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Legally Speaking, It Depends: Short Film Woes and Worries

Christopher Schiller takes our readers on the ride of creating a short film. Learn the intricacies of all to consider from script to production.

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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Short films are easy, right? I mean, they're just like the real thing only shorter, cheaper. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, short films can be seen as a concentrated concoction of every problem and concern that a full length feature has to deal with, just in a compact size and budget. And I should know. I'm in the midst of production for another short film of my own. So I'm taking this opportunity to address some of the business and legal aspects of producing a short film to help you over the woes and through the worries we'll likely encounter along the way.

Begin before you begin

A tendency of short filmmakers is to not put much thought and effort into the early stages of development, especially if they have knowledge or experience of longer form works. That's a mistake. The realities of short films are that there are a lot of them out there. It's hard to get noticed among the sea of choices and it's incredibly hard to make money (it is possible) or bolster your reputation if you can't differentiate your short film from all the rest. Putting deliberate thought into the planning of any film activity regardless of the length will always pay off as a worthwhile effort.


Do your research

Do a title search – Why? It'll matter greatly in the end game. You may remember that a title cannot be protected (except rarely in specific contractual situations not pertinent to most short film producers) and so there's nothing stopping two films from carrying the same title. Except when it comes to the business end of marketing one of those films. If you have a generic title or one shared with a more prestigious film, you are making it harder for your little film to be found by an audience who may have every intention of watching your efforts. It's a self imposed obstacle that can be avoided with a little forethought and effort. And a catchy, memorable title that encapsulates the spirit of the work is important to the success of finding an audience. Do you think the novel Trimalchio in West Egg would have been an okay title and gotten the same response before the editors changed it to The Great Gatsby? It takes a lot of thought to get to just the right title, but it's worth the effort.

Has the idea already been done? To death? If you find someone else has previously made a work on a similar theme or idea, it's not the end of the line for your effort, but, you have to ask yourself some legitimate questions. Has the idea become a tired trope or is there still room for your fresh take on the theme? And how will you set yourself apart from the previous films? The world isn't searching for a new zombie apocalypse film unless you bring something new - or something old in a new way- to the party. Even if you create a masterpiece of a film, if the audience is worn out when they get around to your work, it'll not achieve the best responses through no fault of your own (except for your lack of research).

“Judge me by my size, do you?”

Just 'cause it's short doesn't mean it doesn't need to be good. In fact, because you have no room for the chaff, it'll likely be better than the norm. The form allows for you to use just enough good stuff to deliver your message. A feature is defined by its length pretty clearly. If it runs less than 85 minutes you feel cheated. Longer than two hours and it'd better be good to take the extra time. But a short work can be short at nearly any length. It just needs to be long enough and not a bit longer. How short can a work be and still be good. Again, I turn to novelists for an example. It is said that Earnest Hemingway was challenged to write a six word novel. His entry, “Baby buggy for sale, never used” pretty much nailed it in my opinion.

But don't forget about the audience. Their commitment is still a commitment, even if it's shorter. So how do you achieve quality in a short form?

Drafts, drafts, and more drafts

As in all things writing, good writing is rewriting. When working on a short film without the form length constraints, rewriting can be a great asset in condensing the true essence of the story you're wanting to tell. My project is currently 11 and a half pages. You would think being that short I wouldn't have room for much excess. But workshopping the script with my collaborators there was something nagging, getting in the way of the story that was there, just obscured. The rewriting process allowed me to identify the problem (in this case it was the main character. I deleted him and the story told got simpler, clearer.) Just because there are fewer pages doesn't mean those pages don't need to be the best they can be.

Time, time, time – An average of four pages per day shooting is a good clip that many a producer would feel comfortable with. Even a ten page script will take at least 2 and a half days to shoot. And remember it's condensed. When you have a day for a company move (changing locations) scheduled in a 30 day shoot it's less of an imposition than the same move in a 3 day shoot. Poor planning for short film shoots lead to unanticipated very long days, extra unscheduled days that may or may not be able to be accommodated by your crew and cast. Proper planning and contingencies are crucial to the success of any film and a short film loses the luxury of potentially making up the time later in the shoot.

As a practical matter, short films' shortness is handled differently in contracts. Often contracts for features have your main roles paid on a weekly basis during the shoot. As long as union rules to prevent overwork are followed, scheduling within the entirety of the shooting period has some flexibility. The shooting schedules for shorts are usually measured in days, so contracts are too. This means when you book a talent you must know ahead of time exactly which days you are going to use them. If something happens to change things, you still have to pay everyone you booked. Lives are always rearranged for film shoots. Shorts are worked around other gigs for most participants and their availability reflects that. Knowing far in advance when you need what you need and sticking to that plan are key to not having to deal with holes in your production necessities due to the unexpected. Again, shorts are harder to schedule because they're short.

Workshopping worries

Actor are characters (in more ways than one). And the participation of good actors are key to creating a successful short film. Short films don't have a lot of latitude to let characters develop and stories to gel. Every actor must “get” their character totally and be able to portray a full character as soon as they hit the screen. There's no such thing as a small part, especially in short films since even if a character is only in one page of the script, they are present in a large percentage of the movie. So getting actors involved in the development process of a short film is an important goal to making the best short you can deliver.

But, as in all moviemaking, you need to be careful about the expectations of all the collaborating parties. Considering actor contributions when lines are being changed or improvised – are they co-writers? Because it's short, their contributions could be a significant percentage of the whole piece. Here's another place where the concentrated nature brings sharp focus on production elements present in any endeavor. Clear roles for all participants should be defined early and reinforced so that there are no misunderstandings during or after the fact. Contracts should specify how each party is expected to participate and what compensation- including credits- they are to expect in exchange. An actor who thinks he or she deserve to get writing credit because of the improvisation the director encouraged on set could spell doom for the marketability of the end product. Shorts have limited venues for distribution and ROI and a public dispute and non-participation in the marketing campaign at a critical juncture can kill any good chances the film had.

Clear heads and consistent, clear voices should be able to head off any contentious storms. If grumbling ensues, better for it to be heard early on so that other accommodations can be made. The worst approach is to try to tell everyone what they want to hear just to get the film in the can. In practice, that always comes back to bite you eventually. And that advice goes to handling the crew, financiers, everyone really.

Cold readings – benefits and risks. They're beneficial at whatever length your screenplay is, but, features are difficult to arrange time for having a cold reading. A short is easier to arrange a gathering of professional actors to have the script placed in front of them and they do a run through directly off the page. I was lucky enough to have this done with my project recently at the FilmColumbia Festival by the talented cadre of professional actors in the screenwriting panel Scott Cohen gathers every year. Whether done in a public forum in front of an audience or gathered around a dinner table, a cold read can give you invaluable insight into what works and doesn't in your script. For one, it's an opportunity for someone to hear your work without the benefit of you explaining your story or what you are attempting to achieve ahead of time. The cold part of the reading is the closest you can get to what your final audience will experience before committing the cameras to roll. If the actors have difficulty with seeing what you intended by just the lines on the page, you might not be conveying what you think or assume you are. If the script gets the reactions you intend, the laughs in the right places, the gasps in the right places, then you know you are onto something.

There are risks in putting your script out there, of course. Reread the theft of ideas columns from earlier to remind yourself of those issues. Also of some concern is diluting your audience expectations. It is likely that your pool of audience available for cold or table reads is similar to those who will first see your finished work (i.e. family and friends) so you want to be careful not to exhaust them with preliminary exposure. Strong word of mouth is very important for short films distribution success and if your first audience is only finally glad you've finished the film so they don't have to hear about it any more, good luck.

Table read – differences, benefits, risks. A table read is different from a cold one and a rehearsal in that it is usually not public, and the actors gathered are more invested in the project. They are either the cast or at least castable players and will garner some familiarity with the script and their characters by repeated readings delving into the development of the whole. Subtleties emerge from table reads that aren't apparent with a first blush read or a read by someone not looking at the part as something they are going to/or could play. Table reads are often a precursor to rehearsals, kind of the mind finding the place in which to act as the character would. Because short films have limited time for the actors to find their center while on set (fewer days, less prep time, etc.) a full table read can help tremendously in getting the most on the screen come shooting.

Rehearsals – production issues. Rehearsals extend the table reads into the physical and emotional structure in which the story will unfold. Rehearsals allow the actors, directors and others to start to envision how the space will be filled with real people living interesting, complex lives. Again, because of the short time schedule, a short film can benefit greatly by useful rehearsal time. This needs to be scheduled and handled properly. Abiding by union rules (e.g. paid rehearsals) and time constraints of actors, scheduling and fitting them in amongst the pre-production demands is difficult but critical.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

There are LOTS of questions that are answered differently for a short film than for a feature that would be too much to cover in this already long article. Like, should you form a production company or run the production as a sole proprietorship? Short answer, form a company. It's a hassle but can protect not only you, but, all your work. Also short answer, you should do an actual, detailed budget and shooting schedule. It is easy to overlook things if you don't and it's much easier to let others help you (especially financially) if you can show you are prepared. Expect changes, but fight to limit surprises. Other considerations that are beneficial, especially in the crunched atmosphere of a short: storyboards always help to convey the look of a film to others who need to know in order to help you achieve it. Make sure you have considered the copyright, ownership and other rights issues in their creation though. A shot plan is key to expediency on the set to make sure you squeeze the most efficient use of the location time you have available. Remember you have less on the day, so plan when the clock's not running. Just because it's a short doesn't mean you should skimp on production design and wardrobe. Considered choices do not have to be prohibitively expensive but can go miles to conveying a professional look to the finished product. Same with hair and makeup.

Then there are the money and business issues, rentals, contracts, insurance, locations, insurance, etc. Did I say insurance twice? That's not nearly enough. You need to know what is and isn't covered, what's expected, what's unexpected and who's responsible.

It's a short, but, there's a lot to think about, at least the same number of issues as a feature. And what should you do about all of those little details? as always, it depends.

Roberta Munroe, former Sundance programmer, gives advice on
How Not to Make a Short Film