Why and How Short Films are Made
An Examination of Short Films and How They Serve Aspiring Filmmakers
In 2011, a short web series called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl premiered on YouTube. Its premise related to much of its viewership, centering around a young Black woman navigating uncomfortable situations in the professional, social and dating worlds. The exposure it received from YouTube helped Awkward Black Girl to spin off into a very successful HBO series known as Insecure. The creator of both, Issa Rae, has now forged her path into mainstream Hollywood, and it all started with a simple short showcasing her creative chops. Given the high demand for content across all platforms, there is always a chance that a modest project can morph into something big.
Many cinephiles are familiar with some of the big-screen to small screen spinoffs, such as The American President becoming The West Wing, or A Few Good Men setting the table for JAG. However, many talented filmmakers lack the resources to produce expansive projects that gain the attention of influential representatives or studios. Creating a television series or a feature length movie requires budgets in at least the seven-to-eight figure range, usually valuated by professionals known as line producers. So what’s the best use of the underdog’s modest means? Many go the route of what’s known as a short film. With running times typically ranging anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour, shorts offer filmmakers a chance to showcase their storytelling and directing abilities. The small-scale project often serves as a foot in the door for their future endeavors.
Short films can have any one of several purposes. Many filmmakers make a short for what’s called a proof-of-concept, whether for a feature-length flick or television pilot. As there are countless scripts waiting to be looked at, a project that has gone from the page to the screen is more likely to garner attention from studio executives.
“Proof of concept is great,” says Alex Morsanutto, director of Operation: Cavity. “Because if you have a bigger idea, you could show a producer, or an agent, maybe your manager, ‘Hey, this is what I'm thinking of, something that I'd like to do as my next project. I already have this visual example of what it's going to be like. This is the proof of concept. All you need to do is get me the money and we're in business.’”
Furthermore, a story may come off as too difficult or expensive to produce, or not capable of captivating an audience for the allotted time. In these instances, even filmmakers who have some notoriety produce proof-of-concept shorts. There are several interesting examples to choose from, perhaps most notably Robert Rodriguez’s The Customer is Always Right, Zack Snyder’s Die Free, and Neill Blomkamp’s Alive in Joburg. These projects paved the way for Sin City, 300, and District 9, respectively. None of these three award-winning blockbusters would likely have been made without their proof-of-concept shorts preceding them.
Such was also the case for the creators of the Saw horror franchise. Leigh Whannell and James Wan struggled to find the funding necessary for their script, so they instead made a short film, moved to Los Angeles, and screened it for producer Gregg Hoffman. It made a strong enough impression for them to secure funding of what is now a very popular horror series that earned far more than it spent.
The most common purpose in a proof-of-concept is to attract investors with a visual representation of what the filmmaker hopes to create. Directors aim to establish the look and feel of the movie more so than the specifics of the narrative. Whannell and Wan’s short consisted of a gruesome torture scene, consistent with what each feature ended up containing. Similarly, Die Free, the aforementioned short for 300, runs only a minute and a half, but it provides a glimpse into the stylized violence and cinematography that 300 fans know very well.
Conversely, some such projects are based entirely around a character. Similar to Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl series, Mike Judge produced a series of animated shorts surrounding Milton, a character frequently bullied by his office co-workers. The shorts became mainstays on MTV and Saturday Night Live in the ‘90s. Later, Judge incorporated Milton into his second feature in 1999 that would become a cult classic known as Office Space, with Milton playing an ancillary character.
Some filmmakers go another route, opting to enter their shorts into a short film festival. Many in-person festivals serve as a hub for both creators and investors. A filmmaker can find not only financiers to fund future projects but also like-minded peers for future collaborations. With enough exposure and accolades from events, short films have the potential to climb their way into Oscars consideration. Over 90 short film festivals are considered Oscar qualifiers, and the entries to these festivals all have a chance to be recognized by the Academy.
Along these lines, filmmakers can take their completed short and screen it in theaters for seven straight days in one of six major U.S. cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, or Miami. Matthew A. Cherry’s very popular short film Hair Love won the 2020 Oscar for Best Animated Short after first airing in theaters alongside The Angry Birds Movie 2, Jumanji: The Next Level, and Little Women. Hair Love was later adapted to a 12-episode animated series by HBO Max.
An option for filmmakers still in school is to compete in the Student Academy Awards, put on by the Academy every year. The award ceremony offers a Gold, Silver and Bronze medal, any of which can be nominated for its corresponding Academy Award category (Best Live Action Short, Best Documentary Short, or Best Animated Short). According to the Oscars official website, 63 medalists from the Student Academy Award have been nominated for an Oscar and 11 have won.
So what does a short film cost to make? The most honest and least popular answer is of course, “depends.” While budgets for past short films are harder to unearth than blockbusters, SAG (Screen Actors Guild) defines a short project on a low budget scale as being entirely shot in the United States for a maximum budget of $50,000, running no longer than 40 minutes. A list of expenses would normally include location rentals, cast and crew wages, craft services, and equipment, along with other minor costs. Given the prorated nature of some of these expenses, the more concise your shooting schedule, the cheaper your shoot. For short films, many directors use their circle of friends to fulfill roles on both the cast and crew. If possible, many use that same network to acquire the camera, lights and possibly even location needed at a discount. They often supplement that with on-screen talent looking to develop what is known as an actor reel to showcase their work. In this instance, actors are usually willing to accept less pay in exchange for the opportunity to bolster their acting resumes.
Raising the money to produce a short could prove challenging. The easiest, and most commonly recommended, way, is to have rich, generous friends and family. Aside from that, filmmakers often have to cultivate relationships and operate on a quid pro quo basis with the people or businesses that can help them. If you’ve ever seen the “Special Thanks To” section closing out the end credits, that tip of the cap is usually to the people or places that provided food, a location, or some other helpful service for little or no cost to the filmmaker.
Aside from individual investors to pitch to, many firms specialize in financing films. For creators, the best way to approach such investors is to have a clear and concise description of the film you wish to make, how much money you need and detailed explanations on how the money will be used.. Some people have locations locked down but need help paying the crew. Others have enough money for labor but need help renting equipment. In any case, the needs should be explicitly stated and possibly even itemized. The most important aspect of a filmmaker’s pitch is transparency, as any investor will be wary of the potential that they are being taken advantage of.
There are good lessons to be learned in the stories of past short films made. While the aforementioned examples make the short-to-feature pipeline seem chock full of success stories, far more go unnoticed or receive negative reception. In a famous example, a young USC student named George Lucas produced his short entitled Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB. It was later adapted into a feature shortened to just THX-1138, thanks to his good friend Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope. However, the Warner Brothers executives that Coppola received funding from despised THX-1138 and demanded a refund on their investment. This anecdote gives insight into the potential setbacks an aspiring filmmaker can suffer, even when receiving the funding he or she needs. Nonetheless, perseverance allowed Francis Ford Coppola to create The Godfather and recoup his losses.
I just hope that George Lucas kid turned out alright.