Writing With A Purpose (1)

A notable Australian filmmaker once commented to me that any aspiring director needs to be able to generate their own material. More specifically, they should write their own scripts for at least the first five years or more of their career.

Calling-cards, Webisodes and the Problem with Short-Films

It’s not difficult to see such an observation as a truism that stems directly from the nature of how most directors emerge (not just in Australia but overseas as well). Short-films, the festival circuit, seed-funding or development investment very often tied to director-producer teams. Or, at the very least, unless the director knows and is friends with a screenwriter they only have themselves to rely on for material until they can afford the luxury of paying for, or being paid to direct, a script written by someone else.

Thus the long established tradition of the director-driven short-film with a purpose.

Short films may certainly be a viable and dynamic medium for the creation of cinematic art but artistic merit unto itself is very rarely the impetus for making a short film. The purpose of the overwhelming majority of short films produced every year around the world is two-fold:  a) as a viable way for you to learn about writing, directing and filmmaking with limited resources (witness the fact that film schools the world over are predicated on the making of short films), and b) as a professional calling-card; a micro-showcase of ability with which to convince producers and financiers of your worthiness to make larger, longer cinematic works.

Artistic merit unto itself is very rarely
the impetus for making a short film.

Calling-Card and Learning Tool – these are the driving forces behind the creation of so many short films every year. And yet, somewhat ironically, a great many short films fundamentally fail to fulfill either purpose. Entertaining or intriguing they may well be, but if the purpose in writing and making them was to learn about making longer works – and producing a calling card to prove you are capable of making longer works – then they are most often sorely lacking. Whilst navel-gazing and self-indulgence are curses that afflict too many short films the bigger, and more universal, problem may be simply that the format of the short-film itself is not conducive to these intended purposes.

A great many short films fundamentally
fail to fulfill either purpose.

The short film falls short as a Learning exercise because making a short film runs the risk of only really teaching you about making short-films. The relevance of short film structures, patterns and conventions to feature and long-form drama are tenuous at best. And this is only right and proper; a good short should Not be simply a feature film shoved into a small space. That is a recipe for disaster. Slice-of-life, the punch-line joke, the microcosm observation, the intimate poetic rendering are perfectly fitting structures and styles for short films and indeed can make for wonderful audience engagement and experience. But, these things are rarely viable outside of the short-film format; or at the very least do not inspire confidence in financiers and funding bodies looking to make longer projects.

Making a short film runs the risk of only really
teaching you about making short-films.

A short film, regardless of how good it is as an artwork, is unlikely to effectively demonstrate you can sustain character arcs or that you understand classical story-telling structure. A short film doesn’t prove you know how to develop story over time or construct consistent dramatic tension and release in a longer form. Similarly a short film will struggle to demonstrate that you understand audiences and genre and know how to engage a broad audience. Without these things a short film presents little real evidence you have what it takes to write and make a viable feature or long-form drama.

A short film presents little real evidence
you have what it takes to write.

Referring to this mode of the Writer-Director immediately carries the moniker of the Auteur; a singular vision author of a film and a mode of filmmaking that very often (as expressed by the French New Wave fathers of Auteur Theory) focuses on the Visual rather than the Literary, the Composition rather than the Narrative. Whilst few might openly agree that the Director is the sole or even primary Author of a film (certainly not the often sidelined screenwriters of the world) the fact remains that the idea of the Auteur-Director has firmly stuck since the 1960’s and lead directly to the very diretor-centric mind-sets that permeate Hollywood and national cinemas outside of the US.

But there is a different model beyond writer-directors, not necessarily a new model but one with increasing prominence that perhaps leads us away from director-centric modes and prompts us to rethink the functionality of the short film as calling-card/learning tool for filmmakers.

(on to Part 2)

Mike Jones has a diverse background in screen media crossing writing, technical production and academic research. He is an award winning teacher, author and currently lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School. www.mikejones.tv
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cameron Cassan

4 thoughts on “Writing With A Purpose (1)”

  1. Mike,

    Further to the idea of the ‘calling card’, many of the successful modern directors didn’t come from short films but from the commercial and music video business. The likes of Michael Bay didn’t even work in simple scene structures but in a collage of images that have no relation to the art of telling a story.

    Anthony Minghella is a great example of a filmmaker who came to the film world from a more literary background. He started writing plays and radio dramas before moving into television and eventually film.

    When referring to a short film are you thinking more exclusively the five or ten minute film? I have found that a twenty minute film does have enough time that you can get involved and there can be development of plot and character.

  2. This is a good point Mark. A 20min short is a very different beast but, that said, there are very few short film festivals that will accept films over 20 mins. Most want them to be under 15. The exceptions being short films solicited from ‘name’ directors but for unknown filmmakers you severely cut your film-festival options if you’re over 15mins. Broadcasters pose the same issues; there is no market for one-off 30min programmes anymore (unless it’s children’s tv) – they wont (or mostly dont) screen anything between 5mins and an hour.

    The music video and tv advert angle is a different story. There are a great many filmmakers who have come from this (though citing Michael bay hardly does this pathway any credibility – the lack of ‘simple scene structures’ is evident in his non-sensical script-less films) But Niel Blomkamp of District 9 fame is an example, as is Spike Jonze. These filmmakers came from music videos and advertising. Mingella is an example of someone coming to cinema late having built a career in other mediums. But such exceptions prove the rule as people doing this kind of late career medium shift are very rare.

    Certainly there are many ways to making long-form cinema (be it episodic Tv or feature length). But the most common direct pathway since the advent of the modern film-school in the 60’s has arguably been the short fiction dramatic film. But this legacy comes form a history where festivals were direct markets for selling films and broadcasters and distributers were hungry for this content and for ear-marking future filmmakers for bigger projects. This is where the market has dropped out, just as the ‘noise’ of many filmmakers on many media has risen. Supply and Demand.

    This is what leads me to the question of ‘What other option aside from short-films and music videos is there to serve as viable calling card in a world were every man and his dog has a glitzy stylistic short film and audiences are far more story-savvy than they have ever been.

    In part 2 I’ll get a little into how the online Web-series may be that new calling card of the future (if not the now) Thanks for reading.




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