Writing Short Films – What Is The Point?

In his commentary to The Lives of Others, german director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – who also helmed The Tourist – says that the seven short films he made before going to feature film were a complete waste of time. I have always found this an interesting statement and it may be true for him, but can we generalize?

by Karel Segers

Recently I attended a screening of a dozen short films made by young filmmakers, hosted and funded by Metro Screen, a local organisation supporting emerging and professional filmmakers. It was an enlightening experience.

I had worked with the writers and directors of these films to discuss the story challenges they were facing. They went back to polish, revise or rewrite their short film scripts. Then they had the opportunity to meet with me in person and discuss the direction they had taken or wanted to take for a next draft.

Short Films

This was the second year I had the opportunity to work within this program and here are the lessons I have learned over the two years:

1.) a gentle push of encouragement can give a filmmaker just the momentum they need.
2.) the impact you have on a film as a consultant can be humblingly minimal.
3.) yes, it is possible to see a wonderful screenplay f***ed up on the screen.

The last point was sad and suprising … The one short script I had loved the most last year – it had moved me to tears – then came out as one of the weaker films. Fortunately this year there were no such disappointments.

This time around some individual films stood out and the overall standard of the films seemed higher.

The impact you have on a film as a consultant can be humblingly minimal.


Are you biased?

Ironically, the films I liked most this year were not appreciated in the same way by others I spoke with afterwards. My favorite film – the one I had had the least input in – didn’t seem to work for a large part of the audience. Ah well, de gustibus et coloribus

Let me ask you something…

Does your knowledge and understanding of the writing and/or filmmaking process affect your movie viewing in any way?

For me, it doesn’t. I can perfectly enjoy a movie for the first, second and third time without analyzing it. In fact, I have to force myself to concentrate on the story. I get distracted more easily by cinematography, music, dialogue … and sometimes even lose the story altogether…

Except when I’ve worked on a film.

Everybody loves their child (and their nephew)

Short Film Fest

That night I found it hard to completely engage as an unbiased audience member. I am conscious of my professional opinion of the film, whether I believe it works for an audience or not.  Now here’s the funny side of this: as a rule I will enjoy the film more than the regular audience even though I’m more professionally aware. I don’t mind this, at all.

At least five of the films were quite brave explorations of story and universe. When I had read the first draft of these films, I sometimes didn’t get what they were trying to say. The stories might have been perfectly clear in the mind of the writers but on the page… some of these short films were a mess.  As the writers went through the development process, the scripts became clearer, sharper and more cinematic.

On screening night, I believed that each of these filmmakers had achieved what they filmmakers wanted to see. They were a statement of talent, skill and an emerging voice. I saw their point. Even the one script I had lost hope for, came out so much better on the screen than expected.

It didn’t mean they all appealed to my taste.

It’s okay to love bad short films

One film in particular I really didn’t like. For me it didn’t work and I don’t believe it would have worked for an audience of non-filmmakers. Fortunately the theater was full of friends and relatives of the filmmakers, so the film did receive some love and afterwards it turned out to be quite the favorite of a lot of people.

Here are some things I was reminded of:

1.) you don’t need to like a film to see its merits (and it always helps if it’s a short film)
2.) short films are not about money; they serve to demonstrate specific talents, skills and ‘voice’.
3.) yes, it is possible to see a wonderful screenplay blossom on the screen

Most filmmakers knew what film they were making, and they stuck to it. The films were not perfect – although a few came tantalizingly close – but the purpose of making a short film is exactly this: to push your vision and see whether you can make it work.

From short to long

Oscar Shorts

That said, let’s be clear: I am a firm believer that feature films must always aim for an audience large enough to recoup their cost. A short film doesn’t – necessarily.

They provide a testing ground for filmmakers to experiment and see whether and how things work, so they can minimize risk when they move to expensive feature drama.

And whatever Mr F.H. Von Donnersmarck said, those seven short films might still have taught him a thing or two about filmmaking.

– Karel Segers


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