Magic Bullet Quickie: Are Short Films and Festivals Worth The Time of A Writer?

In addition to the Magic Bullet articles, I’ll be doing these “Quickie” articles that will consist of reader questions that I frequently get, along with the advice I reply back with.  Please let me know in the comments if you find these useful, and I’ll put more up.

Dear Michael,

Greetings from Ireland. I hope you’re well. I found your latest article on high concept writing in Scriptmag very helpful. I’m currently working on a few feature scripts but have been concentrating on making my own short films up to this point, one of which will screen at the Irish Film Festival of Boston next month.
I was wondering if you could offer some advice… I have gone to festivals in the USA before (horror is my thing and I won an award at a competition in New Jersey and also went to the NYC Horror Film Festival with my last short), and done some good networking, but unfortunately LA has eluded me so far.
I’m torn at the moment between going out to present my latest short in Boston  (not LA or even NY, I know), in the hopes of drumming up contacts and interest in my work, or saving the time and money to polish a few scripts and maybe head out to LA for a couple of weeks instead and try and get meetings etc. But, of course, I have no contacts in LA…
I’d really appreciate any help.
Best,

Rob

Rob,

Thank you so much for your email and kind words on the article! I truly appreciate it.

To be perfectly blunt, unless a short is in a major festival like Sundance, it’s best to save your money. While networking is important, unless it’s in a major festival, the networking you’ll be able to do will not be beneficial enough to warrant a trip (and certainly not one from Ireland!).

To put this in even starker contrast, when people ask me about short films, I always tell them one thing: unless you’ve got a feature script behind it, nobody in the industry much cares. Even when people get their shorts into Sundance, many times ALL that comes from it is the networking they manage to do while there – a festival winning short doesn’t launch as many careers as it once did.

vimeo logo

Give it your best material… IN STUNNING HD!

On the flip side, if you do create a brilliant short, you will get 100 times more traction and career launching using the internet than you can from a festival. Especially if you’re talking genres like comedy, horror, or sci-fi, which you are.

As well, if someone sees a brilliant short at a festival, they’ll contact you using the email address in the festival program, so you don’t even have be there anymore anyways.

Lastly, if you do have a brilliant short, and people are emailing you about it (whether from a festival or the internet), the ONLY question that every industry person will ask you is: do you have a feature script? Even if it’s not a feature version of the short, the only currency in this business for filmmakers is a feature script.

Now, with all of that said, I would post your short online using vimeo, start trying to get websites and blogs to link to it, and let it take on a life of it’s own. Before, during, and after all of that, I would focus on finishing your features. Again, that’s the only currency you have as an unknown filmmaker, and your biggest asset.

Lastly, I wouldn’t just come out to L.A. and try and drum up interest and meetings while you’re here. I would use the features and short to drum up interest and meetings BEFORE you ever think of buying a plane ticket, so that you guarantee that your trip will be well worth your time when you come.

It sounds to me like you’ve definitely got talent (having been in multiple festivals), so it’s what you do with your talent that will make the difference. The time right now is crucial, because I can’t tell you the number of filmmakers who had a couple great shorts in festivals and then never finished a feature (and thus their festival successes never went anywhere). Getting a short or feature in a festival is the easy part – the networking you put into the event is the moderately difficult part – the hard part is finishing a fantastic feature that you can use when drumming up interest with your short.

Hope that helps,

Michael

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So that’s what I sent Rob.  That information was in the context of a FILMMAKER. What is incredibly important to add to the discussion about short films is for WRITERS. And that is this:

If you’re a writer, and you encounter, are friends with, or know a quality director or filmmaker, offer to write as many short films for them as you can. Collaborate and make as many quality shorts as possible (while still writing your features, of course), and put them up on the internet. Why?

You never know which one of those will end up giving you a big break. ESPECIALLY if we’re talking comedy – these days successful comedy short films and short film series are launching pads for talent. Donald Glover of Community fame (if you’re not watching Community, do yourself a favor and check it out – the writing during the second season has been fantastic) launched his career making short films on YouTube for derrickcomedy, got his break and was hired to write for 30 Rock, and his star keeps rising every day.

The Lonely Island

The Lonely Island, i.e. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, who are now on a boat, started in their YouTube backyards.

His story, of using YouTube to get a break, is not unique. For every Donald Glover there’s a Fede Alvarez, who got that 30 million dollar contract off his Sci-Fi short Ataque de Panico. YouTube.com and FunnyorDie.com is becoming a virtual breeding ground for future talent – so just because you’re “only” a writer doesn’t mean you can’t take part as well.

And if you can’t find anyone to direct your short masterpieces, go to xtranormal.com and hook yourself up with an online web series – courtesy of those 3D fuzzballs.

At the end of the day though, don’t neglect your features. Short films are one more avenue to explore towards getting industry attention, but it pales in comparison with having a finished feature screenplay of quality.

If you have any questions of your own, please feel free to email michael@scriptawish.com.

And of course, your high concept inspiration of the day.

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5 thoughts on “Magic Bullet Quickie: Are Short Films and Festivals Worth The Time of A Writer?

  1. Melinda Augustina

    All excellent comments – and I’ll add a little more. My experience is not in horror – only comedy so mix this in with Lizzie’s horror festival input.

    It’s true, the American market is rarely interested in shorts, but it’s important to understand that short films have a very different market in Europe, Africa, Asia. Those markets actually buy licensing rights and than means revenue for you. So be sure you’re barking up the right tree.

    An additional way to use your short film experience is a faster and less expensive way to learn how to sell at film markets. There are many great gifts awaiting the one who learns how to sell their own films.

    IF your short film is outstanding quality, has won a few awards and is being accepted into numerous festivals, participating in the short film markets at Cannes and at Clermont Ferrand are worth the price of admission and a great education.

    Our short comedy actually earned back 80% of it’s production costs from licensing deals @ Clermont Ferrand. Important to note – we did not attend (February in France? no thanks) The film stood on it’s own merit.

    Special screenings at Cannes did not earn any licensing revenue. We did not attend Cannes either as we were notified of the special screenings too late. And I think it’s still important to submit to their market. Short film buyers are listed on the Cannes short film market website and you can do all of your research and advance contacting from your computer. Then if they are interested in your films – you can make appointments and have a real reason to attend.

    If you’re done with short films, the other great place to learn how to maneuver the film markets for feature length films is Film Specific http://filmspecific.com

    The market for films is MUCH bigger than Los Angeles. At the American Film Market I listened to a funny story of European filmmakers who attended AFM every year EXCEPT for the year they lived in Los Angeles. The year they lived in Los Angeles they couldn’t afford to attend.

    You live in Ireland – the land of some of the greatest story tellers in the world – be proud of that heritage, build a quality body of work from there and reach out!

    Best of luck!!
    Melinda

  2. Lizzie

    I disagree about the “only Sundance counts” advice if he makes horror films. There’s an entirely different circuit for horror. Screamfest in L.A. is the biggie — try to get into that one if you have Hollywood ambitions. Internationally, the big-deal festival is Sitges in Spain.

  3. Steve

    I have made several short films and used each one as a learning experience since I didn’t go to film school. I like the pressure of making a short film as long as I am learning from my mistakes. I am in development on my first feature film as a producer-director and also working on a few sizzle reels for tv show pitches. I think the web video explosion really helps us little people.

  4. ajith kumar

    A wonderful insight into the maze of short film making. Now , i have decided to make a short which would be abridge version of the feature i’m writing.Its a good piece of advice for short film makers who wants to get into features.

  5. Bob Conder

    Great comments! I and a partner have started making short films not only for our writing and directing talents but to desplay other individuals talents both behind and in front of the camera. You have given us a direction and focus for the purpose behind them.
    Thanks
    Bob

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