- Associated Press - Monday, September 6, 2010

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Some years back, investment banker Carter Pilcher stumbled across some really good short movies made by a few talented friends, and the money-making and artistic sides of his brain suddenly clicked.

The idea was to buy rights to those shorts cheaply from wannabe filmmakers who sought fame more than fortune. He figured he could make a business by showing them to new audiences for just the right price.

“I just felt like I’d discovered a part of the world of content that didn’t take a lot of money to create but was really riveting,” said Pilcher, a 49-year-old American who was working in London at the time and still has his office there. “In 10 minutes, you’re in tears, or you’re shocked, or you laugh really hard.”

Pilcher gave up his career in finance to pursue the idea. With his own money and help from family and friends, he started what has become Shorts International, a company that now runs subscription TV channels that show shorts in six countries to about 12 million homes. That’s not a lot of homes for a channel although he hopes to expand its reach. AT&T Inc.’s U-verse video service began carrying ShortsHD in the U.S. last summer and Dish Network Corp. did so in April.

While giving thousands of filmmakers a potentially huge new audience, Shorts International won’t necessarily make them rich. Its licensing fee _ a few hundred dollars over several years _ is not enough to transform what is a money-losing venture for most filmmakers.

But his business adds to the many outlets that are now trying to make money from their work.

“It’s a fair price,” Pilcher said. “What’s even more important: We’re giving filmmakers a chance to be seen.”

For filmmakers, making short movies is a kind of necessary proving ground. No one walks into a director’s job at a Hollywood studio without a track record. For many, it’s either lose money making your own short or fetch coffee as a production assistant and try to rise through the ranks.

Tarique Qayumi, a Los Angeles filmmaker who is trying to sell the company his short, “Last Supper,” called the few hundred dollars in payment “ridiculous” given the hours he invested and the favors he pulled to give his movie a professional look and feel despite its $3,000 budget. Yet if such a deal is offered, Qayumi said he “would grudgingly sign.”

“I just want as many people as possible to see my film, so I really don’t have any bargaining power,” Qayumi said.

A few filmmakers whose shorts are being featured on the channel say that making them has had a career-changing impact, even if the movies lost money.

Mark Osborne went from teaching at the animation school CalArts to directing DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc.’s “Kung Fu Panda” after his stop-motion animation short about worker drones, “More,” won an Oscar nomination in 1999. The movie has yet to recoup its $100,000 budget but it was more than worthwhile, he said. “I always tell everyone, ‘Make shorts, make shorts, make shorts.’”

“Shrek” director Vicky Jenson added a twist to her animation-heavy career by making the short “Family Tree” in 2003. The mystical, humorous short littered with personal references gave her the experience directing real actors that she lacked. It led to a directing job for a live-action feature six years later. “It was my own personal director’s camp,” she said.

For at least one major studio, shorts can be a way to develop new moviemaking techniques and nurture talent while keeping employees on the payroll.

Pixar was a struggling imaging device company in the 1980s, but its early shorts helped pioneer the current golden age of computer-generated animation. Formative shorts such as “Tin Toy” helped spawned the colossal “Toy Story” franchise and the company sold for $7.4 billion to The Walt Disney Co. in 2006.

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