Over the last five years, much has changed in the Indian digital space. In 2016, we witnessed a web series boom with companies such as Viacom18, Yash Raj Films, and more recently, Balaji Telefilms, producing original web content. Mainstream actors such as Lisa Haydon, Kalki Koechlin, and Nakuul Mehta, too, associated themselves with web series.

This year, too, has been eventful with the rise of Video on Demand (VoD) platforms. The Indian audience now has legal access to the latest international shows and films. Arguably, it’s a good time for Indian alternative content (read: all things non-Bollywood).

Amidst this overhaul, however, a key storytelling format of the digital age — short films — has taken a back seat. What’s surprising about it is that in 2014, short films were enjoying their moment of fame in the web space.

Bollywood directors such as Vikram Bhatt, Anurag Kashyap, and Sujoy Ghosh entered the market with their own productions in collaboration with Large Short Films, a dedicated online platform for short films. Experimental digital agencies, such as Terribly Tiny Tales, a micro-fiction platform, too, launched their film branch —Terribly Tiny Talkies (TTT).

Some of the prominent short films featured stories on realistic themes such as women’s rights ,life in urban cities, and new-age parenting. And for a generation that had so far been satisfied with Bollywood films and short humorous sketches, offbeat, intelligent cinema came as a welcome change.

Today, however, the reality is vastly different. Short films have been overshadowed by the rise of web series. 

But all may not be lost. As mainstream Bollywood production house, Drishyam Films, gears up to launch five short films this year, the medium has a fighting chance to stand out.

So, what happened?

While web series and short films are different in format, both the avenues share an audience by virtue of their common broadcasting platform — the internet. Think young viewers who are looking for something other than a 51-year-old Shah Rukh Khan pretending to be a 20-something lover, for instance.

Yet, despite the early bird advantage of short films, their main drawback is their duration. While they are designed for millennials with a short attention span, they offer no engagement with their audience once the credits roll.

“Every aspect of a short film is limited by time; the narratives are linear and the characters have no story arc. In contrast, a web series offers longer stories, and fleshed-out characters helping audiences to emotionally invest in the story. At the end of every episode, there is a certain excitement for what comes next,” says Nidhi Bisht, actor and writer at TVF (The Viral Fever, a digital content creation company).

The longevity of web series also acts as a sustainable avenue for producers to invest money. For instance, most of the web series are backed by popular brands, and feature product placements. Take UTV Bindass’s The Trip, for instance. The story revolves around four women going on a road trip. One of their sponsors is a leading car company that features one of its cars throughout the series. With 10 episodes in a season, the marketing benefits are fairly obvious.

With big brands come big budgets — a luxury that short films are almost never able to afford. “It’s been three years, and we are still struggling to monetise short films. So far, there has been no successful formula to economically sustain short films. As a result, finding investment and sponsorship continues to be a task,” says Chintan Ruparel, co-counder of TTT. In the past, TTT collaborated with brands to make films, as have platforms like Large Short Films.

On the global map

Despite the financially stunted nature of the industry, film-makers continue to hold short films in high esteem. The shorter duration allows for stories to be told in smaller budgets. And lesser financial commitment to brands and independent investors ensure freedom for creative collaborations and experimentation.

Yet another factor that puts short films ahead of web series is that the former has helped put Indian cinema on the global circuit. Film-maker Devashish Makhija’s independent short film, Tandav (2016), for instance, was screened at the New York Film Festival. And Mumbai-based film-maker Amar Kaushik’s short film Aaba (2017) was the only Indian film to be selected in the competition section at the Berlin International Film Festival this year.

“Short films are ideal for film festivals and competitions. These festivals, in turn, create an opportunity for Indian film-makers to make a mark internationally. That’s what we want to harness — upcoming talent that will make short and feature films alike, to make India a hub for formidable cinema,” says Manish Mundra, founder and head of Drishyam Films. With plans of launching five films this year, their first film, Paroksh, released online on April 11 and has already clocked over 700k views.

As of now, however, short film-makers are happy using the space as a laboratory to experiment. On the other hand, the web series market continues to boom with second seasons of popular series, such as TVF’s Permanent Roommates and UTV Bindaas’ Girl in the City already on air.

As smarter, non-masala content rages on digital platforms, it’s a win-win situation for viewers who have innovative content to binge-watch. – Hindustan Times