Here are some of the cliché pitfalls many first time Writers and Directors create when crafting their short film:
1. A short film about filmmaking. Blech. Been done ad nauseam. While your time in film school or your time as a budding short filmmaker may seem like hell, most people couldn’t care less, especially in the film industry.
However, as with all “rules” there are exceptions like Chris Smith’s American Movie, about short indie filmmaker Mark Borchardt and his insane and passionate attempt to finish his short film Coven. Besides, that is a feature documentary and we’re talking short films!
2. Long opening credits. Stop it! Fade in, show the title, and get to the movie already. The film is not about how many people came on board for free to make your movie. The story should be the focus and no one cares as much about the crew as you and the crew do.
Audiences are sitting in a dark theater to be entertained and inspired. They want their thoughts provoked. Save the end of your movie for the credits and then your crew members can applaud when they see their names.
3. Narration. Narration is often a crutch. It tells instead of shows and showing is what your film should be doing. This isn’t radio. Show how the Actors feel, how the visuals drive the story, and how the dialogue is precise and relevant.
Again, sometimes narration is great (like in Fight Club, but again, that’s not a short film. Put down the narration crutches and write a compelling narrative that keeps the viewer’s focus using action and dialogue. Narration takes audiences out of the experience whereas compelling visual storytelling envelops festival goers.
4. Guns. Some of my favorite films are about gangsters, thugs, and cops. However, too many short film makers introduce a gun because the filmmaker thinks it adds tension to a movie. It can, but unless the gun is a central character to the plot necessary to tell the story, then it’s a gimmick.
5. Slow starts. This is a short, not a feature. You have a very brief chance to engage your audience. And remember, your audience is also comprised of Film Festival Directors who have seen tons of short films. They hope to schedule your short with up to 9 others for a strong block of entertainment someone is willing to pay for.
If your film is 10 minutes and you spend 5 minutes building the setting and characters and you haven’t even gotten to the central plot, then you’re wasting time and your short film should probably only be 5 minutes. Stop wasting your potential audience’s time because you’re in love with everything you shot and you don’t trust the intelligence of the audience.
6. Drugs. As with guns, drugs are often introduced for a false sense of drama and tension. Unless you, yourself, are a recovering drug addict (and I hope you have never been one), then find something more personal and interesting. Personal stories are the strongest stories.
7. Pregnant women stuck in a terrible situation. This is so overdone and is right up there with guns and drugs. Next, the pregnant woman will have to give an emergency birth while the world burns around her. Stop it. Your short film isn’t going to be like Children of Men. Trust me.
8. Unnecessary slow motion. Your short film isn’t a music video and unless it’s extremely important to driving home the emotional point of a moment, no one is going to applaud the fact that your Director of Photography knew how to change the speed of your video camera.
9. Prostitutes. Again, if you weren’t one, then stop trying to tell a story about one. Write what you know.
10. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, aliens, and any otherworldly, supernatural creatures you didn’t conceive of yourself. Ok, I love horror and sci-fi movies and my horror and sci-fi movie Director friends are going to take issue with this one.
The real issue is this: you’re building on a folklore that has been done to death (get it) and unless you find some amazing new twist, as Writer John Ajvide Lindqvist and Director Tomas Alfredson did with Let The Right One In, then chances are, your idea is going to ventilate on the same stale wind hundreds of filmmakers have before your short film.
11. Melodrama and over-the-top acting. This isn’t the theater and it’s not a play. Film acting is best when the Actors perform sincerely and with motivation. Plays are often external, relying on performances that project, whereas film acting should be internal and nuanced. Overacting will ruin your short film.
12. No real plot. Plot thrives on conflict and some sort of internal or external goal the Actors are trying to reach. A 5 minute short with no real, tangible conflict will bore viewers to tears and film festivals generally won’t want your plodding, pointless short film.
Let’s hear from Tim Anderson, Programming Coordinator at the Florida Film Festival. (FFF is one of only about 2 dozen festivals in the world that is Oscar Accredited in all 3 shorts categories: live action, animation, and documentary.)
“What I am looking for in shorts,” Anderson explains, “is a unique and fully realized vision for your short. I assure you, I cannot stress this enough, no matter how original you think your film is, I have seen it before. So, what makes your version special? Always be asking yourself: is this a story that HAS to be told and why should I be the one to tell it?”
There are numerous other clichés you can avoid and doing a simple Google search may help you. There are also always exceptions, but for the most part, avoiding these clichés will help you hone in on a truly interesting and memorable idea that remains with audiences.