I wrote and directed my first short film, Lacking Lewis, in early 2005. The supposed “final” cut, ready later that year, was awful. So I rewrote, re-shot, re-color corrected, re-edited, re-scored and re-sound mixed it more times than I care to admit.?
By 2007, the film was better. It got into some festivals and even won a few awards. I was told that I was ready to make a feature and that any more time spent making short films—especially the amount of time I’d spent on Lacking Lewis—would be a waste.
Over the next four years, I made four more short films with the same meticulous work ethic as my first. The shorts garnered me multiple festival selections and awards, Oscar qualification, critical praise and even distribution. They connected me with amazingly talented artists whom I respect and who have taught me a lot.
For anyone who thinks that making a short film is just an easily-ignored pit stop on the road to feature film stardom, I offer the following five reasons to make a short film:
1. Short films protect you from over-investing too early in your career. Now that shooting and editing in HD is so inexpensive, many first-time directors jump right into a making a feature without first developing their craft. Their goal is to make a breakout feature and hit the big time on the first go, but instead they end up spending more time and money than anticipated and are often left with only a poorly-made feature film, frustration, debt and a bunch of congratulatory Facebook wall posts to show for it.
If you make a short film and screw it up it will be, quite simply, a shorter mistake—and one that you can probably afford to throw away. You can go back to your failed short at a later date and make it again (but better), or you can use the lessons you’ve learned to make something brand-new.
I highly recommend making your first couple of short films as inexpensively as possible. Then, once you’re confident in your skills, increase your budget a bit and make a few more shorts that look more like features.
No matter how affordable image acquisition has become, the extended run time of a feature makes all the associated costs—hiring a crew, renting equipment, etc.—exponentially higher. A lot of people have a micro-budget HD feature they made a few years ago that’s probably going nowhere. Why not be the one person who has made a polished short film and is now ready to make a solid feature that will go somewhere?
Mark Ruppert, creator of the 48 Hour Film Project, which challenges moviemakers to create an entire short film in just two days, says that a well-made short “can serve as a calling card, showing future funders or partners what you can do.”
2. Short films give you valuable film festival experience. When you’re navigating the festival circuit with a feature, the end game is usually to sell it, which can add a lot of pressure. That’s simply not the case with a short. ?
I enjoyed screening my short film, Salt and Silicone, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and I even discussed a few distribution offers. But I felt minimal pressure to secure a deal. On the other hand, everyone with a feature at Cannes felt enormous pressure to sell it. I was able to learn from the feature moviemakers—and their publicists and sales agents—without feeling that pressure myself.
3. People want to see—and invest in—short films. “As a new filmmaker, your number one goal should be to get in front of as many eyes as possible,” says Jeannie Roshar, director of the L.A. Comedy Shorts Film Festival. “You’ll have an easier time getting one million hits on YouTube than you will cramming one million people into a theater. Of course, nothing beats a live audience. Short films win there too, because film festivals can schedule a lot more shorts than features.”
Shorts are the sideshow at most festivals—excluding those devoted exclusively to shorts, like the L.A. Comedy Shorts, D.C. Shorts and CFC Worldwide Short Film Festivals—but audiences still come out to watch them, because festivals program several shorts together in one screening block. Most moviemakers bring their family, friends, cast and crew to the screening, so each short benefits from being seen by a larger audience.
Once you’ve proven yourself with one short, you’re more likely to attract investors to another. “Making a short is not about making money,” says Roshar. “It’s about showing what you can do so someone will fund the next one.” An investor commissioned me to make my fourth short, Lovely Coffee, in exchange for ownership points, a producer credit and a role in the film. Since he was able to act and produce—and since I didn’t have the money to make the film on my own—I said yes. If you are serious about making a film and have an interesting story to tell, it doesn’t matter if your film is 90 minutes long or just 15; there’s money to be found through grants and private investors.
4. Short films allow you to work with professional actors and crew for little to no cost. If you want to write, produce, direct, shoot and edit a short film yourself, with your friends and family cast in all the main roles, then your film will probably not be very good (unless you’ve mastered Italian neorealism at some point). If you want to have a better chance of making a quality film, you’ll have to hire professionals. By definition, this costs money.
So how do you get a professional cast and crew to work on your short at a substantial discount? Start with a great script and a strong vision, as these elements will help attract talented professionals to your project in spite of its low budget. Say that you know that you’re asking them for a favor, and tell them the maximum amount you can afford to pay.
Tap into your existing relationships to connect you with professionals in your area (this works better than cold-calling people you find via 411). As you approach potential crew members, be clear about your goals. If you know you want a long master shot on a Fisher 11 dolly, or if you only want to shoot with Zeiss prime lenses, let the DP you’re approaching know about it. Serious specifics will help you get serious commitments.
Offer your pros incentives in the form of credit on the film, work that you can do for them in the future, festival exposure, etc. These sorts of benefits have the added value of establishing long-term working relationships.
Be patient and flexible with your film. A professional producer or DP who has a few days in between high-paying jobs will be much more likely to work with you if you can shoot within that particular window. Flexibility is especially important during post-production; if you let a post house know that you’re cool with working during off-hours and being repeatedly kicked off the schedule for higher-paying jobs, you will get high-quality post work for a fraction of the normal cost. It may hurt your ego, but if you only have a few hundred dollars for color grading to do a 4K DI and rotoscope an actress’ eyes, you’re just going to have to put your ego aside.
When it comes to actors, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) offers a lot of flexibility when it comes to short films. The SAG Short Film Agreement allows you to defer payments or pay union actors as little as $100 per day. By using professional actors, you can enhance the quality of your project while also becoming familiar with the formalities of working with a union.
5. Short films allow you to explore your creativity. Unless you’re David Lynch, any feature movie you direct has to follow some traditional rules of structure, storytelling and continuity. With a short film, you can break from tradition and be more innovative, since shorts don’t have the same commercial pressures as features. You can make a short just to say something you’ve always wanted to say, without worrying about its marketability to a potential audience. You can make a short film as a way to practice shooting in a style very different from your own. ?
Making a short can reinvigorate your creative drive, since the short film medium is one where anything is both possible and acceptable. The biggest benefit of making short films, says Ruppert, is that “they help the filmmaker find and hone his or her voice. A short is an inexpensive way for filmmakers to experiment and learn what works; that knowledge can then be used when the filmmaker moves on to a feature film.” MM
Warren Pereira (wfilms.biz) has been writing, directing, producing and acting in award-winning short films since 2005. His most recent short, Salt and Silicone, screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Pereira recently finished his first feature script, the romantic crime drama Bathing in Honey, which he will also direct.