or subscribe for future videos of yours. If your goal is to build a following for your future work (and we’d argue that should be your goal even if it isn’t yet), offering viewers an opportunity to subscribe or visit your website or join your newsletter is a great idea. Your fans can help fund your future films through crowd-funding campaigns and they can help share them as well.

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