The Screenwriter's Column
Getting Real with a Short
Short films can be a fast track to getting noticed in Hollywood. But you must
understand the principles at work to maximize your chance for attention.
The path to success in Hollywood has never been easy. You need connections,
time, talent, smarts and luck. A great or very good script used to open doors, and still can.
But a great short can get you noticed faster, and into meeting rooms with people whose job it is
to say yes. The reason? It takes less time to watch a short film, and if it's good it's far more
enjoyable than spending a couple of hours reading a screenplay.
The short film continues to serve as a calling card to Hollywood. Spielberg,
Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Carpenter, to name a famous few, all started this way. Lucas and
Carpenter expanded their USC films into low-budget features; others used shorts as calling cards to
production executives and producers who championed them and launched their careers.
Shorts have led to feature deals, too. The 1987 blockbuster Fatal Attraction
began as a 40-minute short called Diversion, written and directed by James Dearden. Paramount
bought the film and hired Dearden to write the feature length screenplay. Sling Blade began life
as a 24-minute short written by Billy Bob Thorton and directed by George Hickenbocker called Some
Folks Call it a Sling Blade.
Before these films could turn the heads of Hollywood, they needed a strong
story and good screenplay to launch the project. Without a compelling or humorous story to
underlie its visual artistry, a film story becomes little more than fodder for the reels of
actors, the director of photography and/or editors. Directors need to prove they can tell a good
story, and it doesn't matter if it's short or long. That's what a calling card short is all about
-- making people take notice of your abilities as storyteller.
In most cases, the trouble with short films is the story -- or lack of one.
People tend to view shorts as mini-features and apply the same writing formulas. But this is
shallow and myopic; like reading a short story as a mini-novel, rather than representative of a
unique art form.
In a short the principles of drama remain the same but many of the rules
change. For instance, a prerequisite for success in a feature is a sympathetic protagonist. But
a short may succeed precisely because it examines an unsympathetic protagonist. How can this
work? Because you're not asking the audience to invest two hours in a miserable character. A
longer viewing time makes it more important for the audience to connect and care about the
protagonist (or at least someone consequential in the movie). In a short, you can have fun with a
hero who's a schnook, and/or can explore other issues that are fun and exciting in a small dose,
but would become alienating over a longer period. (A weekend with the in-laws is always harder
than a quick cup of coffee.)
Features are "structured action." So are shorts. But structure varies with
length. A five-minute film doesn't have the same requirements as a twenty-minute movie. Some
shorts function quite effectively as jokes with a good punch-line ending. Others work because
characters in an incident or event are explored in depth. Two recent Academy Award-winning
shorts, Omnibus and Black Rider, dealt with "incidents" in the midst of train/bus commutes, both
in less than 10 minutes.
Longer shorts still develop a three-part story strategy (beginning, middle
end) similar to features. But their set-ups and closings are shorter, and the lion's share of the
story is really the rising action of the middle. More emphasis is put on the story's midpoint,
which functions much like a feature's second act climax.
Shorts often deal with difficult themes and issues that mainstream films
avoid. Racism, homelessness, and mental illness have all been the topics of award-winning shorts.
But these filmmakers don't feel they have to treat their subjects respectfully. Many shorts
effectively skewer these issues, going for irony or black comedy that makes us laugh even as we
cry. Challenging themes and issues treated in a compelling fashion get films noticed. True,
Hollywood's $200 million tent-pole movies may not support these themes, but Hollywood's
powerbrokers still appreciate them. And truly original and daring shorts gather more attention
than the umpteenth knock-off of Tarantino or the Farley Brothers.
The numbers of domestic and international film festivals increase annually,
and short films make up a growing portion of their programs. Each year, Hollywood pays greater
attention to festivals, both as a source of new talent and for short form product that is in
demand from major cable channels and those specializing in independent film. Many new filmmakers
emerge from these forums with strong interest from agents, producers and production
Every short film begins with a screenplay, even if it's read only by the
director as he picks up his camera. Like the short story writer envying the novelist's freedom to
leisurely establish mood and story, the short film writer has a difficult job in structuring his
story so that the characters, theme and plot all prove satisfying in a shorter framework.
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