“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”.
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?
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.
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.
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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