Heywell Film Scripts Blog

Comedy. Drama. Horror. Suspense. My life AND my scripts.

To Short or Not to Short?

Posted by bobheske on December 12, 2006

short cartoon

What are the merits of doing a short versus doing a low-budget feature?

That’s the question I posed to my at-that-time manager after waiting in futility for one of my five features to hit six-figure pay dirt.

Her response: “I wouldn’t recommend it. First, shorts don’t pay. Professional screenwriters don’t need to do them. Second, Hollywood considers shorts as amateur hour. Write a comedy feature instead.”

Most people in the biz would consider this sage advice. But I tossed her words to the wind. Not that I didn’t respect them. I was just tired of doing free re-writes and figured shorts would (at minimum) give me a fresh creative outlet without having to trudge through the dreaded “Act 2” doldrums of a feature, and (at best) introduce me to up-and-coming indie producers and kick open the doors to Hollywood with film- festival-winning work.

I dipped my toes into the shorts side of the pool by re-working Act 1 with two of my favorite features. After one script was a contest finalist, I was hooked. One year later, I have written nearly 20 shorts (most of them contest winners or finalists) and have 8 options under my belt (hopefully 10 by year-end). Heck, I even got a work-for-hire paycheck out of the deal and expect to have a few of these shorts produced and on the festival circuit in 2007.

So was it worth the gambit? I think so – but the jury is still out (although I have since optioned my first feature, been hired for a feature script polish, and secured a new manager). Rather than focus on the “island” of my personal experience to answer the question, instead I asked several indie professionals I’ve met through the wonders of the Web and Skype over the past year.

Here’s what they had to say:

Joel Eisenberg, Screenwriter/Author
“How To Survive a Day Job While Pursuing the Creative Life”

Aunt Bessie’s “How to Survive a Day Job”It never hurts to film your creation as a short to utilize as a calling card. However, in my experience, even at film festivals, I know of very few filmmakers who have had a feature financed based on their short. You must ask yourself what your goal is. In some instances, I’ve seen people who have received jobs as directors on low-budget projects based on a short. One can also look at what happened with television’s “South Park,” that began life as a series of shorts. But in my experience these examples are more the exception than the rule.

The bottom line is this: you have to pay your dues somewhere. I’ve seen too many filmmakers, however, with large-enough budgets to make low-budget fest-style features, but they utilize the funds to make a short instead. To me, that’s questionable. With increasingly-effective HD cameras out there, as an example, a low-budget feature does not have to equate with low-quality. If you have money to shoot a well-scripted, low-budget feature, do it. In my opinion, that’s the far more effective option. You may attain distribution as a result, and executives will see you can present a consistent narrative in long-form. If you have made up your mind to shoot a short, then shoot the best short you can and email it to everybody on your mailing list, and every executive in the Hollywood Creative Directory.

Alex Leung, Associate Producer (Around the World in 80 Days)

around-the-world-in-80-days.jpgShorts can be beneficial IF the director has a clear plan for what he/she hopes to accomplish in doing it. Three common purposes of shorts are to:

    1. “workshop” an idea to secure funding to produce the feature;
    2. use the short as a “trailer” to raise funding for the feature version; and
    3. create a reel for an up-and-coming director

Under the “workshop” premise, a director may pitch an idea to a studio that decides to “dip their toes in the water” by providing a small budget (e.g., $30,000) to make a short. The film Half Nelson is a good example of how this can succeed.

Even more common is for young, hungry filmmakers to create a reel to show their artistic ability and creative vision. And, of course, a few “audience favorite” and “best short” awards at big film festivals can go far in creating buzz about the film and the filmmaker.

For writers, I don’t recommend expending energy on shorts. It’s tough enough to get into Hollywood. What impresses most is a high concept script with rich characters and compelling plotlines. In other words, a kick-ass feature.

Justin Olson, Producer/Manager
Rebel Entertainment
(Chicks 101, Spirit of ’54, Brothers in Flight, Bodmin Moor, Semper Fi, Sugar, The 1 Second Film)

Chicks 101I think for aspiring screenwriters shorts are a great way to get into the process and format of screenwriting without jumping into a feature length script. Plus, many great and successful features started as short films (Napolean Dynamite, Saw, etc.). They’re also good to get you exposure in festivals. But once you’re in the game writing and/or directing studio movies, there’s no reason to do a short other than purely personal reasons. The problem with shorts is that they really don’t have a market outside of festivals. For the most part, people don’t go to the video store and rent a DVD of short films. So there’s no money in them.

Joe Boyd, Actor/Screenwriter/Filmmaker
(Happily Ever After, Hitting the Nuts)

Hitting the NutsI view working on a short film as a form or exercise, training or “continuining education” in the creative field. I am primarily an actor, but writing and producing a short film (Happily Ever After) in 2005 opened doors that never would have been open otherwise. First and foremost, more people return phone calls from a producer than from an actor. Unless you are on the cover of US Weekly, introducing yourself as an actor in Los Angeles is the equivelent of relational suicide with many industry pros. Now that I am producing my first feature film the schism is even more obvious. The very agents who wouldn’t bother opening an actor submission from me are leaving messages on my voicemail with their cell phone numbers. I think this is what “making your own work” is really about…leveraging what you have to open the next door.

Generally, shorts allow for more artistic freedom because there should be little to no hope of making money. I thought my first short would get picked up by some cable channel or foreign market…but after winning three festival awards with no bites at all I quickly saw that nobody is making a living off of short films. (Yeah things can happen, but my advise is DON’T PLAN ON MAKING ANY OF YOUR MONEY BACK!) It is an investment in your craft. You will be repaid with the relationships that you pick up along the way – from writing to production to post-production and festivals. That’s the career pay-off. The artist pay-off is that you get to do YOUR stuff the way you want – and that aint easy in this business.

Kirk Moses, Editor/Filmmaker
(Crew/Filmography Credits: Bloodsuckers, Blade: Trinity, Scary Movie 3, Freddy vs. Jason, The Butterfly Effect, Reindeer Games, Romeo Must Die)

Scary Movie 3I tend to think differently about shorts: that is, a short is a vehicle to explore the way certain themes, characters, or story lines might play out without going through the whole rigamarole of writing 96 pages of material. A few months ago, I took a comic book class that presented a similar opportunity for exploration and resolution of my story theme. What is great about a comic is not only is it a visual medium, but you have to get to the main points of the story across quickly. I think short stories have the same challenge; however, with a more difficult task since they rely solely on the written word.

I am more attracted to a pure short (10 pages or less) than longer story lines that end up being 15-30 pages. Most North American television formats for one hour or half hour sitcoms usually end up being 45 pages (one hour) or 23 pages (half hour). These limitations make writing anything longer than 10 pages a strange middle ground that needs to be part of something else (e.g., since sitcoms always build on storylines from the past).

I also believe shorts are a wonderful way to explore a scene without context. Because the scene is the main building block of scriptwriting, it’s a challenge to the writer to connect the dots in a single setting – something akin to single location features such as 12 Angry Men or Dinner with Andre.

Adam Bolt, Artist, Writer, Director, Filmmaker
(Vanished Acres – Winner: Best Student Film, The Indie Gathering)

Vanished AcresVanished Acres has been an eye-opening experience for me in the film world. Despite its growing successes, I’ve learned that my romantic notions of a short film on the festival circuit were far from true. The fact is, aside from a smattering of festivals, features are the star in the indie film world. If you are debating between shooting a short film, or a low budget feature film, all things being equal – make that feature! If you pull it off, you’ll have real distribution options, a broader audience, and many more festivals to choose from. You could even turn a profit!

Here’s the catch. There’s always a catch, right? The advice I preach time and time again is to work within your means. I made a short film simply because the combination of my interests, style, and goals as a filmmaker are rather expensive. I prefer film to DV in most cases and I love fantastic subject matter. I’d much prefer to do a short film of my taste well, rather than struggle to create a mediocre or poor feature by stretching the same resources way too thin.

The main purpose of a short film is that it can be a calling card for your future work. Shorts are easier to pull off with less time and money, and may achieve some minor distribution if you are fortunate, or lead directly to feature work if you are insanely fortunate. Yet even if you aren’t rewarded in these ways, a good short film under your belt is better than counting on an investor’s blind faith that you can direct your feature.

It is very difficult to write a good short. In a feature length project, you have the substantial benefit of giving the audience time to meet your characters and develop attachments to them. In a short, you had better either hit the ground running with a very strong, identifiable character or develop a longer format short film (which will run into programming difficulties in festivals – as the run time exceeds 15 minutes, your options start dropping like flies). Most shorts fail to deliver any kind of emotional connection. I’ve seen short after short where extremely dramatic endings involving death or suicide happen to characters you don’t care about yet, with melodramatic score to hopefully (and unsuccessfully) fill in that gap. An option to avoid this pitfall all together is to create a concept-based short film. These are often in-your-face and showy pieces with a twist or punchline that propagate most festivals, and in that sense are generally quite successful. If your ultimate goal is to work on long-form narrative; however, this style of short film will neither hone your skills in the type of storytelling needed to hold a feature together, nor really prove to anyone on its own that you have what it takes to do so. Your mileage may vary, though, and there are many exceptions.

In the end, unless your goal is to make a profit from cheap DV shorts presented on cell phones (shudder), my advice is to get as close to that ultimate dream of a “real” movie as you reasonably can. Good luck out there, peoples!


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