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Short Films DO Matter; & Why You Should Write One (or Produce One)

Updated: Apr 25, 2023



Article 5 of our 10-part Screenwriting Staffing Industry Series discusses all the reasons why a short film can launch your career. To stay current, join our mailing list. Try our new query blast (10 success stories in 1 year).


Short films deserve attention and recognition. The Oscars have been acknowledging and awarding them since 1933, demonstrating their importance. A comprehensive l can be found here: full list. Additionally, prestigious film festivals such as Cannes and Sundance not only accept but also showcase short films.


So why is there still a belief system that shorts are useless?


In parallel to my hypothesis about working on-set, the abundance of skeptics can be explained quite easily: they are hesitant to share a well-guarded secret with you.


While the list is long, here are 5 famous writer-directors who launched their careers by making short films:


Lick The Star (1998) -- Sofia Coppola


Cigarettes & Coffee (1993) -- Paul Thomas Anderson (used as the basis of his feature film HARD EIGHT)


Frankenweenie (1984) -- Tim Burton (later turned into a feature)


Bottle Rocket (1994) -- Wes Anderson (later turned into a feature)


Six Shooter (2006) Martin McDonagh (won a short film Oscar)


Here is a much larger list complied by MENTAL FLOSS.

Allow me to start with a personal story:


My thesis film for The Los Angeles Film School in 2009, titled MONTANA, generated significant interest. Selected for various film festivals and winning at the 44th Annual Wordfest-Houston International Film Festival, it received multiple write-ups in both print and digital media and enjoyed a two-week TV broadcast in the Midwest. Considering it was a thesis film created on a modest budget and shot in just four days, I was quite pleased with the outcome.


After graduating, I attempted to secure literary representation, pitching myself as an emerging writer with several completed feature scripts. However, I received no responses.


Thus, I changed my approach. Instead of presenting myself as a novice, I identified as a produced and award-winning screenwriter, which was now accurate.


This new angle piqued the interest of an agent, who requested to view my short film. After two weeks, she extended an offer for full representation of all my scripts.

Short Film - From Gringo To Grave

Personally speaking, I find that short scripts really fuel my creative drive. Whenever I'm struggling to come up with ideas for a full-length feature film, working on a shorter piece can be just the boost I need. Not only have these shorter works helped me to build up my writing credits on both IMDb and my resume, but they've even helped me to pay the bills on occasion.


Perhaps even more importantly, though, writing successful short scripts has allowed me to form meaningful relationships with industry professionals that have lasted to this day. Despite their brevity, these scripts have really helped me to stand out in the crowded world of screenwriting and have added some much-needed credibility to my portfolio.


In fact, just recently, I went to Mexico and shot a short film on the border between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso called FROM GRINGO TO GRAVE. I didn’t write, direct, and produce this short for experience or credit, I made it to include in my pitch deck and business plan for my feature film DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA. In just under 2 months, the short film has been selected into 7 film festivals, 4 countries, winning 4 awards. All of this helps with spreading awareness.

Here is the kicker. It was shot on my mobile phone in under 18 hours. It wasn’t designed to be perfect. It was designed to attract investors and talent for the feature film. So far, it’s done just that. Here is the trailer.

Shorts can serve many purposes. For me, outside of them giving me produced credits and paid writing assignments, they got me representation at the age of 23, and I now use them to raise capital on my feature film, like this one: DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA.


Will short films work for everyone? Maybe not.


Can they work for most? Absolutely.


This series will be broken down into 3 parts:


1) Why burgeoning screenwriters should write a short...


2) Why experienced screenwriters should write a short...


3) And the science behind writing an award-winning short…

Writing Cooperative

Why burgeoning screenwriters should write a short:


When it comes to writing a script, two of the most challenging aspects to master are crafting a compelling story and nailing down the proper formatting. For individuals without a formal writing background or experience in publishing multiple novels, it's especially critical to grasp the art of storytelling through a camera lens and the techniques required to create a marketable script.


Aspiring writers who dive into screenwriting without understanding the importance of brevity often meet with disappointment. Attempting to cram too much into a 140-page script typically results in failure. With so many storytellers vying for attention in the industry, it's crucial to learn how to condense a story into a 100-minute or shorter film. These days, less is more, and mastering the art of concise storytelling can make all the difference in catching the eye of producers and audiences alike.


Award-winning screenwriter Rick Hansberry recently contributed an engaging article to our site, titled "4 Reasons Why You Should Write a Micro Short." Intriguingly, Rick was also hired by Dynamic Features to re-write their film, "Evil in Her" (available on Vudu and Amazon Prime), starring Junie Hoang. The connection was made when they posted a writer's ad on our very own Screenwriting Staffing platform.


Here is what Rick has to say about writing concise shorts:

Any Producer worth their salt will pick up a 2 or 3 page script with high expectations that they are NOT about to read some small talk around the water cooler. Action and conflict will be almost immediate and therefore should be properly set up. If a bomb is going to explode – the tension exists in knowing that the bomb is about to explode. Don’t skimp on the set up. Set the table appropriately. Show us what ‘could’ be about to happen.

This can be daunting if you are just starting out. So how can one slowly enter the film world? By writing a 10 page short script.


Shorts allow you to focus on one storyline. Every short has one main character, and we follow that character from A to Z. We do not stop to observe b-plots or b-characters. It's one quick stretch following our hero.


Short films are predominantly visual, providing an excellent opportunity for you to exercise your creative writing skills. Since dialogue can be challenging to master, you're in luck: shorts typically don't feature an abundance of dialogue.


Grasping formatting can be a daunting aspect for screenwriters. However, once a writer comprehends the rules, they can take creative liberties and bend them as needed. It's best to disregard the countless articles on formatting found online and in book, with the exception of advice from my esteemed colleague, Dave Trottier, author of "The Screenwriter's Bible."


But when you are first starting out, you must respect and appreciate the art form. Shorts are a great way to get the hang of simple formatting techniques.

Think about it. If you are just now learning formatting, would you rather master it in 10 pages or 110 pages?
Dawn

Shorts can also make you relevant. They can instantly add credit and awards to your name. Having produced work is pivotal in this industry. Everyone wants to know what you’ve done. It’s better to have something than nothing, right?


There is an abundance of producers, directors, and actors in search of short scripts. Some create short films as calling cards, while others produce them between larger projects or simply out of passion for the art form. Additionally, some, like myself now, use short films as a means to pitch a feature film.

Regardless, there is a seemingly infinite demand for short films, yet the supply of available shorts remains limited.

Check out our Script Search Board… lots of short script searches in the last 4 months… and producers are paying for them. Nice pocket money while a lot of people are out of work right now.


I have sold just under 10 short scripts in my career. Never has a producer asked me to give my script over for FREE.


Short films serve as an excellent means for building your network and making relationsihps. Whether you're just starting out or seeking to expand your connections, collaborating on a short film can be a valuable opportunity to work with emerging or established filmmakers. Often, these filmmakers may return to collaborate on a feature film, inviting you to write a script for their next project.


In did an interview with Stephanie Palmer back in 2015, author of Good in a Room and a former MGM film executive. As a studio executive at MGM Pictures, she heard more than 3000 pitches, and hired over 100 writers.


Here is what she said about the film industry and the crucial role relationships play:

"Hollywood is a competitive business and it’s a relationship business. It’s not fair but that’s how it is. Use a strategy that’s been proven to work, develop your relationships, and leverage them. That’s how you become a full-time, successful, professional writer."
Whiplash

Ever heard of Whiplash?


Of course you have.


It’s from the writer/director of La La Land. Damien Chazelle first made Whiplash as a short. It won the SHORT FILM JURY PRIZE at Sundance in 2013.


In 2014, it was made into a feature and released in theaters. In 2015, it won 3 Oscars. Still to this day Damien credits this short for his success.


The festival circuit abounds with short film and script contests. Simply visit FilmFreeway or Coverfly's website and search for "shorts." Participating in these contests is an excellent method to evaluate your writing skills and identify areas for improvement. If you win or place, it's a valuable addition to your resume. Through our premium membership, , I assist writers in building their resumes, and for those with less extensive resumes, I consistently recommend writing or producing short films as a starting point.

Back in 2015, I sold my short script, "THE MAILBOX," to a first-time director. Eventually, I joined the project as a producer after the production commenced.

The film was accepted into seven film festivals and placed in two of them.


In 2017, ScreeningNow, an indie streaming service, approached us for an exclusive one-year rights deal. We agreed to their proposal.


Their offer exceeded our entire budget. I wonder how many indie filmmakers starting out, who dive directly into their first feature (bypassing shorts), manage to recoup their budget? I'd estimate it's less than 1%.

Why experienced screenwriters should write a short:

Every writer, even the greats, reach a point in their career where their writing feels stagnant. There’s no way around it.


Shorts are a great way to keep you writing. Think about that feature you’ve been wanting to write for the last 10 years but haven’t. Shrink it down to 10 pages; or, find the best scene and turn it into a short.

Shorts keep you relevant. Haven’t had a lot of produced work as of late? Write a short. Filmmakers from all over the world are seeking shorts. Like you, they want to remain pertinent. I have director friends who make a feature every 3 years. What do they do in between? Make shorts. It keeps them in the limelight, while they continue to hone their skills.

These shorts go to festivals where you rub shoulders with investors, producers, and distributors. Get the point?


Anytime a producer posts on my site seeking to hire a writer, they want to read a writing sample. Many times they ask for 5-10 pages from a script you wrote. Instead of sending them a small excerpt from your feature script, send them a short. This is an excellent way to show them you can tell a solid story from start to finish.


This goes back to the whole theory that Hollywood wants shorter material. Don’t make them read a 120 page script in order to see how talented you are. Have them read a 5 page script. I did an interview with Dennis Heaton shortly after Netflix picked up his series, THE ORDER. He talked in detail to me about streaming services and how content's "time" is "shortening". You can read the full interview here.

Unsplash

The science behind writing an award-winning short:


Shorts aren't easy.


Consider this: you're tasked with conveying a complete story within just a few minutes.


Before we jump into structure, let’s start with the business side of shorts


If you are making a short, it means 1 of 3 things:


-- you are a newer filmmaker, and you are just trying to get your feet wet...


-- you are making a short to pitch a larger project....


-- you are making a short in between your big-budget projects to stay active...


What’s my point? The person producing your short does not have a large budget.


Aim to limit your short film to 3-4 characters and 1-2 locations. There's typically no need for a multitude of locations and characters, as it's a short film. Additionally, try to avoid incorporating special effects. If you feel the need to include them, reconsider and focus on simplifying your story. Special effects can be challenging to execute, often requiring highly skilled and expensive professionals to achieve the desired outcome.


As you may have observed in my blog, I delight in interviewing individuals from diverse backgrounds within the film industry (not just screenwriters). One particularly enlightening interview featured Emmy Award-winning Model Supervisor Gene Rizzardi, who boasts 35 years of success in the Motion Picture, Theme Park, and Architectural Industries. Rizzardi's extensive contributions include providing miniatures, special effects, and props and sets for notable projects such as Titanic, Apollo 13, and Team America.


What was the purpose of my interview with him? It was to help writers genuinely comprehend the parallels between storytelling and special effects. Here is what he had to say:

"The story is the key, without a good story all the effects in the world won’t save your film. Just look at Jupiter Ascending, GREAT effects, NO story. A good story told properly does NOT need excellent effects, but effects should add to the story, not detract from it."

Short films are primarily intended to showcase your storytelling prowess rather than your technical abilities. The primary objective is to gain exposure, often through participation in the festival circuit, which places emphasis on compelling stories for acceptance.


As someone who has worked in a lot of festivals, I can tell you firsthand that festivals do not want shorts over 15 minutes. A matter of fact, most want them under 10 minutes.


Now, my last short film, FROM GRINGO TO GRAVE, came in at 16:59. I’m not above the rule. But the short was not intended to screen at Cannes or win an Oscar. It was intended to pitch as a feature. But if your main purpose is to gain massive exposure in larger film festivals, keep it under 15. It's worth mentioning that I have an alternative 14:59 version, which I specifically use for certain festival submissions.


Why is this?

Festivals want to squeeze in as much content in the shortest amount of time possible. So if a program director can squeeze 3 shorts in at 10 minutes a piece, or choose 1 short that’s 30 minutes, which one do you think they will go with?

It’s a numbers game -- 3 films equals more money than 1 film. Understand?


Although the technical definition of a short film encompasses any film under 45 minutes, it's advisable to create shorts that are around 10 minutes (or 10 pages) in length, with a maximum of 15 minutes. If your film exceeds 20 minutes, it may face rejection, particularly from major festivals, who will just toss it out.

Shorts are also allowed to cross the line. They are allowed to be edgy, controversial, even raunchy. Why? Because film festivals crave this. These films, for the most part, aren’t going to screen outside of the festival circuit -- except for maybe YouTube or Vimeo. So don’t hold back. Be bold. Remember, shorts are meant to evoke strong emotions.

I've participated in numerous film festivals, either as a spectator or a judge, and from my experience, the shorts that excel tend to do two things:


They evoke either extreme laughter or intense sadness/horror.

There's no middle ground.


I'd recommend steering clear of cheesy romances. Chances are, you won't have the budget for sci-fi, fantasy, or war genres, so it's best to cross those off your list as well!

Either make your film laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, or make your story as sad as possible or scary as hell.
Research Structure

Now, let’s talk about structure. Here are my 10 tips!


-- shorts are visual. Most shorts are done my burgeoning cinematographers and directors. They want to showcase their creative skills. When in doubt, write description, not dialogue. The best two shorts on the planet (in my opinion): SEBASTIAN'S VOODOO & OFFSIDE.


'Sebastian's Voodoo' has absolutely no dialogue. 'Offside', minus a radio announcer, has no dialogue. Again, this goes back to the show don’t tell rule. This is a visual medium. Shorts are not the exception; if anything, they are held to a higher standard. Also, notice how both shorts are under 6 minutes.


-- the most effective short films often incorporate a twist. For the initial four minutes, lead your audience in one direction, and then abruptly shift gears in the final moments. Aim to leave the viewer astonished. While a feature film offers numerous scenes to alter the audience's perception, a short film provides just one opportunity to make an impact. Make the most of it by saving the twist for the end, as exemplified by the short film 'Offside.'


-- in my experience, many shorts tend to be cliché, following a formula that usually concludes with the hero emerging victorious. My advice is to not only kill your darling but also make it personal. We've all experienced tragedy, so write what you know rather than what the market dictates. While writing features, a writer might be tempted to write what's popular (even though it's not recommended), this approach doesn't apply to shorts. These films are for you, not a studio. Immerse your audience in a relatable world, create confusion, bring them back, confuse them once more, and ultimately leave them stunned at the end.


-- short films don't necessarily require a Joker-esque villain to create conflict for the protagonist. In my short "Montana," the antagonist was a contentious book; in "The Mailbox," it was dementia. In my latest short, "From Gringo to Grave," the antagonist was the Mexico-U.S. border. In "Tu Ausencia," the antagonist was represented by alcohol and the act of drinking. I also served as a script doctor on a short called "Equally Damaged," where the antagonist was PTSD. All four of the produced shorts I just mentioned either screened or placed at various film festival. Why do you think that is? Because a variety of concepts can effectively serve as antagonists in short films. The antagonist doesn't need to resemble the Joker in nature or intensity.


-- the three-act structure remains relevant in short films, although it can be presented out of order. Unlike feature films, where the crux of the story lies in the second act and often determines a reader or viewer's impression, it's the first and third acts in short films that need to deliver the most powerful impact!


-- your main character has to be likable or understood… one of the two. By that, I mean, we have to know who this person is from the start. You don’t have time to create backstory. Don’t make her so complicated that it takes 5 pages to introduce her. You have about 20 seconds to visually tell us who she is. In my award-winning short film "From Gringo to Grave," the opening image depicts the "Gringo" slumped against a truck in Mexico, a flask dangling from his hand as the morning sun hits his face. Two armed narcos tower over him. Within the first 20 seconds, the audience is introduced to the main character, his vice, the film's setting, and the challenges he will need to overcome. At no time in this sequence does he even speak.


-- finally, know why you are making the short. A while back, I wrote a short film about sex trafficking, inspired by the powerful material and films I had been consuming on the topic. I called it "Trading Station." It was eventually bought and produced, but, unfortunately, the final result didn't turn out as I had hoped (I'm still not sure what happened to it). However, my initial purpose for writing the short was to explore whether I could create a full-length story on the subject. Ultimately, I did just that for a producer in Sweden, using the short as a sample. So, it's essential to understand the precise reasons for writing your short film and your end goal. Once you achieve that, you can consider your project a significant success!

Look, screenwriters aren’t the only ones that write shorts stories. Novelists do too. Take Stephen King. The film Shawshank Redemption was based off his short. Earnest Hemingway is one of the most famous short story writers of all time. Remember the feature film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Short films can serve as an excellent springboard for launching your career. If you're already an established screenwriter, they hold the potential to help you maintain and enhance your professional journey.

Filmmaker Freedom

I will close with these final thoughts and nuggets:


While there is money in shorts, there’s not a lot of money. If shorts could generate a lot of money, everyone in Hollywood would be making them over television. Still, there is a reason why Hollywood’s top directors (like Steven Spielberg) have made shorts.

Shorts allow you to explore, experiment, and feel. You aren’t restricted to the “save the cat” mentality that some people subscribe to with features.

There is a reason why every major film school around the globe -- from top schools like USC to my film school -- require you to write and produce a short at some point during your education. They teach you the fundamentals of storytelling and filmmaking.

Back in 2009, I embarked on a journey to create a short documentary set in Hollywood, aiming to explore the modern media landscape and biases in politics and religion. The film was called MISCONCEPTION. I envisioned the film spanning 5 to 10 minutes, featuring Emmy Award-winning actor Bill Oberst Jr. and other notable talents. However, once we entered the editing room, we discovered a wealth of compelling content, which transformed our initial idea of a modest short film into a potent feature-length production. This experience taught me never to underestimate the potential impact of a short film.

Short films have played a significant role in shaping my career, and they have also influenced the careers of many beloved screenwriters and directors we admire today.


Write one. Write a damn good one. And then market it!

Most importantly, don't forget to copyright your work with the Library of Congress! Writers often assume that no one cares about short films, but that's not true. I had an award-winning short screenplay, "MEIN BRUDER," which was optioned twice (although I wouldn't recommend optioning shorts if you can avoid it). A third producer from NYC eventually bought it, but I still retained the rights. This producer vanished, hired a writer in Western Europe, changed the two main characters from brothers to lovers, and tried to launch a crowdfunding campaign under a new title in a different language. It was such a hassle and caused a lot of stress for a mere 7-page script. Thankfully, I had copyrighted it back in 2011 and renewed it in 2016. Keep in mind, Writers Guild registration won't protect you in a court of law—only the Library of Congress will.

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Learn about investing, gaining credits, or joining our team on DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA [www.screenwritingstaffing.com/gringo].


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In need of script coverage on your short? We can help: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/pro-screenplay-coverage


Article was written by Jacob N. Stuart.

Jacob N. Stuart is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, an online community that connects screenwriters and screenplays with film and television entertainment professionals. Since 2013, Jacob has helped facilitate over 250 success stories (sales, options, hires, and representation), most notably a Christmas movie produced by Hallmark in 2017. Here is a small list: www.imdb.com/search/title/?companies=co0524287; 17 this year!


Jacob is also an award-winning and produced screenwriter, with over a decade of film experience. His films have been screened at theaters across the globe, as well as distributed traditionally through dvd/blu-ray. He currently has 3 films (2 features, 1 short) on VOD, including the award-winning film AN ADDICTING PICTURE. He holds a Bachelors in both Film and Entertainment Business from The Los Angeles Film School. He has also written for other top industry publications, including Final Draft, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and MovieMaker Magazine.


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