By Paul Bruce
Here at the Edinburgh Short Film Festival, we’ve been curating short film programmes for our event and other festivals for 7 years, but in all that time, we’ve rarely been asked about what it is we’re looking for when it comes to short film, and what it takes for a film to make a programme. So, we’ve put together some thoughts on short film and programming which we hope, will pass on some useful pointers.
Firstly, the short film market is WAY, WAY more competitive than most film-makers realise, you really need to lavish time and attention on your short film like you are prepping a poodle for Crufts.
We get literally thousands of short films each year and for your film to stand even half a chance of making it on the circuit, you must give it time and attention.
So, groom that film to death because; it can almost always be made better and other film-makers will be grooming their films till the hairs stand up.
Don’t walk away thinking ‘I wish to God I’d shot a cutaway of the clown’s hands gripping Napoleon’s cigar-box before the tsunami washed him into the Pope’s bathtub.’ Shoot the cutaway of the clown hands! Someone else making the exact same scene will have it in there, so go back and shoot it. The competition is strong out there, so don’t leave anything you can do to make the film better undone!
Do whatever it takes to make your short film a GREAT short film, because there’s so many talented people out there and they are also all making GREAT short films…so make yours GREATER!
Secondly, make a short film – DON’T make the first 15 minutes of a feature film. Don’t try to condense Heaven’s Gate into 10 minutes. Don’t make the start and end of Vertigo and cut out the middle bit. A short film is its own art form, it’s not a feature and it’s not a bit of a feature and you’d be well-advised not to make it like one.
A short film is essentially a self-contained idea, which the film maker expresses completely without any unnecessary diversions, sub-plots, or dialogue. Cut out any scenes that don’t relate to your idea. Don’t try to show that you can handle sub-plots and character arcs. You’re not making episode 1 of Breaking Bad. You’re not making something that with a bit more money could be episode 1 of Breaking Bad. These are not short films.
A great short film explores one central idea to its logical conclusion and does so efficiently.
This leads us on to the third point. In a short film, the ending is CRUCIAL!! You need to wrap up your short so that the central idea reaches a suitable end point.
This is also true of features, but you can get away with a weak ending in features if you make a great comedy/horror etc. for the 70 minutes or so that precedes the ending. You won’t get away with that in a short. So, make sure all roads lead to your satisfying and thoroughly engrossing finale. Programmers always notice a badly thought-out ending in a short film and they won’t forgive it just because you got some great footage of Dave Allen cracking a very funny joke about nuns.
What Programming is like in the real world:
Another aspect worth thinking about here is, try to make your short film memorable and original. Programmers watch literally thousands of shorts and will always want to programme a memorable short, they’ll want people talking about the short film programme after they get home, to their friends and family.
Also, bear in mind that the selection committee will be watching literally hundreds of short films set in a flat, so if you’re film is also set in a flat, it’s really going to have to stand out from the crowd to even get remembered when the programmers go back over the shortlist.
Think about what aspect of your film you can emphasise that will make it memorable and make it stand out from the thousands of other shorts the selection committee is going to see. Make your film memorable and it’ll stand a chance of being remembered come shortlist-time!
One thing worth noting is that if the programmer needs to hang his programming around a theme, then how well your film fits that theme can also be important. Also, sometimes a programmer needs to find balance across a programme, so maybe they are bit short of animation or they need more comedy for example. This means that although films can be selected because of a need to balance a programme, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean your film doesn’t have to be GREAT to get selected.
Programming is essentially like putting pegs into holes, you need the right sized peg and the right colour peg for the right hole, so give the programmer every chance of picking your peg. But the programmer will only use good pegs.
Make it fit the theme, and make your short pretty darned short. It’s much easier to programme a great 3-minute comedy than a great 20-minute comedy.
Make your film memorable or make it explore some aspect of the human condition in a unique, original way.
Make sure everyone who sees your film will remember it, get people talking about it and force the programmer to pick your film!
One last piece of advice, for God’s sake, check your story arc hasn’t been done a hundred times already! Every year we’ll get a variation on a theme e.g. the blind bigot who doesn’t realise they have an ethnic care, then one day the bandages come off – great message for sure, but please, please, please come up with a new ending!