“People Don’t Like Short Films”

The Problem with Short Films ☛

A little time back I was chatting to a producer of my acquaintance in the BAFTA bar about my idea to try to get that hallowed organization to show short films ahead of the features shown at their members’ screenings. I pitched the virtues of my scheme and he listened attentively. When I was done he replied casually, “you don’t seem to realise: people don’t like short films”.

Eh?!

Knowing the man to be unshakable in his opinions, I left the conversation there. His words however rang in my head until I mentioned the conversation to some of my colleagues. To my surprise there was some support for his opinion. Why, I wondered, this antipathy towards short films? Had it always been there, and I’d just not noticed?

Not the still from “Un Chien Andalou” you were expecting

It can’t be a problem intrinsic to films being shorter than modern feature length. For the first twenty years of cinema there was hardly anything but short films – one or two-reelers. Those years embraced talents like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Luis Buñuel, Sergei Eisenstein and Georges Méliès and led to the multi-billion dollar movie industry we now know. If a ten minute story told in moving images were an innately bad idea we probably wouldn’t have made the leap to feature films and I’d probably have to do something dull for a living.

I think the problem may spring from a strange quirk that has developed within the short film business: the fact that it’s not a business – they can’t make money. Before you jump down my throat, allow me to clarify:

  • Chances of a short making some money – moderate
  • Chances of a short making all its money back (depending on the budget) – small to tiny
  • Chances of a short turning a meaningful profit – too low to calculate.

Potentially the most profitable short in history

In fact the only way to make a fortune off a short film in the modern world is to make it, hide a copy, become a global screen icon and arrange for it to be unearthed some ninety years later. This may have worked for Chaplin’s Zepped, but it’s hardly a repeatable business model. For this reason  (with the exception of artists’ gallery films) 99% of short films are by definition apprentice pieces. Once a director has been given a salary, access to professional talent, the broader canvas that 90 mins allows and all the toys that go with a feature film, you’re not going to be seeing them around Clermont-Ferrand again, unless it’s as a judge.

Hopefully one day someone will work out how to harness the internet to transform the economics of short films, so that they can become viable financial prospects. Until then the majority of shorts will continue to be made by amateurs, working with too little money and often with second-rate cast, crew and kit. And as a result most will continue to be awful. Maybe that producer’s words shouldn’t have come as any great surprise.

So why am I making another short film? My next project off the blocks looks like being a 10 minute piece penned by the estimable Lucy V. Hay, the scribe behind Bang2Write. Why don’t I just make a micro-budget feature, as is the fashion? Several reasons. A well-made short film can advertise your talent in the way a micro-budget feature just can’t. If you plan well and cut your clothes according to your cloth, shooting 2-3 minutes of screen time a day allows you to lavish as much care and attention to detail on your short film as you would on a funded feature.

Short films can genuinely help your career. Come up with a strong idea, get the script right, cast it well and get good performances and your film will soar above most of the competition. Plaudits in international film festivals and other prizes can make you a much more credible candidate for gaining support for your first feature. I’ll write more about what makes a good short film in a future article.

What’s more, you can get really talented people to work on your shorts, famous people even who will be happy to help you out for a day or two if your script is good enough. Even if you can’t find a star, there’s plenty of talent out there, the Oscar-winners of tomorrow, just sitting at home waiting for a good project to come along. Even with little or no money your short can be well made.

Micro-budget features too often turn into a frantic race to the finish-line. Despite the best-laid plans, shooting up to 10 script pages a day ends up with the director just having to point the camera at their story in any way possible to get the scenes in the can before their cast and crew turn into pumpkins. The result tends to be rough, often too rough to tell whether anyone involved has talent. And just when you think you’re finished you find that you have a mountain still to climb bigger than making the thing – finding a buyer for a film that no one asked for and few people want. Even if your feature is very good, rather than stellar, you still stand to face credit card bills that it will take you a decade to pay off. Most micro-budget features are even worse than most shorts… and ten times longer. It’s a process not for the faint-hearted and not really for a first-timer.

A happy moment in my production office / cutting room / flat

But the real reason why I’m making another short is that I do like short films. I love the exceptional ones as much as feature films. And I love telling stories with the moving image. I really love it. And short films make that possible without staking all my worldly goods on one mad throw of the dice. It’s still not easy, nor is it the cheapest of passions, but if you make a short film and make it really well you stand a chance to shoot in a weekend a story that will live on in the audience’s imagination for the rest of their days. Do you really need a better reason to dust off your camera than that?

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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Comments
10 Responses to ““People Don’t Like Short Films””
  1. ivan says:

    For one who has NEVER been able to make short film, despite trying, I feel I need to make a comment.
    Agreed on the production difficulties on a micro feature, but…
    The ‘problem’ with a short, is the same as with writing successful short stories: it needs to be, what you said yourself, ‘one strong idea’. That is the basis of a good short. I find, and maybe more poeple also, that to be the most difficult part of a short. A feature needs just a story, can even be a simple Romeo and Juliet type story, but a short needs that ONE good idea that works. If that idea fails, you’re whole thing fails. It needs to be that clever thing that can be said in a a few short minutes. Put all the love and care in a short, it won’t help if you don’t have that very ‘short film’ type of idea. It also needs years of experience to know how to say things and be economical. It’s a difficult language that not so many are able to speak.

  2. Ewa J Lind says:

    You are right on there, Guy. Even for people like myself, i.e. editors, a short is an excellent way of getting to know a director, the way he/she relates to their story, to their team and what film is to them. Then, when the feature finally happens you’re prepared in the best possible fashion. And if it doesn’t happen? Well, then you’ve still made something special in a very special format, something that demands just as much inventiveness and filmic imagination as any feature:) Long live the short film!

  3. Yves Simard says:

    Thanks for your post. Insights are great and very balanced, given me truly much to think about.

    As a busy person who loves cinema, it is difficult to have enough time to watch a mainstream film let alone an inide one. I am one ot those who walks out of cinemas, simply because I’m busy.

    You’d think short films would be great for a guy like me. Problem is that there is so much rubbish that I feel like I have to wade through worse stuff in order to find a gem.

    I rely on recommendations only, people who tell me what is worth watching in order to give it a chance.

    I can’t even go to short film festivals because the filmmaker is normally in the audience, so i cant walk out and you always have this idea the next one is in 10 minutes and is bound to be better.

    Vimeo is better for this, but again, so much bad stuff, I wait for the recommendations.

    Anyhow, thought I’d add my 5 cents, thanks again!

  4. Alan Stewart says:

    I think this is more to do with the traditional film industries lack of interest or innovation in how they might approach the short film market, it has nothing to do with people not liking short films, that’s the sort of scathing generalisation that is symptomatic of an industry that is famously very stuck in it’s ways. People like good stories, long or short. The telling, not length, is the important part if you want people to be interested.

    Absolutely everyone who has sat with me to watch Last Minutes With Oden has came away emotionally involved and effected by it, they enjoyed it greatly. Here it is if you haven’t already seen it http://vimeo.com/8191217

    These were not people involved in the industry either, these were my extended family, friends, and colleagues. People who I can’t remember ever having such a unanimously positive reaction to any other film before in my life.

    The reason for Short films not being financially viable is very simple in fact, they are not backed by a marketing budget that can get them heard over the noise of mainstream film. No other secret really. If they were backed more and given a viable outlet they would profit. People really like them, if they are told well.

    Rather than spend time to find that outlet and spend money on the marketing it is much easier to write them of as something no one wants. Not exactly forward thinking but, you know, it’s safer right? That’s what the film industry likes, so that’s what people like. Funny how people have a different view of it though when you actually talk to them and show them a short film.

    • guyducker says:

      Thanks Alan, some interested comments.

      I’m interested to know how you’d imagine marketing short films? You may have a cunning plan, but it looks like a tricky one to me. The average feature film has at least as much money spent on its marketing and distribution as was spent on its production – millions – and plenty of them fail to attract the attention they deserve; getting a short noticed is a challenge.

      Of course a big part of the problem is that even if you were able to get a lot of people desperate to see your short film, the mechanism for making money from that interest doesn’t currently exist. Of course it could be invented (or re-invented – Charlie Chaplin didn’t exactly end his life in poverty) but then you’re in the business of creating both supply and demand.

      All ideas gratefully received!

  5. Very cool I’ve bookmarked ya on Digg under ““People Don’t Like Short Films” Tales from the Cutting Room Floor”. Keep up with the good stuff.

  6. Miriam says:

    I know this post was in 2011 but I don’t care. I am so happy I came across it. I live in Africa, Nigeria to be exact and I just had a light bulb hovering above my head. I am a film student and I have watched as I and my colleagues struggle on trying to turn our short films into a business, it got bad that the only reason we made those those films was to send to festivals and win awards, I myself have won about five for my one and only amateur film but it just isn’t enough for me, so the idea hit me: since the Internet is so hot, why not open a website mainly for short films, where people can watch for free, monitor the acceptance levels then start selling. I started researching and it wasn’t as easy as I thought. I almost gave up but your comment, “Hopefully one day someone will work out how to harness the internet to transform the economics of short films, so that they can become viable financial prospects” just sent the “cold feet” running! Thanks so much and I wish you success in your business. Cheers.

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