Reasons not to make a short film

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4/22/20064 min read

I am being a little anti here just for the sake of it, but I wanted to make people think through the permutations when they sit down and think - "You know what, I am going to make a short film, I am going to be a producer..."

So here's some grumpy things to say about short films and some more optimistic thoughts to go along side them...

First - 99% of short films completely suck

It's fucking hard to make a good short. If it wasn't there would be more of them. This is particularly true of short live action movies - animation fares somewhat better because it is a naturally abbreviated form - the human drama is not naturally interesting in 10 minute doses. Think about this - why don't you have lunch with someone and sit down with them for 10 minutes? How long counts as a good lunch - something between 45 minutes and 3 hours? Why is that?

Think of that great lunch - you start off talking about how you got there, then work, then the family, then problems with the landlord and so on. Would it be a great lunch if you only talked about what a bastard the landlord is? A good lunch has courses, both in food and conversation.

It's contradictory but while a movie can be seen as is anywhere between 8 to 12 short movies sustained thematically, one short does not a movie make.

Antidotes: Make an animation, make your film so awesomely good that people want to see 'the rest of it'. Make your short the first reel of a longer film.

Other reasons shorts suck - cast and crew

Cast and crew make short films for two reasons: One they love you and your idea and want to help you relise it as fully as possible. Two they use the opportunity of not being paid to jump one ladder up the ladder - so the grip will become DOP for free because she gets to shoot something at last. This is means that you are risking the crew fucking things up and people over-extending themselves.

Antidote: Pay them properly (not likely). Be very careful who you choose. Try and find people who like you and will do their normal job for you.

First time directors are scared shitless of actors

Most shorts directors are new directors. They don't know how to direct actors, they don't know the first thing about acting process, they don't know what an actor needs, when to push, when to relax and so on. Consequently they get absorbed in the areas that they THINK matter (like the shot, the costumes etc) and the actors are left out on a limb. This efect is magnified because the script is a short there isn't much of it to analyse for the actors.

Antidote: Don't wing it, study directing actors, and do it in the temple of character first - theatre. Write longer pieces about the character for the actors, backstories and so on. This will give them more to go on and more confidence in you.

No one sees them

It's very hard to make a good short movie that people will seek out. This is partly because there is no distribution outside festivals and internet. So the real question then becomes - who do you want for your audience and why?

Incorrect answers include: 'Your family' they just don't matter.

If your answer is 'the person I want to be my agent' or 'funding bodies' or 'the actor I want to be in my next feature' then you are on the money.

What if is it’s shit - what will happen to your reputation?

I recently saw a short film from someone I was considering using for some professional services. Not anymore. The film tanked. What does this say about them? Does it say they are brave and to be commended for stretching themselves into new areas and learning the ropes? Yes, probably. But it also says they have no fundamental talent. How do you reconcile this? It's very difficult, I don't know really.

Antidote: Make an awesome short movie. Make it under a pseudonym to see if it's good enough first. Make it without shouting all over the internet about it (hard that one). Make sure you make more than one so that the chances of making a good are better.

The good news

Most of the antidotes above are under your control and require more time than money to correct.

The other good news is that you could probably make a feature for the amount of money you are using for your short. It's less effort to make one feature than 8-12 shorts, but one feature will get you a lot more attention (if it's any good!).

I am completely serious about this - why not make a feature? Simon Beaufoy did a movie with 2 weeks workshop, 2 weeks writing, 2 weeks shooting on DV. This is not a love song.

Did I tell you I have made one?

This is the bit where you get to learn from my stupidity.

Oh yeah, I have a short under my belt. I wrote and starred in it but didn't direct or produce. It was shot on 35mm and everything. The director was hoping it might lead onto other screen work - it didn't. The producer has went on to do lots of commercial directing and producing and is now an academic. I continue to write, my mate Stephen who I wrote it with and co-starred with is a great independent director, writer and performer in NZ theatre.

No it's not online. Is it any good? It's Ok. It's wouldn't damage my career but it wouldn't open any doors.

Did I learn anything making it? Actually not much. More about writing for film than making film, but I was already making shorts as an actor anyway so I knew how it all worked.

So why did we make it? We were sitting around underemployed after drama school so we wrote it, shot it on VHS, then rewrote (read cut drastically!). My friend was looking for something to direct - I showed him the script, he liked it and applied for the money. Due to his incredibly long track record in the theatre and patience with frustrating forms he got the money.

So is this short film worth much to me - nope. We should have made a feature. At least I have the excuse that DV wasn't possible at the time. I should have used it at the time to pitch further ideas up the food chain, but didn't even really know I wanted to be a writer at the time!

Stupid on so many levels... you can be much smarter than that if you really define what yo are trying to do with your film and take the time to plan both the film and where it sits in your overall strategy of success.