A reader asked me this important question, which I think deserves its own post. In essence, feature films are more valuable to a director’s reel than shorts, even if the combined running time of a director’s shorts exceeds that of an average feature film. The underlying assumption here is that the director’s chief goal is to direct feature films.
A key point to make at the outset is that circumstances change, and career strategies that are effective at one point in time do not necessarily retain their effectiveness indefinitely. As it happens, short films are not as beneficial to new directors’ careers as they were twenty or thirty years ago. On reflection, they never provided the kind of leverage that a strong screenplay provides to a hungry director, but screenwriting isn’t for everyone and one has to start somewhere.
The decline of short films as portfolio pieces
One of the key reasons for the decline in short films’ career value is their sheer proliferation. Twenty years ago, the mere act of completing a 20-minute film signalled considerable commitment on the part of the filmmaker, especially if it was shot on 35mm. With the advent of affordable digital cameras, the number of filmmakers who have the wherewithal to shoot a decent short has grown, which has led to a corresponding explosion in the number of short films made. This in turn has desensitized and exhausted industry viewers, which makes it much more difficult to stand out. The fact that most short films are unwatchable – mostly as a result of very weak stories – further complicates the issue.
There are two additional reasons for which features are of more value to a director who wants to break into the film industry as a fully paid professional.
Directing feature films: a different ball game
The first reason is that directing feature films is qualitatively different to directing shorts; it’s a whole different ball game, in other words. Successfully sustaining directorial vision over the 30 or so days that many indie features take to shoot is vastly more difficult than maintaining it over the 1-5 days that most short film shoots require.
A director who has completed one or two features can be trusted to lead a film crew over 30 days of gruelling work; a director with numerous shorts, none of which took more than a week to shoot, is not deemed to have earned that kind of credibility. Ironically, several TV commercial directors transitioned to feature films without having ever directed anything longer than a 60-second TV commercial.
The commercial value of feature films
The second reason for the superior career value of feature films is that, unlike shorts, feature films have commercial potential, no matter how cheaply they were shot. Even a feature shot on a phone and assembled on a free video editing package has commercial potential, if the script and narrative concept are marketable. It won’t be easy to sell it, and the upfront fees will be low or absent, but at least it’s a product that has a non-zero chance of being distributed (straight to video, of course).
Shorts, on the other hand, have virtually no commercial potential.
As for music videos, like shorts, they are no longer the avenue to greater things that they used to be. There used to be a clearly observed if unofficial career path for young directors: music videos followed by TV commercials followed by features, if there was a suitable confluence of talent, luck, motivation and contacts. That path is now mostly ancient history.
The TV commercial industry is in decline
The TV commercial business in particular has become formidably tough. Ad agencies used to award TV commercial jobs to production companies on the basis of the director they wanted, after holding conference calls with the shortlisted directors. The selected TV commercial production company would then shoot the commercial for “cost plus x%”, where x% is the production company’s cut.
That model, while still alive, is currently in excruciating agony and has bleak prospects. Only the top end is doing well; the middle-class directors and production companies are struggling. Ad agencies struggle to distinguish between “good” and “excellent” directors, which means that the most suitable director for a given commercial rarely gets the job; sometimes they don’t even get to the conference call stage.
More perniciously, ad agencies are now shooting TV spots in-house, with their own directors.
The result is that many TV commercial production companies are winnowing directors out of their roster. These directors are sometimes forced to abandon filmmaking entirely and become cubicle-bound marketing managers. Some of them were excellent directors and their demise is a pity.
None of the above should be taken to mean that new directors should shoot features as their first projects. Practising with shorts is still an excellent idea, but shoot them as cheaply as you can and treat them for what they are: training and practice.
The final point in the reader’s question concerned cameras. In a past article I emphasised the importance of shooting TV commercials with a “professional” camera after speaking to some TV commercial Executive Producers who were very particular about this issue when considering new directors.
That requirement doesn’t apply to features, in most cases. If you can complete a marketable 90-minute film with a DSLR camera, there is a respectable chance that you can manage the same feat with a fully equipped crew. A reasonable person might even go so far as to argue that a director who can deliver a decent film with cheap equipment will do even better when working with a full crew, but in practice this is clearly not how some industry professionals think.
The successful delivery of a complete, coherent, marketable feature film is a remarkable achievement that garners credibility, regardless of how cheaply it was done.
If, however, TV commercials are your main career focus, the camera caveat still applies. (Don’t shoot the messenger.)
I hope this helps!