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   Book Review
   Swimming Upstream:
   A Lifesaving Guide to Short Film
   Author: Sharon Badal
   Publisher: Focal Press
   Pages: 304 pgs.
   Topic: Distribution options for short films

   MSRP: $24.95

   Special Pricing:  Click Here
   Website: Click Here
   Expected Release: Available Now
   Review Date: June 1, 2007
   Reviewed By: Kari Ann Morgan
Final Score:

There’s not exactly a wide range of books on the topic of feature film distribution for microcinema filmmakers. Distribution is a tricky enough topic on its own. There are many different angles to cover, from finances and film festivals to licensing and legal matters. And then, of course, there’s the minor detail of actually getting a distributor. When you enter into the realm of short film distribution, the range narrows considerably.

When my Editor told me that I was scheduled to do another book on film distribution, I wasn’t as excited as I might have been since I had just reviewed another book on the same topic a few months previous. But when I saw that it was a book on short film distribution, I perked up; this was something that was both new and necessary in the microfilmmaking field. Author Sharon Badal is the Short Film Programmer for the Tribeca Film Festival, so needless to say, the girl knows what she’s talking about. In this book, she has compiled insights and commentaries from dozens of industry insiders, filmmakers, distributors, buyers, and more about the process of and various opportunities for short film distribution.

Swimming Upstream is written with filmmakers in mind. Note that I said “filmmakers” and not just “producers”; you don’t have to know a lot about the “business” side of things to learn from this book. This is definitely a boon to microfilmmakers, who usually have to handle everything by themselves, including the not-so-fun “business” part. Because the book draws from various aspects of the filmmaking process, there are many things that you can do to not only improve your short film’s chances of getting bought, distributed, and/or selected for a festival, but how you can use your short to go on to bigger (and hopefully better!) projects.

While most of the information in this book is well laid out, some of the contributions seem out of place in different sections. Considering that about 90% of the book consists of contributions from almost three dozen people, each with their own experiences, opinions, and suggestions, this is to be expected; the problem is that it can be very difficult to effectively organize that kind of wide-ranging information. One example is Chapter 2: “The Buyers”. This chapter covers everything from the process of choosing and buying a film, to what buyers look for in a film, to licensing/paperwork, to different distribution options. This is a very wide range of subjects that falls under the umbrella topic of “Buyers”. While this is not a bad thing, it can be confusing. To help sort out this information, bulleted chapter summaries (either at the beginning or end) would be helpful. Also, putting notes or highlighted quotes in the sidebar or margin can help aid comprehension. Finally, there are a few cases where contributors contradict one another. One example was different writers who have different “ideal” running times for shorts: some say no more than 10 minutes, others 10-20, a few said up to 30 (but only if absolutely necessary), and one said that a short “must be under 5 minutes”! Again, this is result of differing opinions and experiences, but it can still be confusing. It wouldn’t hurt to remind the reader occasionally that these writers are sharing their experience, and that they (the reader) should find what works best for them and their project.

Depth of Information
The amount of information in this book is tremendous, and really gives the reader a better understanding not only of the opportunities for short films, but also the process of selecting them. This information will prove itself invaluable to the filmmaker that is working on a short film, whether it’s for a portfolio, a “calling card”, or submission to a festival. Some sections give information about festival prospects, others explain the avenues of “official” distribution (via production houses, etc), and still others address topics like international and online distribution opportunities, All of this information is not only understandable, but it’s also attainable and practical.

One of the big downsides to a collaborative project like this, however, is the inevitable fact that some writers repeat what others have previously said. For example, I read several writers who would say some variation of: “make sure you have all of your permission/licensing forms together before finishing your film!” By the third or fourth time, it gets old; some sections were comprised almost entirely of information that had been already written. This is nothing that the individual contributors would know or have any control over; the problem comes down to lack of editing by the author. I know that it’s not an easy task to do (because you want to make sure to include as much information as possible), but the line has to be drawn somewhere. It’s like shooting 30 hours of documentary footage, and presenting all 30 hours in your final cut; some things have to go, and it’s up to the director (in this case, author) to decide how to best cut together all of the footage (i.e. information) to make the best possible film (or book). Find the one or two articles that best address a certain topic (e.g. licensing/permission forms) and then edit out any repetitive references that occur in other sections. Yes, this may mean that some articles are either very small or eliminated altogether, but in the end, it will be more cohesive and less redundant.

Interest Level
The good side to having multiple writers is that it can help engage the reader by introducing different voices and perspectives, thus keeping it interesting. The downside is that inevitable repetition of information that occurs (as mentioned above) made me quickly lose interest in the different sections. If I saw that one writer was rehashing a topic that I’d already read about in four previous articles, I wanted to skip ahead without finishing it. It didn’t matter if they revealed something Earth-shattering after that, I already was tuning them out. This is definitely not something you want.

While this book is a valuable treasure trove of information, it took me awhile to get into it. Part of this is due to the fact that most of the entire first chapter (35 pages!) discusses doing research on the indie film market, and how that can influence films in general. The only problem is it deals almost exclusively with feature films, not shorts! That was frustrating because indie shorts are a completely different thing from indie features. So it would stand to reason that, while it might not hurt to research the indie (feature) film market, it probably won’t do you much good, because you’re dealing with a different art form, and thus, a different audience.

Despite the aforementioned issues with organization and repetition, the pros ultimately outweigh the cons with this book. Especially if you are a filmmaker who is just starting out or one who specializes in short films, this book will be an immensely helpful guide in helping you learn just what potential opportunities your “baby” has.

Value vs. Cost
At just under $25, this book is an absolutely excellent value for what you get.

Overall Comment
Books on short film distribution are sadly lacking, especially in the arena of microfilmmaking (where most short films are made), so it is wonderful to see one as informative as Swimming Upstream. The experience and insight contained in this book is invaluable; the information is understandable and practical for short filmmakers of any budget. The problem of unedited collaboration, however, results in chapters that are awkwardly organized (because the material they cover is SO broad) and redundant information. Bulleted summaries can help organization, while significant editing of the different articles will greatly reduce repetition. Despite these setbacks, the benefits of this book greatly outweigh the negatives, making this book a necessary addition to the library of a beginning or short filmmaker.

Depth of Information            
Interest Level            
           Value vs. Cost            
Overall Score           
A powerhouse in management, Kari Ann Morgan successfully produced a feature length film before coming to work at Microfilmmaker as Assistant Editor. In addition to writing for the magazine, she's been successfully working with various distributors to get microfilmmakers the chance for theatrical distribution.

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