Updated: Nov 4, 2022
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 should not be ignored. The Oscars don’t ignore them. They have been rewarding shorts since 1933! Here is a full list. Cannes and Sundance accept and screen shorts.
So why is there still a belief system that shorts are useless?
Similar to my theory on working on-set, the reason why there are so many naysayers is simple: they don’t want to let you in on a little secret.
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 short film, MONTANA, which was my thesis film for The Los Angeles Film School in 2009, garnered a lot of interest. It was selected into several film festivals, and winning at Wordfest-Houston. It had multiple write ups in both print and digital papers, and had a 2 week run on a TV station in the Midwest. For a thesis film that was made on a “budget” and shot in 4 days, I was pretty happy with its success.
Shortly after film school, I tried to find literary representation. I had several features already written. I pitched myself as an up-and-coming writer with several features completed.
I got ZERO responses
So I decided to take a different approach. Instead of telling agents I’m starting out, I told them I was a produced, award-winning screenwriter. This was now true.
That sparked some interest. An agent responded back and asked to see my short film. I sent It. Two weeks later she offered me full representation on all my scripts.
Short scripts keep me inspired. They are great to tackle when the thought of creating a 90-minute movie eludes me. They have added writing credit to my IMDb and resume. Short scripts have paid my rent before. They have fostered relationships with industry pros that I’m still banking on today. While “short”, successful short scripts have put me in the limelight, and while small, automatically adds proof and authenticity to my screenwriting resume.
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…
Why burgeoning screenwriters should write a short:
Craft and formatting are the two hardest parts to learn when writing a script. Those who do not come from a writing background or those who have published dozens of novels must first understand storytelling from a camera’s perspective and how to format a script that sells.
Writers who jump into the ring too quickly, writing 140-page scripts, usually fail. There are plenty of storytellers out there. But one must first know how to shrink their story into a 100-minute or less film (less is more these days).
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.
Shorts are mainly visual. This will allow you to flex your creative writing. Dialogue takes time to master; luckily, shorts don’t have a lot of dialogue.
Formatting can be one of the hardest parts to understand. Once a writer understands how not to break the rules, they can break as many of them as they want. Ignore all the recycled articles online about formatting (except for Dave Trottier's advice).
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?
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 are a plethora of producers, directors, and actors seeking short scripts. Some use them as calling cards... some make them in between larger projects... some make them for the love of the art form. Or, like me, they are made to pitch a feature film.
No matter what, there is an endless amount of people looking for shorts, but only a limited amount of shorts available.
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. Never has a producer asked me to give my script over for FREE.
Shorts are a great way to start networking. If you don’t have a large network, this is a great way to collaborate with an up-and-coming filmmaker or an established one.
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 is full of short film and script contests. Just go to FilmFreeway's page and type in “shorts”. This is a great way to see where your writing stands and where it could use improvements. If you win or place, it’s just another thing to add to your resume. I work with writers on their resume through our premium membership, and when a writer has a skimpy resume, I always recommend they start writing (or producing) shorts.
In 2015, I sold my short script, THE MAILBOX, to a first-time director. I ended up coming on as a producer after production.
The film was accepted into 7 film festivals, placing in 2 of them. . In 2017, ScreeningNow, an indie streaming services, approached us. They wanted exclusive rights for one year. We agreed.
What they offered was more than the entire budget. How many indie filmmakers starting out who go straight into their first feature (skip shorts) make back their budget? Under 1%, I’d guess.
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.
The science behind writing an award-winning short:
Shorts aren't easy.
Think about it. You have to tell an entire story in 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.
Try keeping it to 3-4 characters, in 1-2 locations. Plus, there’s really no reason to have a bunch of locations and characters -- it’s a short! Oh, and limit SPFX!
Shorts are meant for publicity. That means, the purpose of most shorts are to hit the festival circuit.
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. I should also note I have another cut at 14:59 that I use for specific 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?
So while technically a short is anything under 45 minutes, you should only write shorts that are 10 minutes, which equals 10 pages. 15 at the most. Anything over 20 and consider your film tossed… at least at the major festivals.
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 been a part of a lot of festivals -- as a spectator or a judge-- and let me tell you, the shorts that do well do two things:
They either evoke extreme laughter or extreme sadness/horror.
There’s no grey area.
Stay away from corny romances. You probably don’t have a budget for sci-fi, fantasy, or war... so cross those off the list, too!
Either make your film laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, or make your story as sad as possible or scary as hell.
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 best shorts have a twist. The first 9 minutes should be leading your audience in one direction, then abruptly taking them in another direction on the last page. You should leave the viewer stunned. In a feature you have tons of scenes to change a viewer's perception -- in a short, you only have one chance. Save it for the end, like the short 'OFFSIDE' did.
-- most shorts are cliché. They follow the same formula that typically ends with the hero winning. Kill your darling. But more so, make it personal. We have all felt tragedy. Write what you know. Not what the market tells you. When writing features, a writer might try to write what’s popular (even though this is frowned upon), but not with a short. This is not for a studio, but for you.; put us in a world we understand, then confuse us, bring us back, confuse us again, then leave us stunned at the end.
-- shorts don’t have to have a Joker-like bad guy to keep the hero from getting what they want. In my short MONTANA, the antagonist was a controversial book; in my short THE MAILBOX, the antagonist was Dementia. In my latest short FROM GRINGO TO GRAVE, it was the Mexico-U.S. border. I was a script doctor on a short called EQUALLY DAMAGED. The antagonist was PTSD.
-- the 3 act structure does still matter in shorts, but it can be out of order. Unlike a feature, where the meat of your story is in the 2nd act and usually where a feature lives or dies in a reader/viewer’s mind, it’s the 1st and 3rd act that have to pack the biggest punch!
-- 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 short FROM GRINGO TO GRAVE my opening image is the "Gringo", passed out against a truck in Mexico, flask dangling from his hand, while the morning sun smacks him in the face. Standing over him are two narcos with guns. Within 20 seconds you know who my main character is, what his vice is, where the film is set, and what he will have to overcome.
-- finally, know why you are making the short. I wrote a short many years ago on sex trafficking. I was reading a lot of material on it and watching some really powerful films. I wanted to experiment with writing one. It was called TRADING STATION. It got bought and produced.. but the producer… well… let’s just say it didn't turn out like it should have (I still don't know what happened to it). But the purpose of writing it was to see if I was capable of writing a full-length story on this subject. And I ended up doing just that for a producer in Sweden (and I used the short as a sample). So know exactly why you are writing your short, what your end game is, and once you achieve that, consider it a major 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.
Shorts are a great way to launch your career. If you already have a career from screenwriting, then they have the potential to help you sustain it.
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.
Shorts have shaped my career. But even more so, it has shaped the careers of some of our most beloved screenwriters and directors.
Write one. Write a damn good one. And then market it!
MOST IMPORTANTLY. Make sure to copyright it with the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS! Writers think because it's a short no one cares. My award-winning short screenplay, MEIN BRUDER, was optioned twice (I don't recommend optioning shorts if you don't have to). A 3rd producer came along from NYC, bought it (I still retained the rights). He disappeared, hired a writer somewhere in Western Europe, changed the 2 main characters who were brothers and turned them into lovers, and tried to start a crowdfunding campaign under a new title in a different language. It caused a lot of stress and time over something that was only 7 pages... luckily, it was copyrighted back in 2011, then renewed in 2016. And remember, the Writers Guild registration will not protect you in the court of law -- only the Library of Congress.
Need your short screenplay translated? We can help: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/screenplay-translation
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.
For more on Jacob:
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