It takes the average viewer about 19 minutes to decide what they’re going to watch next on Netflix, ShortsTV CEO Carter Pilcher tells me. “But we’ve got catalogs full of five, six or seven minute quality short films they could be watching instead.”
The inability to keep viewers attention has been a problem since the invention of the remote control. On linear TV they were known as channel flippers and their itchy thumbs drove programmers and advertisers crazy.
While the ability to binge watch long form series has partially quelled this behavior, anyone wanting to make their way through quality short form content has been at a loss. That was the inspiration for the Shorts’s new app.
Taking the type of algorithm that powers sites like Netflix, Pandora and Spotify and adding in a deeper degree of AI and machine learning, Shorts is able to create customized (and customizable) playlists that autoplay as soon as the app is launched, creating an experience that’s a lot like linear TV.
“We wanted the app to augment and deepen the experience of watching TV rather than to become an alternative experience,” Pilcher explains. “And we wanted everyone to have an experience that is tailored specifically for them so that they learn to trust the app, to stay and see what’s next, rather than just flip the channel.”
To that end, every viewer in the household will have their own account. Users can customize their feeds by liking films or skipping them, which helps the algorithm to learn their preferences. In addition, users can create their own playlists based around specific genres. “Go in, pick a genre like animation, and say, ‘I want funny animations,’ and maybe a mood like happy or sad and a language,” Pilcher says, and Shorts will create a custom playlist for you from the over 3,000 short films in its constantly-updated library.
Shorts recently launched the app in the Netherlands via Ziggo, a local MVPD that was looking to make the most out of its new state-of-the-art Horizon set top box. The app launched in February 2018 on the set top box and a mobile app is due out next month. “We went into it with two key premises,” notes Pilcher. “One, we wanted the experience to be seamless, we wanted it to feel like TV because every time the viewer needs to stop and make a decision on what to watch next, you’ve degraded the experience. And two, we wanted to be able to guide them, because aside from a few enthusiasts, nobody knows the titles of short films.”
The app has been very well received thus far and there are plans in place to roll it out in Belgium, in India and in the United States.
The Short Film Phenomenon
As a huge fan of short film I am admittedly not an unbiased audience for Pilcher and the Shorts app. That said, the UX of the app is (more or less) exactly what I predicted in my book Over The Top. How The Internet Is (Slowly But Surely) Changing The Television Industry, in a chapter called “The Spotifyization of Television” that talked about how users still want a lean back experience, how they often-but-not-always want someone else to do the choosing for them, so that TV of the future will offer personalized playlists, curated playlists (aka network feeds) along with the ability to create your own playlists or simply watch the same show over and over again.
So there’s that.
There’s also the fact that short films are enjoying a renaissance these days as there are more and more ways for viewers to watch them and to finally understand that short films are to feature films as short stories are to novels and that all are their own unique art forms.
“If you look at the best filmmakers in the world,” Pilcher says, “you’ll find they’ve made more shorts than feature films. If you look at all the guys who have won Best Director Oscars in the last five or six years, all of them, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, the guy who made Birdman, Alejandro Iñárritu, Steve McQueen, all of them have made as many shorts as features. The guy who did Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, he made two features and about 12 or 13 shorts.”
While short films have always been a way for new and upcoming (and underfunded) talent to see and be seen, Pilcher sees established actors and directors looking more at short films these days too.
“For an actor or a director, they’re able to try something totally new and different, and they do it for three or four or five days, and then they’re done. And I’ve had actors, well known actors, tell me that they truly believe that taking breaks to work on short films helps make them better actors.”
Enriching Short Filmmakers
While making short films is never going to make anyone a billionaire, Pilcher does want to make sure it doesn’t make them a pauper either. “Every year as audiences learn a little bit more about the shorts, the audiences get bigger,” he notes. “This year, the Oscar-nominated shorts had a higher box office in North America than all the nominated documentary features combined. And they had a higher box office in North America than any of the foreign language nominees. That’s something. By increasing the public’s exposure to and appetite for short films, we can help them increase how much they’re making. We don’t just want audiences to watch short films on our app—we want them to support these films in the theaters too.”
Short Films vs Solitaire
At a time when attention is at a premium, Shorts’s ultimate goal is to become viewers go-to entertainment option, giving them something more engaging and satisfying than celebrity or creator videos in around the same amount of time.
“What we’re trying to be is your go-to entertainment companion,” Pilcher states. “If I have five extra minutes, am I going to play solitaire while I’m riding on the subway, or am I going to watch three short films? Well, why not watch three short films?”
Why not indeed.
Originally published at Forbes.com on March 27, 2018