short films

How to Make Short Films Festivals Want: Part 2

In part 1 of this series, we discussed some of the steps you can take to craft your short film for festivals by covering how to avoid clichés, short screenplay length and structure, casting, and assembling the crew.

In the second part of this series on creating short films festivals want, we’ll discuss:

  1. Affordable camera options
  2. Working with a shot list
  3. Directing talent
  4. Editing and pacing
  5. Screening for friends, family, and neighbors
  6. Submitting to the right festivals

Affordable Camera Options

It’s not what you shoot with but how you shoot! There are literally countless cameras, lighting packages, audio gear, and post-production tools that can be used to create your short masterpiece. Stop worrying about the best camera and the best whatever. Yes, The Red is awesome and I have directed that camera on several music videos, but there are other, more affordable 4K cameras available now that can get the job done well. If you’re a film student, then great, you should have access to decent gear. For you short filmmakers out there without gear, please consider these affordable camera options:

THE BLACK MAGIC POCKET CINEMA CAMERA – $1,300

THE PANASONIC HC-X1 – $2,700

THE PANASONIC LUMIX GH5s – $2,300

THE SAMSUNG GALAXY 9 NOTE – $1,250

That’s right, the last one is a cell phone that can shoot 4K, 60FPS, and even has a model with 512 gigs of storage. Plus, you can add lenses to many cell phones. They use a magnet and nest right in front of a cell phone’s existing lens. You will still need a laptop and drive to dump footage, but Tangerine, a Sundance darling, was shot on the iPhone 5S. Again, it’s not what you shoot with, but how you shoot.

When it comes to audio, don’t cut corners. A good audio operator will usually come to the table with his or her own mixer, lavs, and a boom. Rely on them to give you the best audio possible. They know what they are doing (usually) and it’s up to you to trust them. As long as they can give you clean and reliable audio, you will be fine. Avoid noisy locations and flight paths when scouting locations. Don’t think you can solve it in post with ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement). Re-recording dialogue in post often sounds canned and lacks the emotional delivery that should have been recorded in the field or on a soundstage.

With lighting, this is a conversation you have to have with your Director of Photography. Remember, you don’t have to know everything. If you’re the Writer or Director, be brave enough to relinquish total control. Speak to your DP in visual terms. Yes, he or she needs to know the story, but it’s way more important that he or she understands the visual language of your short film. The best way to do that is with comparative visuals and movies. Scour the web for screenshots and pictures of paintings, photographs, and movies you love and share those with your DP. He or she will understand when you “speak” in visual terms. Don’t get bogged down in the backstory and the dialogue. Share what’s necessary and rely on the visual examples to lead the way.

Working With a Shot List

The job of your Assistant Director will be to schedule your short film shoot and the job of your Storyboard Artist (if you can afford one) will be to draw out the boards that make your final film. A lot of short film Directors don’t work with boards simply because storyboarding is a long and often expensive process. When you can have storyboards, then have them. However, in lieu of storyboards, a short film Director will at the very least bring a shot list to the shoot. Do it. Again, money and time are at stake and your shot list is your blueprint. List every single shot you want and use the correct terms for each shot including WS (wide shot), MS (medium shot), CU (close up), tracking shot (Steadicam, dolly, or jib), HH (handheld) or Cowboy (from the knees to the head). I cannot express how important it is you do not show up on set ready to “wing it.” That’s lame and it will waste time and your crew will stare at you wondering why they signed up for this mess.

Speak to your DP in visual terms. Yes, he or she needs to know the story, but it’s way more important that he or she understands the visual language of your short film. The best way to do that is with comparative visuals and movies. Scour the web for screenshots and pictures of paintings, photographs, and movies you love and share those with your DP.

Directing Talent

There are hundreds of books about film directing that will do a much better job at explaining what makes a great Director than I could in one article. I swear that’s not a copout on my part. The art of directing is part innate and part learned skill. The more you read about great Directors and from books like On Directing by David Mamet, the better prepared you will be on set. A Director directs talent and camera while communicating with the Assistant Director about Background Extra action and gear placement.

Here are three things I have learned from directing:

  1. Write a clear backstory for every single major and minor character in your film. This can be a paragraph that clearly illustrates where the character is from, how he or she speaks, a possible and impactful childhood experience the character had, a physical issue the character hides, and what the character wants from life. It could explain the type of cocktail the character likes to drink to losing his or her parents when he or she was 7 years old. Backstories allow Actors to understand the character and they give them the guts and soul of the character. This information will guide the Actor during a performance.
  2. Rehearse with the Actors. Bring them over to your living room (now it’s OK because you’ve gotten to know each other), serve them some snacks, and act out the script a few times before shooting. Have someone else read the narrative descriptions so you, as the Director, can really watch the body language and facial expressions to see what’s working and what is not.
  3. On set, let the Actors bring their ideas to the role. Of course, direct the scenes how you see fit, but you will be happily surprised when you ask the Actors for a take motivated by their feelings and notions about the role. I often say, “why don’t you guys act this scene in a new way – a way you want to experience it.” I guarantee you get something new and fresh that you didn’t even think about. Collaborate with your Actors and don’t stifle them.

Editing and Pacing

Whether using Adobe Premiere or AVID or another editing software package, you need a solid Video Editor who knows how to manage all the video and understands pacing. (Typically, a DIT or Digital Imaging Tech will manage your video on location, but the Editor will organize it in post-production.)

Pacing is the rhythm of the edit. It should be fluid and clean and you should get enough coverage in the field to show your story with the essentials. Don’t overshoot, but definitely don’t undershoot. Get what you need and since you’re probably working on a budget, the less time you spend shooting in the field, the more money you save and the less the Editor has to contend with. A strong edit takes the necessary time to show the story and a great edit doesn’t draw attention to itself. It almost musically carries the story in a streamlined fashion, allowing your audience to appreciate the story and not be distracted by unnecessary cuts and jarring edits. If you really want to understand the art and theory of editing, read In The Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch. Even though he is mostly applauded as a Sound Editor, he is also a prominent Film Editor, and he wrote about the craft of editing like no one else I have read, drawing the clear connection between the biological need for humans to blink and editing in film. It’s an important book for anyone serious about editing.

Screening for Friends, Family, and Neighbors

Once you have what you feel is a tight and clean cut of your short film at 10 minutes or less, share it with people and ask for honest feedback. Check your ego. Let these trusted previewers weigh in with bold feedback and notes and listen to them. You should be making short films not just for other filmmakers or hardcore cinephiles. Try making movies for people from various walks of life. The point is to share your story with as many viewers as possible; sending password safe links after privately uploading your short to YouTube or Vimeo is a great way to email friends, family, and even neighbors to find out what they think. Believe it or not, your mom’s opinion may be as valid as your Teacher or classmate’s opinion. If your mom doesn’t understand something your response should not be, “Well Mom, you just don’t understand filmmaking.” Not only is that rude, but your mom’s “untrained eye” may see something you don’t and it could be very valid.

Anderson, our Festival Director friend from the Florida Film Festival (referenced in Part 1 of this series) adds, “Make someone one watch your short that is NOT RELATED to you. Ask them if they got bored and when. Ask them if they thought the short was over before it actually ended. End the film when it’s over!

Submitting to the Right Festivals

For the sake of simplicity, Withoutabox.com is quite possibly your best online resource for submitting to festivals. It’s easy. You register and upload your short film. Then you can easily submit to hundreds of film festivals with a few easy clicks. No joke. It’s a Godsend. You will have to include credit card info to cover festival fees, but Withoutabox.com has made the process of submitting to film festivals so streamlined, it’s truly incredible.

“If your film plays a festival, then you need to go. You need to meet every person, every Producer, and network your ass off. It’s completely meaningless to submit to 100 festivals and not be there to represent.” — Director Steven Shea

The Festivals You Should Be Submitting to

By no means is this list all-encompassing, but these are the first tier festivals you should be submitting to. They have built-in and loyal audiences that often include credible distribution companies, experienced Journalists, and executives looking for the next break out filmmaker.

  1. Cannes International Film Festival. Upwards of 4,000 Journalists attend and they may write about your short film. It’s also important to note that your short film could totally get lost in the sauce, so to speak. With so many films being showcased, it may be hard to find an audience for your particular movie. Still, it is considered a flagship festival and simply being able to say your short movie screened at Cannes has clout in the film industry.
  2. Venice Film Festival. It is prominent and screening here has so much value to short filmmakers. The festival also wants to strongly promote diversity in storytelling, but they don’t accept badly produced films, so yours needs to be top-notch.
  3. Sundance. Just hearing the phrase “Sundance” makes industry pros perk up and get excited. The festival’s importance in the film industry cannot be overstated and being accepted to Sundance just helped your short film leap in value.
  4. Los Angeles Film Festival. If you want working industry professionals – the gatekeepers to your potential future success – to possibly see your work, then submit to the LA Film Fest. The audiences here are made up of execs, Distributors, Journalists, and Producers hungry for new talent.
  5. The Berlin International Film Festival. With more than 19,000 film pros from 120 countries, plus thousands of Journalists in attendance, it’s worth a shot.

Watching Successful Short Films

Good Writers read a lot of successful writing and good short filmmakers watch other successful short films. Again, the internet is a great place to search for Oscar-winning short films and short films that have been turned into feature films. Before Neill Blomkamp’s feature film directing career was launched with District 9, he directed a short version of it called Alive in Joburg that can be seen here. Peter Jackson loved his short film work and helped the feature film version come to life. Short films can lead to feature film work. It’s all about producing great work, getting it out there in festivals and online, and letting the gatekeepers of the film industry sometimes come to you.

A Success Story

Steven Shea, Owner, Executive Producer, and Director of Abyssmal Entertainment has recently had success with his short horror film 2:22. Steven is excellent at writing and directing innovative horror and I had a chance to ask him a few questions about his festival experiences.

CIF: What film festivals accepted and screened 2:22?

Shea: Sitges International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival – Short Film Corner, Screamfest, A Night of Horror International Film Festival, Frightfest, Atlanta Horror Film Festival, Orlando Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, Festival Mauvais Genre, and a slew of others. (We played 20 in total, won awards at 3).

CIF: How did you pick your festivals and why?

Shea: We had three methods of thinking when it came to festivals.

  1. Which were the top tier festivals that we thought we might actually get in that would get us the most exposure to executives/studios?
  2. What festivals are we friends with that we know we can get in, and would also want to play to our friends and peers?
  3. Which festivals do we have a good shot at winning an award?

Our decisions were made across all three of these. We submitted to larger festivals, but focused only on major genre fests, knowing that we probably wouldn’t have a shot at the larger general festivals.

CIF: What was a tough obstacle to getting accepted?

Shea: The toughest obstacle is not knowing people associated with the festivals. Like everything else, festivals are very political. If you know someone associated, it’s easier to get involved, and pushed to the top of the pile. There were a couple festivals we got waivers for and submitted after deadline because we knew someone involved. Also, this was our first major festival run, so we weren’t legacies or returning filmmakers to any of these festivals. I feel like that also helps your chances if you already have a reputation with the festival.

Also the costs. Besides the $30-$60 to submit, we did a budget breakdown for our festival run, and if we had traveled to each festival for networking and representation, it would have cost us over $20,000, all for a $1,500 short.

CIF: What was some feedback you may have gotten from a Festival Director interested in your short film — good and not so good?

Shea: I don’t think we got any feedback. Most festivals don’t give you feedback as far as I know. Or you would run into a Festival Director and they would say, ”Hey I loved your short!” That was about it. Some festivals you submit to will offer feedback or coverage when you pay for the initial entrance.

CIF: What did you learn that you didn’t know before about submitting and getting accepted?

Shea: You need to do a festival run with a very specific plan. We had made a great short film that we wanted to use as a calling card, and it worked. I started getting calls from management companies and studios, and they all wanted to know what I had.

Did I want to make the short into a feature? Where was the script? What other scripts did I have packaged? As a kid from Florida, not understanding how this works, I was completely not prepared.

I had these big meetings in L.A., but nothing to show them, so they were a wash.

Also, if your film plays a festival, then you need to go. You need to meet every person, every Producer, and network your ass off. It’s completely meaningless to submit to 100 festivals and not be there to represent.
I have a shelf of a dozen awards from festivals, do you know how many meetings that gets me? None.

Have a plan.

“I’m submitting this incredible short to festivals, because it’s a proof of concept for a feature that I already have packaged, and I need to get it to more people I don’t currently have access to.”

or

“I’m going around with this short, trying to network with other Screenwriters/Producers as a Director to try to build a network to get hired on a future project.”

or

“I shot this short, and want to meet other filmmakers who could hire me to shoot their next project.”

In Short

There are hundreds of festivals to submit to and it’s so important that you do your research. Not all short films must be submitted to the biggest festivals on the planet and there is something to be said for showcasing your short film to smaller festivals: more intimate audiences and local Journalists who may be more likely to write about a short film that clearly shines above the other submissions.

Whichever film fest you chose, just remember that is all about your story and the execution of your story: from an inventive and sincere script to a well shot and well edited final film, story is everything.

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