It took me seven years and three short films to radically change my mind about the nature of these little beasts.
One, two or three acts, the story principles are still identical to feature drama.
Yet shorts won’t teach you how to write a “big movie”.
In terms of distribution and audience approval, my films have been modestly but increasingly successful.
Yesterday the latest film from my production company, TIN CAN HEART, was nominated for an IF Award. This is one of the most prestigious awards in Australia.
A good time to scrutinize if all the efforts that went into these three films were really worth it.
Let’s start with 5 beliefs that I held before I went on the short film journey and how I think about them now:
Short films don’t follow any rules
The continuity person on my first short, LOVESONG, told me she had studied the story principles of short films. I didn’t see the point of that; I believed short films didn’t follow any story rules.
Over the years I realised that dramatically the same principles apply that make feature films work.
Audiences may be different – and more forgiving – but the better the writer’s grasp of 3-act storytelling (conscious or not), the greater the short’s potential success.
You can either experiment with form, or use the short as an opportunity to learn and perfect your skills before embarking on feature work.
Short films can be made cheaply
LOVESONG cost $25,000, a simple two-hander set in one interior location and minimal exteriors. The bottom line for AEROSOL, a complex blend of live action and animation was only $20,000 and my most recent TIN CAN HEART was made for $80,000. Not the type of money the average person has to spare.
The real budget of each, if cast and crew had been paid commercial rates, ranges somewhere between $100,000 and $500,000.
And you know what?
“That’s after gross net deduction profit percentage deferment ten percent of the nut. Cash, every movie cost $2,184.”
-Robert K. Bowfinger
Each time I see that scene in Bowfinger, I am more convinced Steve Martin was absolutely right. Any indie film can be made cheaply, short or long.
Short films make their money back
No, they don’t.
I hear you think “but they do if you shoot them the Bowfinger way?” Yes, that is if you don’t share the revenue with your cast and crew. Ask the producer of the Academy Award winning HARVEY KRUMPET. After years, it still hasn’t gone into break even and it probably won’t.
For my first short, I borrowed money from family, friends and relatives. At the time I believed my own pitch when I told them they were ‘investing’ and would recoup their money with profit. Yeah right.
If it doesn’t happen for films that receive the greatest exposure possible, it’s safe to say you won’t make your money back, either.
Short films are great calling cards
Admitted, once you have people’s attention, you may blow them away with your achievement. But how to get the attention of the decision makers / money people?
Not sure. At last count, Withoutabox was connecting with over 3,000 (three THOUSAND) Festivals. That’s your competition, right there. Annual number of entries for TropFest alone is creeping up to the 1,000 mark.
Unless your film is in the world’s best 1%, you may have to enter into 100 festivals before getting any results. With entry fees averaging around the $50, the cost of marketing is getting close to most films’ cash production cost.
It used to be that any decent short film would be noticed and celebrated. Those days are over.
Short films teach you good writing
I was really struck by a statement on the commentary track of THE LIVES OF OTHERS by the writer/director:
“I spent something like 7 years of my life making short films and looking back, it probably wasn’t the best investment of my time and creative energy.”
-Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck
Writing a short films shows that you can write a scene, or a sequence at best. It doesn’t prove that you can structure a feature length story or even a TV series episode. Longer formats allow you (require you) to get involved emotionally on a much deeper level. For this, you must have an understanding of broad story structure.
One or two-act short films often rely on a gimmick, a twist. If the twist is strong, the film sells. For a full feature, even with a massive twist, this trick probably won’t work.
So if it is all doom and gloom with short films, why bother?
After all, I kept making short films after the first experience, even though the film didn’t really travel the way I had hoped and the returns didn’t satisfy the investors (they were rather – errm.. invisible).
As a matter of fact there are quite some – successful – filmmakers who never stop making short films.
So, first of all, they aren’t all doom and gloom.
Short films are fun
Not all my shorts achieved all their objectives. Still, I did have a lot of fun and so did the crew.
Because your life doesn’t depend on it, you can work on them at your own pace. You’re ready when you are. During production, you may experience the high octane energy level of a proper film shoot, without the dreadful anxiety that can go with a multi-million dollar production.
You are creating something special in a spirit of collaboration. For most of us, this is a wonderful experience.
You live through a journey, you bond, and at the end you miss it all enormously.
A short film can be a networking tool
This may sound odd, but yes: you get in touch with other creatives, crew and during the marketing you build a network in the festival circuit and distribution.
During pre-production and production your address book will get an enormous boost. You will get to know agents, stock providers, tech support people etc. And because you’re trying to do it on a shoe string, you’ll find a lot of nice people, who share a certain passion for what they do.
If you treat these people with respect, they will help you when you move on in your career.
A short film is a learning opportunity
They say that nothing beats seeing your written work on the screen.
This is very true: hearing the dialogue, feeling the pace, seeing the characters move and act as you described it… It is an experience that cannot be simulated.
And you know what? Everyone can produce or direct a short film. For a writer, producing your own film is a fantastic opportunity to learn how film production works. It will inform everything else you write afterwards.
I didn’t say you will deliver Oscar material, and I didn’t say you’ll learn how to write a feature screenplay, either.
A short film can be a career dip test
If filmmaking – or writing – is a hobby, chances are you’re secretly dreaming of becoming a professional.
Writing, directing or producing a short film allows you to be active in the industry. You can approach it with the mindset of an amateur (that’s fine) or a pro (now, that’s brave!). In any case, going through the full journey of making a short film will give you a better understanding of what this industry entails. Perhaps it’s not your thing.
Finding out early that you’re not really cut out for a professional career in film can save you a lot of stress and you can keep making films as a hobby.
If however you have a knack for it, chances are that cast and crew will notice and spread the word.
Short films are short
Feature films are monsters. They take years to develop and once they’re ready, they take years to turn a profit – if ever.
A short is a manageable enterprise. The development and financing may seem to take long, the shoot will be over before you blink.
To prove this point, some film festivals even require you to shoot, edit and complete your film within 24 or 48 hours.
When you’ve prepared thoroughly, a short film production shouldn’t cause too many headaches. Even without much experience, you may well end up with a satisfying result.
To summarise, beware:
- Short films are subject to the same story rules as features
- Short films are proportionally just expensive
- Short films hardly ever make their money back
- Short films can be talent showcases – if they’re seen
- Short film writing doesn’t prepare you for longer formats
But keep making ’em, because:
- Short films are fun
- Short films build your network
- Short films are learning opportunities
- Short films can be career tests
- Short films are manageable
I’m over producing short films. I’ve loved every minute working on them, but there’s a time to move on. (I’ve said this before)
I will keep helping people with advice and feedback but you’ll need pretty strong arguments to squeeze a producer’s credit out of me.
If you’re at the start of your journey, you might want to check out this:
- How to write a good short film script (Times Online)
- Writing for short film (BBC Writers Room)
- Writing Short Films (The Crafty Writer)
- Introduction to Writing Shorts (Writing for Performance)
- Short Films for download (Aussie Short Films)
What are your thoughts as writers of short films? Are short films fun, useful, essential?
What did you learn in the process of writing or filming? What did you un-learn afterwards?
Please share with us in the comments.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.