Moving from Short Films to Features

By: Sarah Chaisson-Warner

Writers and other entertainment professionals have long sought a surefire way to break into the industry. And while there is no path guaranteed to move you from relative obscurity to the center of Hollywood, many writers have turned to the short film medium as a strategy for getting their work in front of decision-makers and launching their careers.

Before we get into the how and why of this strategy, let’s first be clear that short films shouldn’t be seen as simply a means to an end. Short films are a beautiful medium for storytelling and a valuable contribution to the world of art. Some writers and filmmakers spend their entire lives creating short films and sharing stories through this format. Moreover, the onset of digital engagement and streaming options, a proliferation of short film festivals, and increased demand on behalf of a new generation of viewers who have grown up on shorter forms of media all allow for a greater opportunity for utilizing short films to propel one’s career.

So with that said, and for those writers and filmmakers who are looking at exploring short films as a method for breaking into the industry and building towards a career in features, let’s look at what short films can do to open doors in the Film and TV industry. They can:

  • Serve as a proof of concept for a filmmaker’s specific style or point of view
  • Serve as a “portfolio piece” demonstrating a writer’s talent and ability to bring words on a page to life on a screen
  • Offer opportunities for learning and development

Many of Hollywood’s biggest talents – and several friends and alums of Shore Scripts – have successfully leveraged short films into a feature film career.

Martin Scorcese’s first film “What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” was nine minutes long.

Ava DuVernay’s first film “Saturday Night Life” was 12 minutes long.

And Sofia Coppola’s “Lick the Star” clocked in at just under 14 minutes.

Interested in learning more about how you can successfully leverage a career across short films toward features? Let’s get dig into these strategies a bit more.

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Proof of Concept

Having a solid proof of concept is one of the best ways of capturing the attention of industry professionals. Writing and shooting a short film can help serve as a proof of concept to demonstrate your particular style, your point of view, or your voice. The proof of concept offers you the opportunity to sell yourself and help decision-makers in the entertainment industry see your vision for making a feature-length version of this or a similar script. Some filmmakers liken it to a “first date” – you’re offering industry professionals the chance to get to know you and what you have to offer, hoping they will like what they see and want more.

Several Hollywood heavyweights have successfully tested and utilized the “proof of concept” approach to building their careers. The lauded writer and director of critically acclaimed films like There Will Be Blood, and Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson was a relatively unknown film director until 1993, when his short film Coffee and Cigarettes debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.

The short film centers around a $20 bill that finds itself with five different owners during the course of a few days. After Coffee and Cigarettes debuted, based on the unique voice and attributes of the short, Anderson was invited to the Sundance Filmmakers Lab. There, he adapted this interesting concept into a feature film – Hard Eight.

Demonstrate a Style or Point of View

Having a unique voice or point of view is critical for breaking into the entertainment industry. Producers, agents, and managers often want to know – what makes you unique? What makes your story worth telling? Short films are a great way to experiment with a particular style of filmmaking and test the potential of your style for a longer format film.

Writer and director, Jared Hess, is well-known among audiences for his side-slapping comedy features like Nacho Libre and Masterminds. But did you know that his break-out feature, Napoleon Dynamite, started out as a short film named Peluca?

debuted during the Slamdance Film Festival, and the uniqueness of the characters and pace helped to demonstrate Hess’s voice as a filmmaker. After its run at Slamdance, he got the green light to adapt it into the feature film that we know today starring John Heder. Believe it or not, Peluca was shot in two days and the total budget for the film was $500.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
had a similar journey. The film, written by Kerry Conran, was originally a short, serving as a demonstration of how a feature could look. Rumor has it that Gwyneth Paltrow saw the short, was impressed with its incredibly unique approach, and quickly signed on to the feature-length version.

Learn and Build Skills

A short film can also be a relatively inexpensive way for learning in a lower-risk environment. With many short films costing between $15,000 and $20,000 to make (and even as little as $500, as you saw above with Peluca), there is a significant opportunity to gain critical skills on-site and gain practical experience.

Famed writer, director, and producer Jason Reitman has long seen the opportunities short films provide for learning and often guides newer filmmakers in this direction –

“I think it’s a mistake for young filmmakers to just buy digital equipment and shoot a feature. Make short films first, make your mistakes and learn from them.” – Jason Reitman

Reitman started his career in short films, learning and growing his skill set on the set of his first three short films. He made his first film, a short called Operation in 1998 when he was in his early 20s. Operation, and a later short he directed called In God We Trust, were Sundance selections.

He entered In God We Trust into several film festivals, garnering awards at Austin Film Festival,  Seattle International Film Festival, and more. As he transitioned into feature films, he shared, in an interview with The Orlando Sentinel –

“When I talk to student filmmakers, I tell them, read as much as possible. Write as much as possible…Get the mistakes out. Write bad. Direct bad. Learn how to tell stories as you do. Find that short film that says exactly who you are and the stories you want to tell. Make it and submit it to the festival process and realize that you may be great, you may be terrible. You won’t find out until you try to get other people to judge your work.”

Shore Scripts TV Pilot Contest mentor Maria Gracia Turgeon made her career in short films and is now in production on her first feature, Marie Basse. An experienced short filmmaker, Maria has produced numerous short films including Brotherhood by Meryam Joobeur and FAUVE by Jérémy Comte, both of which were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Short.

“Starting a career by understanding how to actually write a film and doing shorts is immensely beneficial. Writers can actually do a project, understand its flaws, and find solutions for it faster and build a better skillset.” – Maria Gracia Turgeon

She has since built on the experience she gained from creating short films for her newest venture in feature films. “Since I have done a lot of short films, and read and watch even more of them, I have built a better comprehension of what actually works in shorts and what doesn’t.”

After 15 years of working in state and national politics, Sarah Chaisson-Warner is moving into the entertainment industry. As the former Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Athena Magazine for Girls, Sarah is now focusing her passion for creative arts through screenwriting. Many of her feature-length scripts focus on the often unseen experiences of gay women throughout American History, and she is also currently writing a sci-fi and a family Christmas script. Her script, Serafina Stavinovna, was placed in “The Next 100” in the 2021 Nicholl Fellowship Competition.

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