IFP was obviously having a slow news week, so they asked me to write a little something about short films. I’ve cranked out several shorts to date, and I guess you can say I “graduated” to features…in the sense that I made three of them, at least. But recently, I went back to the short-form for my latest film, SLASH, and I guess it got me thinking about the purpose of shorts in your creative life and career.
So, why do we make shorts? Because we can’t afford a feature? Maybe the idea is too slight or sketchy to withstand ninety minutes of screen time? Or you’re hoping to get that expensive festival badge comped (most of my shorts cost less than a Sundance badge these days)?
I was really fortunate to have one of my early shorts, MY MOM SMOKES WEED, play at Sundance (as well as a bunch of other really cool festivals). The questions I always got was, “are you gonna turn this into a feature?” This used to cheese me off. I mean, can’t a short just be a short? Stories should be the length they NEED to be in order to tell the story, right? I’d already decided that I told the story I wanted to tell, and I had a difficult time thinking of it expanded onto a larger canvas. This was probably not too wise, particularly when it comes to longevity.
For many (well, most) filmmakers, the short film serves one of two purposes. It’s either a “calling card” (still not exactly sure what a calling card is, but I’m also one step away from working at Best Buy, so consider the source), or it’s a condensed version of (or a scene from) an intended feature. As such, there’s a lot of pressure on the short to perform. Festivals become crucial, as shorts don’t have a ton of options beyond them for traditional, monetized distribution. Reentering the festival submission season with my new short brought back all the familiar stress and anxiety. In fact, I find that I stress just as much with a short as I do with a feature. And, on the surface at least, the obvious dividends are considerably fewer. The risk vs reward scenario seems out of balance with that of a feature. So, again, why put my head back on the chopping block?
I find it still takes just as much effort getting my next feature off the ground, financially speaking, as it did with my first. When you’re known for making inexpensive films, the money wagon tends to skip your address when it does the rounds. What I like about working in the short form is that I am somewhat in control of my own destiny. My expenses are extremely modest, and often right out of my own personal account. Because the films can’t really generate much (if any) income, I want to make them for a budget that really doesn’t call for many (if any) investors. So, with hardly anyone to answer to, I can try out ideas and techniques that maybe are a bit scary to try with considerable amounts of other people’s money. I know a ton of people do it, but it seems nuts to make a short in the 40-50k range. At that point, you might as well make a feature.
Which sort of brings me to one major point about what I feel the purpose of a short film is. Due to their length, features tend to have fleshed out characters (well, minus TRANSFORMERS) and complicated interactions. You simply don’t have the time for that with a short. In fact, it seems the median acceptable length for a short is getting lower and lower each year. This is especially true as the field becomes much more crowded with quality content. So the short is honestly less about characterization, and more about the concept or “big idea.” Not that every short needs to have a twist or requires a ‘never-before-seen’ plot thread. It’s more along the notion of easily identifiable characters (think iconic) working to exemplify a notion or a theme.
With MY MOM SMOKES WEED, the title pretty much says it all. I was having a difficult time reconciling my relationship with my aging mother and her sometimes maddening lifestyle. We shared one particularly funny incident together, involving a ‘drug run,’ that I thought might make a good film. It was a way of me dealing with my mommy issues, and the scenario itself was rather short. Perfect for a film well under twenty minutes in length. Of course, when I later examined the characters behind that scenario, I realized that I honestly could expand that into a feature—since the characters were far more realized than I originally gave them credit for. And one good thing about expanding a short (particularly one with a decent amount of festival play) into a feature is brand recognition. Basically a small town version of what the studios do over and over with remakes. But with integrity.
On the topic of building a short around a concept rather than a character, with SLASH, what brought the elements together was my weirdo interest in a particular internet subculture…that of erotic fan fiction authors. I coupled this with the humorous notion of a very young kid who’s really into Harry Potter, who accidentally gets caught up in the world of erotic Harry Potter fan fiction. That stuff is out there. It’s not hard to find. It’s just hard to erase from your mind afterwards. The further benefit of making this as an essentially ‘no budget’ short, had to do with the nature of fair usage and copyright infringement. Harry Potter is an inseparable part of the movie. I don’t have to explain to you the odds of me recouping my investment on a feature using copyrighted characters without the permission of the controlling studio.
So, as I send SLASH out into the world, what do I expect from it? It’s really hard to tell. Honestly, it’s not a calling card. I have a manager and I’ve already made features. I guess, as I begin to get festival acceptances, it’s a way of reminding people I’m still out here. Something to keep me busy and fresh while I attempt to raise money for larger projects. On top of that, as I spent more and more time on it, I discovered a wealth of material worthy of expanding into feature length. Since I began the SLASH endeavor, the short that I once thought completely impossible as a feature has found a way to become a feature script I’m pretty happy with. Thus invalidating the entire argument the young me used to scream to the heavens about “films need to be the length they need to be.” Actually, I do still believe that to a point.
And speaking of my younger days, I never once considered submitting any of my student films to even the most regional of festivals. It probably never occurred to me because they all pretty much blew. It boggles my mind (and furiously pushes my jealousy button) when I see more and more student projects playing in the main shorts blocks at Sundance, etc. I can’t imagine the amount of pressure on those film kids. I mean, I always looked at my student shorts as a way to fail upwards. An opportunity to make mistakes amongst my peers without any expectations attached. Is it wrong to think your very first (or maybe second) short needn’t be thrust out into the world alongside polished work by seasoned filmmakers? Again, probably just jealousy on my part. But it does/might set a bad precedent. If our student work is now meant for mass consumption, where and when do we get to make mistakes? I don’t actually have an answer. Please leave one in the comments below.
Slowly, painfully drawing to a close, I would like to take a moment to reiterate expectations from the other end of the table when it comes to your shorts. I’m referring to what programmers tend to like to program. I’ve learned the hard way that ten minutes seems to be the magic number (or glass ceiling) when it comes to runtime. Every minute your film runs above ten makes it exponentially more difficult to program. Even if the programmer loves it. You gotta think about it in blocks. Most shorts blocks run around ninety minutes and tend to include around seven or eight films. If your film is over twenty minutes, you’re essentially eating up a third of the entire shorts block! To squeeze in six or seven more films, they’d all have to be five minutes or under. Please don’t actually check my math here. I suck at it. But you get the point.
Beyond that, shorts blocks typically aren’t assembled of a random jumble of good films. They tend toward a theme. My Sundance shorts block was sort of a substance abuse themed. If you don’t get accepted, it likely has nothing to do with the overall quality of your film. Much of it has to do with how it compliments the other films in the block. Or that’s what I’ve been told to help soften the blow a few times.
If you take anything away from this rambling mess, it’s that you might want to use the opportunity the short-form provides to take some chances. Risk failure. Don’t get in over your head financially. I went pretty far with a short that cost me less than one rent payment. And you don’t need festival acceptance to justify making something you care about. You’re honing your craft. You’re learning how to tell a story with all the same elements as an expensive feature, but without the committee that usually comes along with larger and larger budgets. And a short is a great way to start developing a brand. People love a feature that started off as a short. It’s scientifically proven. So make one…but make it cheap.