4 Reasons Why You Should Make a Short Film

The Calling Card, The Proof of Concept, The Experience, & The Drive.

“The short film doesn’t supplant the feature… It nourishes it.”

As the Oscars approached earlier this year, I made a point of catching every “Best Picture” nominee. The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, SelmaWhiplash?

I hadn’t heard of Whiplash. So it was that I walked into director Damien Chazelle’s film with no expectations.

I walked out amazed by the craft – the sharp editing, the breakneck pacing, the layered performances – and overwhelmed by the story.

Although Whiplash follows an ambitious jazz student as he trains to become “one of the greats”, it resonates with artists of every type. “It… is a project that explores many themes and ideas I think about often,” producer Helen Estabrook reflects: “the questions of sacrifices for one’s work, the problems surrounding the idea of success, and the challenges of creative pursuits.”

From Whiplash | Sony Pictures Classics, 2014

From Whiplash | Sony Pictures Classics, 2014

Apt, then, that Estabrook, Chazelle, and the rest of the Whiplash team faced a challenge from the very beginning. It’s one we’ve discussed in-depth here at Lights: how do you raise the money you need to make your feature film?

Their solution was to make the short first. “It was mainly because as a script alone – and I didn’t have a lot of directing experience – it was a hard sell,” Chazelle explains. “And so the short was really intended as just a way to convince financiers.”

An excerpt from Chazelle’s complete screenplay, Whiplash the short screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, paving the way for the feature that would go on to win three Academy Awards.

Of course, it’s not the first film to jump from short to feature. Peluca was shot on 16mm for less than $500, the source material for Napoleon Dynamite. Gowanus, Brooklyn helped Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck get Half Nelson made. District 9, nominated for four Academy Awards in 2010, was a feature adaptation of the director’s short, Alive in Joburg.

These and other success stories speak to the potential of the short as “a stepping stone” to bigger and better things. But if we take a moment to stop and study this list, we’ll realize it’s not very long, especially considering the proliferation of short films today.

Or perhaps, because of the proliferation of short films today. As gear becomes more affordable, the bar to entry lowers, which levels the playing field while increasing competition. We live in exciting times, but it can be easy to despair if your short’s buried beneath a mountain of others.

The picture grows darker still when we accept that shorts are rarely profitable, especially in the United States. Most people don’t watch them; it’s an extremely small market. Granted, emerging distribution models are challenging the status quo, but change comes slowly.

So what role should short films play in your creative career today? Why make them? At risk of oversimplifying, we’ll suggest four reasons.

#1: The Calling Card

Traditionally, the short film is considered a stepping stone to making a feature.

It builds your portfolio, it showcases your style, it proves you’ve got chops. Submit your short to festivals to rack up the laurels, building your credibility and thus your attractiveness to financiers.

#2: The Proof of Concept

Per Whiplash, you might make a short related to a feature screenplay you’ve written, in order to (1) demonstrate the feature’s potential, and (2) separate yourself from filmmakers who have only a screenplay in hand. “Put yourself in the shoes of a talented actor,” Ryan Koo of No Film School suggests:

For your next project you have dozens of scripts from which to choose, from big-budget studio films all the way down to no-budget student projects. Some of them have financing attached, some of them are shooting soon, some of them have other (possibly star) actors attached, and some of them are just at the script stage with no firm attachments or schedule. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to move the ones that are “just a script” to the top of the pile.

Your “proof of concept” short could be a scene excerpted from your feature; a smaller story that takes place in the feature’s world; or a prequel, sequel, or tangential storyline.

In addition to its role as a calling card, this sort of short helps people catch the vision and gets them excited to jump onboard.

The approach worked for Damien Chazelle. It’s worked for other successful professionals, too, including Robert Rodriguez, who made The Customer is Always Right to pitch Frank Miller on a film adaptation of Sin City.

#3: The Experience

Generally speaking, shorts cost far less than features to produce. They’re a safe context to explore and even fail.

I’m thinking back to my sophomore year of college – to the twenty shorts I and my three teammates made in a few months. It was an intense creative process that taught us the basics of filmmaking.

Were the shorts any good? A few, maybe. But most were messy experiments, growing pains preserved on celluloid as we worked to close the gap between our ambitions and our abilities.

From The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger | Michael Litwak, 2014

From The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger | Michael Litwak, 2014

Shorts give you a lot of time to find your voice as a filmmaker,” director Michael Litwak, the mastermind behind The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger, summarizes. “If you make a ten million dollar film and you mess it up, no one’s ever going to give you ten million dollars ever again. Whereas if you make a short for a thousand dollars and it’s a bust then the only thing you’ve lost is maybe five or ten days of time and $1,000.”

We needn’t put pressure on every short we make. Sometimes it’s best to take risks and explore the process, especially when starting out, so you have the space you need to grow.

“Making a solid short is not about making a feature film,” Short of the Week’s Ivan Kander argues. “Rather, it’s about gaining the confidence to make a feature film. Beyond that, it’s about creating something that isn’t restrained by client restrictions – it’s about making something you want to make.”

#4: Shorts for Shorts’ Sake

Indeed, sometimes we make things because we can’t not make things.

Good stories come in all lengths. You might find one best told in twenty minutes instead of one hundred and twenty minutes; a moment that speaks to your heart and cries out to be shared with the world.

“The short film doesn’t supplant the feature,” journalist Richard Brody reminds us, “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. Or, to put it another way, movie theatres are like restaurants, which offer a chance for a good long talk; but there are also cafés for a chat, and the cinema needs those, too.

Regardless of whether or not that chat leads to a good long talk in a restaurant, it’s worth having.

 Michael Koehler, with

Ready to make a short film but not sure where to start? For guidance, community, and support in your filmmaking journey, check out our online filmmaking course here at Lights Film School, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible and affordable than traditional film school.


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