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It’s how Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas and Scorsese got their start. As a producer, I found the first three filmmakers I ever worked with through short film showcases. Always on the lookout for new talent, I still try my best to make it to film festivals, film school screenings and private showings of independent films. USC, UCLA, NYU, Columbia and AFI, in particular, all do a great job of exposing student work to the film community. A host of other film schools make an annual trek to Hollywood, blanketing the town with postcards and full-color brochures and renting theaters to champion their school’s talent.
But things changed not too long ago. Today, a few clicks of a mouse are all any producer needs to bring thousands of showcase shorts streaming right into his or her living room. Over a thousand sites offer up a seemingly endless crop of narrative, documentary or experimental shorts, many produced with a department store video camera and edited on a home computer. It sure beats sifting through a pile of scripts and toting home a dozen or so to read over a fine spring-like southern California weekend. Grab a tub of popcorn, sit back and surf! It’s so easy who could resist? But that soon became the problem.
Overnight, anyone with a camcorder was making movies. Every pimple-faced 13-year-old was a budding filmmaker. No script, no problem. No actors, so much the better. What was once a novel and facile way of introducing acting, writing and directing talent to the industry quickly gave way to a glut of amateurish, poorly conceived, and horribly produced schlock. The players in Hollywood quickly tired of the next slice-of-life, Gen-X or Gen-Y youth-angst offering. Spending an evening viewing out-of-focus, unedited, plotless wonders became a chore akin to watching paint dry. If it’s possible, it even began to make reading scripts fun again! I would have bet the flurry of shorts available over the net would have diminished at least by half as a direct consequence.
Not so. Instead, it’s doubled. And I still watch them, though with limited patience and a very discretionary “delete” instinct. Why? Because the flood of new screenplays making the rounds each year has quadrupled and covering them—as any agent, producer or film exec will tell you—can be an expensive and time-consuming nightmare. If “everyone” is writing a screenplay, you can bet most are pretty bad. And though there are no doubt an equally rare number of gems in the script and the short film format, watching (as opposed to reading) a movie seems a more economical (and enjoyable) use of time and resources.
There is another reason. For anyone who has actually made a movie, a knee-jerk respect exists for any maverick digging into his own pocket, gathering the resources and cranking out one of his own. The short film marks the filmmaker as one who has tackled the physical, financial and creative challenge of putting words into moving images that tell a story. Nothing quite compares to showcase your talent.
In 2004, Australians Leigh Whannel and James Wan patched together a short script as the basis for a four-minute DVD they shot in their basement as a pitch for their screenplay, Saw. Their script was ultimately produced on a shoestring budget of $1.2 million, Whannel went on to star in the film and Wann to direct and the movie grossed $102.9 million worldwide—$55 million in North America alone.
Which, in turn, is the one big caveat for the screenwriter: no one reads short film scripts. It is the film, not the writing, which impresses. Short film scripts are viewed as production tools. The storytelling talent the short showcases is generally accepted to be that of the “filmmaker,” an ego-title often usurped by the director. And, fair or not, short films serve primarily as calling cards for feature or television film directing careers. (On occasion, one acts as a springboard for the writer to develop a feature film based on the short—as when James Dearden was asked to expand his 40-minute short, “Diversion“–resulting in the 1987 blockbuster Fatal Attraction, directed by Adrian Lyne.). But for the most part, the scribe is way down the list when kudos for the best short is handed out. Because agents and producers sell features, not shorts. That’s the business they are in. They’re interested in people who make movies happen. That’s why when your short hits the circuit, you are strongly advised to have a feature concept or screenplay (something you would like to do next) ready to pitch when they say “what else have you got.”
And if you’re going to write a short, and you can raise the funds to film it, why not direct it also? As did the four poster boys for a film school education whose famous last names began this column. They wrote, as well as directed their early shorts. But it was the features they were burning to make that got them development deals and offices on the studio lot. And it was the universal tendency (sprouting from the French “auteur” theory) to regard the director as the primary creator of the film that made them household names.
If a painfully shy George Lucas can do it, you can too. Stick to a sync sound narrative short and don’t get too experimental. It’ll help form your creative vision, you’ll get full credit for any eventual success and, trust me, you’ll be happy you did. (Is there anyone who doesn’t want to direct?) If nothing else, you’ll learn more about screenwriting—and the real world challenges of translating words into images—than from film school.
In that spirit, I offer ten Short Film Strategies gleaned from my own limited experience writing short films and my much more extensive experience watching them.
A short film is not a short feature film. It is the length most appropriate for the theme, subject matter or character(s) explored. You can’t just cut down that old spec script to size. Originality is prized above all else.
Short films can and should take risks. The budget is less, the purpose more defined, the appeal does not have to be universal. Unlikeable, even abhorrent, main characters are possible. Non-politically correct themes may be explored. Structure can be manipulated. Use the freedom inherent in this non-commercial medium.
Short films are highly focused. The premise should easily fit into a sentence. One main character, one main conflict, sometimes revolving around only one incident. Taking on too much is a sure recipe for disaster.
Have a Clear Narrative Thrust
Go for fresh characterization, inventive visuals, proper pacing, and a quick, satisfying ending that hits your audience in the gut. Even if you are not the director, even if the film is a visual tour de force, your contribution can still shine if the film is possessed of a clear narrative thrust that marks the writer as a skilled storyteller.
Make the External Reflect the Internal
The context should be a rich one, the setting metaphorical, the climax satisfying or disturbing but never without emotional impact. By having the external world reflect the internal struggle of the characters, the audience gets a bigger emotional bang in less screen time.
Define Your Character
Conflict, Choices, Commitments and Action define character, in the short as well as the feature film. The staple of old-fashioned storytelling—a strongly drawn main character facing a difficult moral quandary, ultimately resolved through motivated action (or a unique twist on same)–is still that which lures producers to festivals to “discover” writer/directors.
Use Screen Time Judiciously
Each scene should carry tone, plot and character. Visual set-ups, pay-offs and leaps in action are preferable to dialogue-heavy exposition or plot development. Wherever possible, remove dialogue and replace with action or visual exposition. If you do have a dialogue based short script, set the verbal style from the start and offset it by adding clever, inventive visual elements to the scene.
Utilize Powerful Images
If you are writing, for example, a fifteen-minute film, what are the ten to fifteen shots that will tell the entire story for you? Strong juxtaposition of powerful images will not only save screen time and allow you to tell a much richer story in a shorter time, it will result in a much tighter pace and structure.
Use Sound, Music and Image to Full Advantage
These are often mistakenly labeled as production tools, but particularly in a short the writer must utilize them as a primary means of storytelling, not just as icing on the cake.
Take Out Everything You Don’t Need
Short scripts need a 100 percent solid, workable structure. There is no room for slack, meandering or bare expository scenes. Take out all you don’t absolutely need. Grab the audience immediately, hold them the entire way and resolve the story as economically as possible. Write it long and condense it to a quick inventive setup, carefully planned cuts to move the story along and the cleverest, most surprising resolution you can devise. Leave the audience feeling that they’ve been on a short roller-coaster ride which ended much too quickly. MM
This article originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (The Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.