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Short films find new home online

The Web's place as "short-attention-span theater" is music to the ears of short-film makers, who until recently found their audiences limited to the niche film festival set.

The Web's place as "short-attention-span theater" is music to the ears of short-film makers, who until recently found their audiences limited to the niche film festival set.

Short-film distributor Atom Films today said it will team with Warner Bros. Online, RealNetworks, Internet music firm Atomic Pop, and others to offer short films online. In addition, the Seattle-based company said it has revamped its site, adding new content channels and features that let users download, review, and rate short films--which also allows Atom Films to gather demographic data about its users.

Separately, Warner Bros. Online today said comedian Adam Sandler will debut a six-minute animated film, The Peeper, on the Web September 3. The film will be available at AdamSandler.com, WarnerBros.com, and Acmecity.com, according to Warner Bros. Online.

The moves illustrate the Web's emergence as a new distribution medium for short films, observers say.

"The Web is a great way to distribute short films," said Brian Boyl, a professor of digital media and production at the School of Film and Television at the University of California at Los Angeles. Traditionally "there has not been a lot of money in short films, so distributors haven't wanted to spend a lot time with them. There are all these really great short films out there, and not a lot of people outside film festivals really see them," Boyl said.

"There are a lot of entertainment sites, but not a lot of entertaining sites," Matt Hulett, a founding partner of Atom Films, said in an interview. "Shorts have never had a distribution channel. They used to show them in theaters until the '50s or '60s, when they got squeezed out by trailers.

"The Internet is short-attention-span theater," Hulett added. "People are not willing to watch a two-hour movie online, but they will sit through a three-minute animation someone emails them or a ten-minute short film."

Boyl agreed: "People's attention span on the Web is short. Five- to ten-minute films--that's their mindset."

Observers say the Web as it exists now is not a practical way of getting full-length films to consumers, largely because most consumers still access the Web via relatively slow dial-up connections, and the download time would be too long for it to be worthwhile. In addition, consumers have shown they enjoy the theater-going experience--which is why the advent of VCRs and feature films for rent did not hurt ticket sales in theaters.

Nevertheless, some have experimented with using the Web to distribute full-length films.

UCLA's Boyl said slow connections are still an obstacle for short films online. "The critical thing is getting the proper bandwidth to the home," he said.

And those offering faster connections already are looking to short films as a potential way of differentiating themselves from other content services.

Cable Net access firm Excite@Home, for example, in April launched Click Cinema, a "24-hour broadband digital film portal" with short films, videos, and animation from companies including Atom Films, D.Film, iFilm.net, and Zeum.

"There is an increasingly popular demand for short-form online video entertainment," Eric Elia, Click Cinema producer for Excite@Home, said in a statement when the service was launched. "By using broadband to showcase movies as they were meant to be seen, we can deliver a truly compelling online experience. What the Internet did for publishing, broadband is doing for filmmaking."

For Atom Films' part, Hulett said the company--which is considering an initial public offering within the next 18 months--is looking to offer content to sites that are trying to quickly prepare for what they expect will be great demand for broadband content.

"A lot of sites are realizing that everyone has stock quotes and weather," he said. "They are recognizing that people will stay on their sites longer if they offer snippets of entertainment content."

For example, Warner Bros. Online, which is also an investor in Atom Films, is planning to offer an Atom-branded channel on its upcoming entertainment hub site, Entertaindom. Atom Films also will distribute films and animation to Snap.com for Higher-Speed Users (Snap is a joint venture between NBC and News.com publisher CNET), Atomic Pop, and broadband site On2.com. It also will offer content and programming for RealGuide, RealNetworks' multimedia programming guide.