I have been a filmmaker for a long time and a storyteller since I was kid. This is what I love to do more than anything. And some months, it’s what I love to do more than paying rent or eating, apparently. It’s a passion and a love.
The best thing I have ever done for my storytelling education is work in film festivals. I helped found one in Hollywood called the Feel Good Film Festival in 2007. I worked on that film festival practically fulltime while also working on the LA Film Festival, and as a Panel Producer on AFI Film Festival. After FGFF got up and running, I left to help found the Catalina Film Festival, which is where I currently hang my hat. Catalina Film Festival (www.catalinaff.org) is a remarkable festival with programming comparable to Sundance and Tribecca. With my own films, I have gone to many festivals. There is one thing I have learned, without a shadow of a doubt. Almost every short is too long.
Having seen many, many, many shorts programs. Having programmed many, many, many shorts programs myself, this is one constant truth that stays consistent year after year, almost every short is too long. Over the course of the past 5 years I have seen no less than 4000 shorts, probably more. I can see three common mistakes filmmakers make that could be preventing them from getting accepted into festivals.
1. No beginning, middle and end. A short is a short film. Not a sketch (a set up for a punch line). Not a scene (Part of a bigger piece of story), although some brilliant shorts have taken place in one location. It should have a full story arc with a “beginning” that sets up the story and our character. A “middle” that shows the character going through conflict, being faced with change. And an “end” in which we see a resolution. Maybe the main character changes, maybe the world around him changes but there needs to have been a change/exploration/journey, a reason for making us watch this story. The arc can be different based on the story. It can be recovering from a break up or the desperate need to learn how to fly. The Butterfly Circus to me is an example of a perfect short film in terms of story, arc and resolution. Another great short (animation) can be seen in this video:
2. A feature story crammed into a short. A short is not a trailer for your feature. A short story is a very specific type of story. It is very challenging to tell a compelling/entertaining full story in under 30 mins (ideally shorter). It is a story that couldn’t be expanded into a feature. It is a story that needs to be told in short form. You might be able to use characters from that short for a feature. You might be able to use the story line as a B story or a side story but if is not possible to extend into a feature, then it’s as strong as a short as it can be. A feature has breathing room to figure out it’s journey, not much but some. It takes a special skill to distill your short story down to the bare bones, to craft it and tell it in as little time as possible and keep it full at the same time. Mark Twain said “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one.” The Pixar shorts have been an amazing example of very short films that are complete and shouldn’t be expanded into a feature film.
3. Not matter how short it is, it’s too long. I have seen 3 min shorts that are too long and 23 min shorts that aren’t long enough. This observation is not something you can quantify. It is not possible to say a good short is exactly 12:33min. It’s something you need to trust a good editor with. Someone who can watch your movie and tell you where you are getting redundant, where you are being obvious and where you are losing your audience. If your short is about two people lost in the desert and one of the those people is singing “100 bottle of beers” on the wall the whole time, you do not need to show us her counting the whole time. I know you shot it. I know there are some amazing shots. I know you want us to truly GET how long they have been stuck but you do NOT want the audience to feel like they’ve been tortured in your movie. You want your audience to see the poor person stuck with the singer be tortured. Have her start to sing, then cut to her hitting 99 bottles of beer. We’ll get it. I promise. Give your audience, and your festival programmer, some credit. And please don’t torture your audience because you really like that shot of a lizard you got.
Another point on this topic, just from a mathematical point of view, the shorter your movie, the easier it is for you to get accepted. I know that seems that a crazy generalization but I have found that it stands uncorrected so far. Programmers get between hundreds and THOUSANDS of submissions each year and they have limited time to fill. If a short is pretty good but is 25 min long, it’s chances are much lower than the short is which is also pretty good but 7min long or the one that is 3min long. Its just math. The smaller festivals want as many films as they can because that’s more filmmakers that can come and more audience per movie the filmmakers can bring. The more good movies that they can fit in, the better. Now if you have an exceptional movie like The Butterfly Circus, you have no problem getting into any festival even at 21mins long.
However, if you watch that movie, there isn’t a frame I would cut out. There isn’t a single shot or line that doesn’t move the story and the characters forward. That is a short that is exactly the length it should be.
Fairly Criminal is a short that I directed. We spent a lot of time on in the script development period. We wanted a clear and strong blue print for our short. However, even in post, we trimmed and cut and trimmed and cut so it would be as tight and lean as we could make it. And there are probably still places where we could make it shorter. Although, we have had a lot of luck with this short in the festivals.
There is no accounting for taste. Different people respond to different stories, ways of filming, production values, themes, symbolism, drama and comedy. You cannot please everyone. But if your short is the length it should be, if you honored your vision and your story within the time frame it should be told, then you did a big part of your job.
‘Originally posted on www.FilmCourage.com‘