This post is about planning and directing short films in such a way as to extract maximum career benefit from them. I wrote it specifically for filmmakers who are ambitious and strategic in their approach; everyone else will probably find it very calculating and career-driven, which is totally okay with me.
The premise here is that filmmakers make short films for the purpose of honing their skills and moving up the career ladder, with a view to being paid to direct fully funded projects in the future. (Be warned that the effectiveness of this career strategy has declined.)
1. Keep your short film SHORT – 10 minutes or less
I cannot overemphasize how much film festivals discriminate against short films that are too long (even if they are below the upper limit allowed by the festival).
Yes, they will all vigorously deny it and claim that films are assessed on merit alone, but my advice to you is this: don’t listen to what they say – watch what they do instead. Film festival selections show a clear and unequivocal preference for shorts that are shorter rather than longer. By their deeds you shall know them!
If a festival must choose between a 25-minute film and five films that last five minutes each, they will always tend to prefer the shorter ones. Yes, there are exceptions, but general trends are of greater strategic significance to us, so brush the exceptions aside for once and look at the big picture.
A historical exception: the short that Spielberg used to get his big break at Universal Studios was 26 minutes long. Do not forget that this happened in 1968, when the world was a different place, and that the helmer was none other than Steven Spielberg. I caution you all against making arbitrary inferences from this exception.
I actually really enjoy short films that last 20 or 25 minutes, but unfortunately we have to work with the reality of film festivals and their agendas, which seldom have anything to do with helping filmmakers.
Why do film festivals prefer shorter films? It’s simple: shorter films mean more films, which means more filmmakers, which means more publicity, which means more money.
Their preference doesn’t look so baffling anymore, does it?
Practical tip: the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films – arguably the most prestigious short film festival in the world – has two sub-categories in live action: under 15 minutes and over 15 minutes. Most film festivals, however, have a single limit, which is usually 30 minutes or 20 minutes. It behooves you to stay well below the upper limit.
I guarantee that you will not regret keeping it short (more about this below).
2. Use the three-act structure
With the exception of Quentin Tarantino, no one is above the three-act structure, so learn it, understand it and practise it. Writing a short film is an outstanding opportunity to practise writing coherent scripts with a three-act structure.
The hot debate on the three-act structure, sparked by my post on the topic, shows no sign of abating, but let me tell you this: if you want mainstream success, you had better make yourself like the three-act narrative structure, because it’s the best model we have and it’s here to stay.
Most filmmakers have no problem with it; others read my article on the three-act structure and then write long comments that are usually interesting and occasionally hostile, all of which is okay with me.
3. Make your short film stylish
Short films simply don’t have enough running time or substance to make as much of an impact on the audience as feature films, but you can improve the impact and career value of a short film by making it exceptionally stylish and visually pleasing. There are many different visual styles that can be used, so don’t think that you are being prescribed a strict aesthetic philosophy: you are not.
What I am suggesting is that you give your short film a distinctive, carefully planned, impeccably executed aesthetic quality. You will need a serious film crew to achieve this.
Making your short film exceptionally stylish and carefully executed has one other significant advantage: it will make it more likely to impress the TV commercial industry, where stylized aesthetics and meticulous production are at a premium. While directing spec TV commercials is the only consistent way to break into directing TV spots, some TV commercial directors got their break with a short film, and in all cases these short films were stylish, carefully planned, meticulously executed and SHORT! 🙂
What goes into making a short film stylish?
I’ll keep it brief:
– Impeccably appealing production design
– Exquisite lighting
– Compelling camerawork
– Tight editing
The last point is so important that it needs its own section.
4. Master the art of movie editing
I have written it before and I will do so again: if you are an ambitious filmmaker, you need to become a master editor. It’s incredibly rewarding and it is a skill that will set the quality of your directing apart from that of other filmmakers.
In an age when cameras are freely available and anyone can dabble in filmmaking, with ALL amateur work now having that gorgeous shallow depth of field look that we could only dream of a few years ago, how exactly do you plan to distinguish yourself from the hordes of wannabes? Becoming a director with an advanced understanding of what makes a great sequence is one way to do it. People will notice.
If your mission is to assemble a compelling film that only lasts 5 minutes, editing is more important than ever. Assembling a slick and stylish 5-minute film will teach you a lot about crafting good sequences, and it will all come in handy when you move on to features or TV spots.
Learn the art of movie editing and distinguish yourself in an increasingly overcrowded industry.
5. Aim for broad appeal
If you think that your massively niche-specific short will be treated with respect by the mainstream festivals, you are in for a rude awakening. If the topic really matters to you, by all means go ahead and make the short, but if you are an ambitious, career-driven filmmaker who actually wants to get somewhere, you need to stay away from narrow niches that will turn off the mainstream festivals.
I will not give specific guidance here: use your common sense and be strategic! Film festivals are not fair, so don’t expect fairness. Enough said.
6. Avoid unduly ambitious stories
If you attempt to make a miniature feature film, packing big ideas and other complications into a 10-minute running time, there is a serious risk of running into one or more of the following difficulties:
(i) the short feels like a trailer, leaving the audience feeling dissatisfied;
(ii) the short feels rushed;
(iii) the short is marred by a distinct feeling of failure, giving the audience the impression that the filmmaker wanted to make a feature but only had three days and a few thousand dollars, so butchered it and crammed the pieces into a 10-minute running time.
Solution: write a script with compelling but simple narrative goals that can be achieved comfortably in 10 minutes or less. Do not attempt to cram every element of wildly successful feature films into a short: it can’t be done without making it feel like a very long trailer.
7. Tight pacing
Slow pacing is mostly unacceptable in feature films (only Kubrick pulled it off consistently), and it is even more disastrous in short films.
Short films need to grab the audience with a compelling hook as quickly as possible – I estimate that you have about 60 seconds to achieve that; maybe two minutes, if the visuals are of an exceptionally high quality.
Hence in a 10-minute short, don’t make us wait five minutes for the story to get going: that is screenwriting failure, as far as I’m concerned.
As a very rough guide, for a 10-minute film I would recommend making it crystal clear what the problem is no later than the two-minute mark; act two (the confrontation) develops between minutes 2 and 7; and act three takes up the balance of the running time.
It is essential to grab interest as quickly as you can – the sooner the better. Take this seriously.
8. Edit the film down to a running time in multiples of 30 seconds
This will surely draw the ire of some readers, but I don’t mind getting flamed, and if at least one filmmaker among you benefits from this tip, it’s all good.
When you edit your film, edit it down to a running time that is an exact multiple of 30 seconds, right down to the frame: exactly 5 minutes, zero seconds and zero frames, for example.
Why will this help you? It’s simple: it will show the TV commercial industry and other serious employers that you can be trusted to deliver a project with a pre-determined running time. It signals professionalism and discipline.
TV spots have absolutely precise running times: 30, 60, 90 or 120 seconds. There is no messing around in that industry, but the work is worth doing, because it is a luxurious opportunity to develop as a director while getting paid to do it. Don’t snub TV commercials: it’s awesome work, if you can get it.
Following the advice in this article will enhance your chances of making a compelling, successful short that will be screened by numerous festivals and stands a better chance of landing a paid gig for the director. It’s all based on tough personal experience and dispassionate observation.
I hope you found this useful. Good luck and keep me posted!