Is Making Shorts Still Worth It?

It’s certainly not breaking news: the filmmaking landscape is changing. One glaring observation is the “ease” in how movies are being made today. And I don’t mean the funding, production, post, release (yeah, those are still really challenging), but thanks to advances in technology you can accomplish many of the filmmaking aspects on the super cheap with less manpower and have a greater chance than ever before to finish your film and even find yourself premiering at a festival.

So, with this influx of features suddenly upon us the question that begins to pop up more and more is where do short films fit in all of this?

Yes, like features, shorts are more realistic to make than ever before. And yes, getting that “calling card” short could bring you some much-needed attention (and even an agent). But should that effort and money that you’re going to put into making a short—that, let’s face it, unless it becomes a meme, will only be seen by your friends, family and maybe a film festival audience—really necessary if you can realistically make a feature and potentially have a bigger reward?

Attending the Bermuda International Film Festival in April, Indiewire came back with the story “Why Make Shorts?” in which they got some interesting views. Lauren Wissot, who contributes to Filmmaker Magazine and has programmed festivals, feels there’s too many calling card shorts. “Too often I feel like I’m sitting through vanity projects where I’m being pitched,” she said. “I like to see work that fits the format.” Critic Peter Rainer feels film students aren’t challenging themselves with their shorts. “A lot of film schools tend to promote films as resumes for studio work, so then the students don't take enough chances often times,” he said.

A month earlier, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody tackled the subject with his piece, “Does The Cinema Need Short Films?” In it he writes, “the short film doesn’t supplant the feature; it nourishes it. It doesn’t make a filmmaker’s career, but it augments it, just as a brief visit to a friend may bring a wise word that may stick with a person for a lifetime.” Brody certainly believes shorts are something filmmakers need (as well as audiences), what struck me, however, was his inclusion of an excerpted from a piece Jean-Luc Godard wrote in 1958 in which he called shorts “anti-cinema.”

From Godard:

"...a short film does not have time to think. It therefore belongs to that impure cinema to which André Bazin wished a long life: with good reason, moreover, since through this very impurity it enables, a contrario, many directors to prove their talent. So the short film is useful to the cinema in a way, but like the antibody in medicine."

It’s safe to say the short film genre has been the ugly step-child for some time, only brought out when needed. And let’s not even get started on Vines and Instagram videos, which now has made the definition of a “short film” even more confusion.

To try to understand how today’s filmmakers think about shorts (and use it), I asked a few to give me their thoughts.

 

THE SKEPTIC

I’m not trying to hype things, Daniel Schechter really hates short films. And I know this because he’s told me…numerous times. So when I reached out to him about commenting for this story he was more than willing to oblige. Schechter does want me to tell you though that his thoughts are not directed towards college students, sketch comics and those who genuinely enjoy telling short-form stories.

Though Schechter’s next film, Life of Crime (opening August 29), stars Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes, Mos Def, Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher, Will Forte and is based on a Elmore Leonard novel, he’s hardly an out-of-touch director who never had to struggle to get where he’s at. Schechter’s two pervious films—Goodbye Baby and Supporting Characters—were super low-budget indies, and it was sheer determination and a solid spec script that opened the eyes of Leonard and eventually got Life of Crime made. So in short: his thoughts on this matter are warranted. 

Obviously Schechter’s career path is not a common one, he’s never made a short film. After screenwriting and editing both shorts and features in the early 200s, he decided to make the feature Goodbye Girl in 2007 his writing-directing debut. “I just think if I’m sitting through 99 percent of short films I see, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I can’t wait for this to end,’ then that’s enough of a reason to not pursue them.” And he says he’s not alone in this thinking. “People may not admit it to you,” he continues in an e-mail, “but they tell me all the time, ‘I can’t stand shorts, I just feel like a dick admitting that.’”

Though he has numerous reasons why he’s not into making shorts, here’s a main one: the dreaded “favors.”

“Most people get to ask their family and friends for money once,” he explains. “Get one opportunity to ask a sound designer to do a free mix. One chance to get a famous actor to do a role; a DP with a great camera to shoot their film for nothing. To get a festival to waive their submission fee and fly them out. ‘Feature’ is a much sexier word than ‘short.’ You get more favors and you get better favors by those looking to build their resume. And by the time you're done, for practically the same cost—if you're clever—you have a feature-length calling card that can, in itself, be a way to recoup your investment and forward your career significantly.”

Certainly something to chew on.

 

THE GO-GETTER

Ryan Koo is like all up-and-coming filmmakers, he’s trying to make feature films. He started a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 for his feature, Manchild (which is an alumni of Tribeca All Access®), and low-and-behold he became a hot commodity when the campaign took in $125,000. So suddenly on top of trying to make a movie he also became the poster boy for crowd funding, which led to lots of press and speaking engagements. But throughout this flurry of attention he was beginning to realize, it takes some time to actually make a feature. “So much of being a filmmaker is meetings, conversations, writing, planning, and pitching,” he says. “Features take years to put together and out of that time you might only be working with actors and a crew for a few weeks. To me, short-form content is a great way to get in reps—an athlete won't improve if all they do is train, they have to actually get in-game experience.” 

So last fall, while still trying to get Manchild off the ground, he made the short, Amateur, a prequel to Manchild, which delves into the world of youth basketball recruiting. “I wrote Amateur mere weeks before we shot it, and then weeks after we shot it we had a finished film,” he explains. “That was a valuable learning tool, regardless of its relationship to the feature. Making a short is the same process of going from script to pre-production to production to post, but it's so much more achievable and the process is much more compact. I'm proud of the result, and it's moved the needle for the feature in a lot of ways, but independent of those things, it was just a healthy process to make it.”

[MORE: Learn more about Amateur and Manchild in Koo’s interview on TFI LIVE]

Outside of feeding his needs to create as a filmmaker, in terms of the film community, Koo was able to bring the attention back to his talents as a filmmaker, not just that guy who figured out how to get money out of crowd funding. But Koo also realizes now having made a short about the world of basketball that is a prequel to a feature that also focuses on basketball, he might be painting himself into a corner perception-wise. Thankfully, that’s where short films may be in his favor. “Whatever the tone and genre of your short film, that's what the industry is going to expect you to specialize in,” he says. “If you make a dramatic short don't expect it to further your comedy career and vice versa. After I make my basketball feature, I'll probably have the opportunity to make other sports films. That might be a good time to make another short to prove myself in another genre. The cycle repeats.”

AMATEUR - short prequel to the feature film MANCHILD from Ryan Koo on Vimeo.

 

THE FACILITATOR

Every artist needs a little help, and for filmmakers who make short films, they need a lot. That’s where Andrew S Allen’s Short of the Week comes in. Created to be more than YouTube and Vimeo as it features a team of smart, short film obsessed curators at the wheel, since 2007 Allen’s site has become the home to some of the best short-form work on the Internet. Now for those of you who are film festival die hards, hearing the words “short films” and “Internet” probably makes you cringe. It’s thought that, like features, to play at one of the top festivals you have to submit work that hasn’t shown anywhere else, including the Web. But Allen says that’s not true.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to choose between submitting to festivals and putting your film online,” he says. “Over two-thirds of the world's top Oscar-qualifying film festivals now accept short films that have already been released online, so filmmakers no longer have to choose one path or the other. It's common now for festival curators to discover films online first and then reach out to the filmmaker. Obscurity is your greatest enemy. Use a big festival like Sundance to generate buzz and then make your film available online for those who can't attend.”

Allen also notes that though going to festivals are fun, don’t expect a lot from your festival premiere unless you get into one of the handful of top-tier fests. Even then, “there are no guarantees,” to finding great attention.

And he admits when it comes to making any money off of your short, at least in this country, it’s “nearly impossible.” So because of that you have to think big picture. “We think the best way to make money from your short is to use your short film to build a larger career in storytelling,” he says. “Who knows, occasionally a short will get picked up by a larger studio to be made into a feature or television series.”

But the biggest importance shorts give filmmakers, in Allen’s eyes, is it hones your skills. “You have to learn how to tell stories,” he says. “You can save yourself a lot of time and money by learning that in short films rather than features.”

Allen welcomes all of you to submit your shorts to shortoftheweek.com

 

THE BELIEVER

Todd Strauss-Schulson says as a kid he had a compulsion to constantly make stuff. “I would lose my own sense of self if I didn’t relentlessly make things that reflected who I thought I was back onto myself,” he says. And for the most part that mindset hasn’t left him.

Though he’s directed for TV, Web and the feature A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (and just recently wrapped his latest feature, The Final Girls, starring Malin Akerman for Sony), Strauss-Schulson continues to consistently make short films.

Like Koo, Strauss-Schulson’s motivations are partly to hone his skills and to also keep the industry from settling him into making a certain kind of film. That’s especially important when you made a Harold & Kumar movie. “After Harold and Kumar Christmas I was thought to be a budding young studio comedy director,” he says. “I was being sent stoner buddy comedies and Kevin James vehicles like Fart College about a middle aged man who goes back to college to major in farts. This was a reflection of what I was perceived to be. But this was not me. What the shorts did, in a professional arena, was to allow me to write my own narrative. To tell people who I was.”

But one of the biggest reasons he makes shorts is the creative freedom. “To make a feature, no matter what size, is to make a product… even a small one. You’ll need distribution, you’ll need finishing funds, it’s a larger endeavor so you will rely on more people and so you will need to promise them return. To make a short is to rely only on your instincts, you have the freedom to listen to yourself fully, knowing that your choices and your ideas are yours to sink or swim by. You rely on no one, you need no one, no one can ever control you. You make it and you put it online and that is the entire experience. To me, that is so necessary, it’s so important. To be able to be creative without ever having to think of your benefactors; the people you will owe something to. When I make a short my only responsibility is to myself, to listen to myself fully.”

The outcome, through his Ulterior Productions company, has been some hilarious works that have received both festival and Internet attention. There’s Die Hardly Working, which he made with the folks at College Humor and is a funny, CGI-heavy actioner; Pillow Fight, a slick slumber party spoof starring Michele Rodriguez; Mano-A-Mano, which follows two guys competing for a job as a gay phone sex operator; The Master Cleanse, a clever look at relationships in the guise of the diet cleansing trend; and All’s Fair…, a different kind of relationship comedy starring Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley).

Strauss-Schulson says he often uses his own money to make the shorts, or will split with his producer (sometimes even the actors pitch in). And though he loses money on them, he doesn’t know a better way to spend it. “The shorts feel weirdly cleansing,” he says. “I can’t think of anything healthier for a creative person than the ability to have total freedom and make something the moment you think of it. There is something incredibly nourishing about being able to have an idea and write, shoot, cut and present it within a matter of weeks. To shoot your ideas as fast as you’re having them, without the two to three year lag time on it. There is vitality in the ability to make something at the speed of thought.”


What have we learned here? Well, if you love short films, don’t worry, they aren’t going anywhere. And if you aren’t that into them, don’t worry, there are more than enough features out there to keep you occupied. Short films have never been a moneymaker and never will be, but for some they are a tool to keep the creative juices flowing with fewer restrictions that a feature brings; and for those trying to get to the next level, shorts are a proving ground that platforms your small idea into a potential big one (remember: Martha Marcy May Marlene, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Short Term 12 and Obvious Child are just a fraction of the recent hit indies that started out as shorts).

Is making shorts still worth it really depends on what your definition of “worth” is.


[Photo: Amateur]