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I just finished watching a really strong short submitted to us for ATLFF13. When it began I was fearful it was going to be another cliched riddled affair because of the subject matter, but 60 seconds in I was hooked. By the halfway point I was excited we had gotten such a submission. By the end I was elated to know we're looking at another strong year for shorts. If only it wasn't 29 minutes long.
The film's length, and because it's a Graduate Thesis film, reminds me of the conversation I had with Christopher Holland of Film Festival Secrets about three weeks ago. Many film programs require that students start with short time frames and then work their way up. As Chris rightly brought up, this is a backwards way to train students.
Many will disagree with me, however I sincerely believe the notion that making a feature is more difficult than making a short has grown more out of the logistics and costs of making a feature than it does the form itself. Even then, that perception of logistics and cost can be an illusionary barrier as there are filmmakers who made critically acclaimed features with no more than two or three actors and a crew of two.
With a decent script with a serviceable character arc, decent production values and smart editing, most folks can make a feature that works. It may not blow minds but it can be at least a functioning story that hits all the beats. What takes a feature from decent to "holy sh*t" lies in the power of individual scenes and moments.
I'm not confident that encouraging filmmakers to aim towards learning how to stretch out a story, as opposed to learning how to pack more story into smaller moments, is the wisest course. I would love to hear from film schools why they instruct students to make longer shorts. What are the goals.
Below I've included the last three minutes of THE GODFATHER as an example. Even if you haven't seen the movie, if you don't know the plot, you can learn and infer a lot about what kind of man Michael is, what his relationships are currently like, and what likely preceded this scene. More importantly, we don't need to know the specifics, we as the audience only have to be clear about what the characters want and where they end up. The central conflict is Michael convincing his wife Kay that he's still a decent man. Michael does that. Relieved, Kay exits satiated. Seconds later, from Kay's point of view, we visually see that comfort she gained instantly evaporate.
The Godfather End Scene
Story aside, where the greatest impact on shorts can be felt is in how far and wide a short can travel. That 29 minute short, as good as it is, has to be so good that programmers can justify taking up the slots of two or three shorts. If they can't do that, then they have to consider if they can program it in front of a feature or elsewhere. Chances are they'll be hard pressed to find a film that it will work with. Thirty minutes in front of a feature can feel like an eternity for an audience, making for a long screening. Even if they can slot a 30 minute film into a shorts block, once an audience becomes accustomed to seeing several 10 to 15 minute shorts back to back in a 90 minute block, a 30 minute film can feel long as hell.
By requiring filmmakers to make longer shorts at the point of their career when they'll most be trying to get noticed, film schools may be making that harder than intended. Not only on the festival circuit but online as well. Some data shows that only 50% of online watchers will finish a video that's 2 to 10 minutes long. Over 20 minutes that number gets closer to 30%.
Below I've embedded two shorts. Both clock in around 8 minutes. One name you should definitely recognize and the other, even if you don't, did go on to make a few features and you'll find people that remember this short immediately. If your school allows you the freedom to make a short of any length, go for under 15 and definitely shoot for 8. Eight is what programmers at SXSW and Sundance, two biggies suggest. We at ATLFF definitely say go for anything under 15, and as a programmer I enjoy packing in as many shorts into a block as I can.
If you're a school, may I suggest you rethink what your requirements are. If your students are making 25 minute shorts and they're playing multiple festivals more power to you. However, if you seriously aren't seeing your alums coming out with shorts that are playing more than a handful of festivals I say it's time to reassess. SPIN wouldn't likely have played 8o festivals if it hadn't been so short. More importantly though, if your students aren't learning to pack more into less, you're sending them into a world in which their daily bread is likely to be making short form content like commercials and their training could be hindering them. Most important, audiences crave moments that they can connect with, the two Suns in STAR WARS, Gene Kelley dancing with Jerry are what make films memorable, and audiences aren't going to care if your students got an A because they hit some arbitrary running time.
Jane Campion's PEEL (1986) Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival
Jamin Winans SPIN (2005) Over 40 Awards at 80 Film Festivals