how to make a short film

How to Make a Short Film Festivals Want

In Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots – Why We Tell Stories, the author explains, “We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films.” In fact, storytelling dates back millennia and it is our evolutionary predisposition to tell stories. So, what are you going to do as an aspiring short film maker? You are going to tell a fantastic story. But how?

In this article, we’ll discuss how to make a short film festivals want, with advice on how to:

  1. Avoid Clichés
  2. Keep Your Short Film’s Screenplay Short
  3. Structure Your Screenplay Well
  4. Cast Real Actors
  5. Assemble a Capable Crew

There are numerous ways to craft the story of your short film and it’s practically impossible to write out a perfect formula for a great story. However, the first mistake many new short film Writers and Directors make is creating a cliché story. Since you most likely want your short film to see the light of the screen, then you are probably hoping your short film is accepted by a reputable and preferably long-running film fest with a built-in audience of movie fans, Journalists, and potential studio reps who may see something in your effort that could result in a meeting for future work.

The best way to at least make a unique short film with its own voice and vision is to start by avoiding clichés. Clichés are essentially someone else’s work. Remember that. When you write a script chock full of them, you’re borrowing the ideas and sentiments of those who came before you and that does not showcase your short film as distinctive.

Avoid clichés

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.

Keep Your Short Film’s Screenplay Short

I produce and assistant direct short films and when the Writer brings me a short screenplay that is 23 pages or 17 pages, I can feel my eyebrows furrow. The best times for a short film are either 5 minutes (5 pages) or 10 minutes (10 pages). Why? Well, most Film Festival Directors are trying to schedule 1 to 1.5 hour blocks of screening time for your film and the short films from the other Writers and Directors joining you. It makes so much more sense to schedule six 10-minute shorts than it does 4 fifteen minute shorts – or worse – three 10-minute shorts, a 14.5-minute short, and a 36-minute short. Five or 10 minute shorts offer more visual bang for the buck at a festival screening and besides, if you can’t tell your short film’s story in 10 minutes or less, then you may just be dreaming about making a feature but lack of funds, time, and crew are forcing you to make a short. Film Festival Directors and audiences see through that nonsense. If you want to make a short film, then make a short film – not a feature film disguised as a short film.

Anderson of the Florida Film Festival adds, “I’ll say this much, if you make a 5-minute comedy that nails it, every festival on earth will be clamoring for your film.”

“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?”

Structure Your Screenplay Well

So, you’re the Writer and you want to write an amazing short film. Great! However, if you write 10 pages that are mostly dialogue and lack the descriptive narrative action, then you don’t have a 10-minute film. You have a screenplay that is going to result in a longer short because you, as the Writer, didn’t imagine and write down what the Actors are doing. Every single piece of dialogue should have an accompanying piece of written action. For example:

FADE IN:

EXT. GAS STATION – NIGHT

TERRENCE [O.S.]
It looks like we’re all out of potato chips.

CUT TO:

INT. GAS STATION – NIGHT

TERRENCE is an aging black man dressed in a polo as he stocks the shelves.

TERRENCE
All we have are pretzels and cookies.
You’re going to need to place an order.

CUT TO:

VANESSA, a 20-something hipster who couldn’t care less about anything. She blows a bubble with her gum and it pops; her expression – a flat disinterest.

VANESSA
Potato chips make you fat anyway.

Terrence rolls his eyes and continues to stock some sodas.

TERRANCE
[unimpressed]
How you ever became manager will always be beyond me.

Vanessa halts her cow-like gum chewing.

VANESSA
[snidely]
Are you banging my grand mother?

Terrance pauses and his eyes widen.

In this simple example, every single piece of dialogue is accompanied with some narrative description. This is important because it:

  1. Helps the Director and the Actors wrap their heads around the actions as well as the dialogue.
  2. Helps the Director of Photography and Assistant Director understand what the camera sees for the shot list and the schedule.
  3. Gives a real shape to the script and closely depicts the actual time of your finished short film.

There should be no egos and no competitors in filmmaking. It’s collaborative, not combative.

Cast Real Actors

Don’t just cast anyone. Your boyfriend may be amazing in life but a real stinker on camera. It’s show business and you should be casting Actors who want to be in the business.

Casting can feel overwhelming and ultra important and that’s because it is. Your vision will be brought to life by the cast and bad acting will demolish your script and your vision.

Auditions can be done in a classroom, a board room, or an office, but please don’t hold auditions in your living room. It’s weird and you need your potential cast to feel comfortable.

When casting, search for Actors who can not only emote with sincerity and charisma, but who also embody the character in their look, their mannerisms, and their body language.

Share with potential cast members at least one page of action and dialogue from your script and ask them to come to the audition with a short monologue. A good Actor will already know this and I have cast people not necessarily based on my script, but on their monologue. They have had more time with their monologue than they have had with your single script page. The Actor’s monologue will allow him or her to show what they can do when they have had time to really rehearse.

Record the audition. You will see new things you didn’t see when you auditioned an Actor in person. Even recording it on your phone is better than nothing.

Refer to the people you audition as Actors – this encompasses both men, women, and children. An Actor is an artist and since we call all Painters “Painters,” refer to all Actors as “Actors.”

Here are some resources to find Actors:

  1. Casting sites like backstage.com, mandy.com, actorsaccess.com, and even craigslist.com are all great places to find talented, passionate, hungry, and hopefully affordable cast members.
  2. Local playhouses. Many Stage Actors also want to be Screen Actors. They have experience with memorizing lines and acting in scenes. Go see a play or simply post your casting call on their bulletin board the old fashioned way with a sheet of paper and a thumbtack. Include an email you register explicitly for the casting of your short film. Otherwise, your regular email will be inundated with responses and oversized headshots. Do not include a phone number unless you want a ton of calls and voicemails you may not have time for during pre-production .
  3. YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram are all resources to watch other short films, sketches, short bits, and even casting reels. The internet is your number one research tool so use it.

Assemble A Capable Crew

Film students have an advantage when it comes to assembling crew because their classmates are hungry, passionate, and hopefully driven. As a former educator at Full Sail University, I saw time and time again students who didn’t work with other students to produce a killer short film. The film industry is about collaboration and you have to develop the skill to talk with your classmates that inspires them to join your team. Students attend film school because they want to make movies. Remember that. All of those classmates are a resource. Find out what they’re passionate about. Does he or she want to be an Art Director, a Producer, or an Assistant Director? Identify those students by listening to them in class, getting together for a coffee, and build your team early on. This team may be the same folks you work with for the rest of your career. There should be no egos and no competitors in filmmaking. It’s collaborative, not combative. Make life-long friends as a student.

What if you’re not a film student and still want to find a crew? That is totally doable by using the myriad of online resources on the web including:

Facebook. There are fantastic and established Facebook pages dedicated to putting together film crews including I Need Crew, Film & TV Network Group, I Need a Producer, and I Need a Camera Op. Typically, the thousands of members are very friendly and live all over The United States. However, asking for free labor is frowned upon and expect negative responses if you don’t have something – at least minimum wage – to offer.

Craigslist. Craigslist has sections devoted to “gigs” and “tv / film / video.” These are great boards to search for crew. Just be clear about what you need and be honest about budget. If the budget is zero, mention that. If it is low, mention that, too. In many cases, especially when the film industry is slow in locations like Los Angeles and New York, you can find seasoned crew and newcomers willing to jump on a low budget indie short film; especially December through February. Professional jobs become less available during these months and creative individuals are often just itching to do something.

Staffmeup.com and MediaMatch.com. These sites typically cater to paid production jobs, however, even Staffmeup.com has a section for “Passion Projects.” Use it.

This is just the beginning of understanding what it takes to produce a short film festivals want. In part 2 of this article, you will be able to learn more about gear, the shot list, directing talent, editing and pacing, screening, and choosing the right film festivals.

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