The Power of Short Films

Many screenwriters focus solely on feature scripts or TV pilots, but there's a value in starting off smaller. Paula Hendrickson interviews writer-filmmakers Marshall Curry, Carmella Casinelli, and Bryan Buckley who share the power of short films for both your career and the audience.
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Most screenwriters either dream about writing feature films or writing for television. Few dream about writing short films. As it turns out, there are numerous ways short films can bolster your career. Writer-filmmakers Marshall Curry, Carmella Casinelli, and Bryan Buckley explain why you might want to add short films to your portfolio.

An award-winning documentarian, Curry was unsure if he’d like writing dramatic scripts as much as he enjoys telling people’s stories through documentaries, so he decided to use The Neighbors’ Window as a test. “It was a story I loved, and I wanted to share it,” Curry says. “Before trying to sell myself to make a feature, I thought it would be a good idea to have taken a project from concept to script to production to editing, to know how it works.”

The experiment turned out better than expected. The Neighbors’ Window won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.

Similarly, Buckley was best known for directing countless attention-grabbing Super Bowl commercials before writing his first short film. He now has two Oscar-nominated issue-driven short films—Asad (2012) and Saria (2019)—under his belt.

“As late as 2010, someone said, ‘Do a short,’ and I was like, ‘You’re crazy. Why would I want to do a short? Too big of a waste of time,’” admits Buckley, adding that he didn’t think the audience for short films was large enough to be worth the effort. But Asad came about when he felt compelled to shine a light on the struggle of Somali refugees.

“Never did I ever expect the film, a short, could have such an impact, that it could help save lives and shape a culture and do what it was able to do. All we wanted to do was tell a story in a pure manner.” Buckley says. “That said to me: shorts are really powerful. They can do things I never imagined, and then, as they push out over the Web, you can start to get an audience.” With Saria, Buckley’s goal was to bring attention to the victims, living and dead, of the horrific 2017 fire at a Guatemalan orphanage that killed 41 girls. And he succeeded.

In 2019, Casinelli, a producer of the acclaimed feature film Peanut Butter Falcon, made a trio of short films (two of which she wrote)—15 Minutes at 400 Degrees, Real. Live. Girl., and Connie + Consuelo—and also launched The Big Picture Company with actress Renée Zellweger.

“Short films are usually a labor of love. Typically, short films all start and end with the writer. It’s an idea that a writer can’t get out of their head. Or they’re trying to figure out a proof-of-concept or work through a character,” says Casinelli, who is quick to underscore that “short” doesn’t mean “easy.”

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“As far as the writing goes, it is its own science, just as much as writing a pilot is its own science. With a pilot, you’re introducing characters and a world and are launching a series, but you have so much more time to do it in. People regard writing a pilot as one of the most difficult skills in television writing. I’d say the same applies to a short film: you have to fit so much into such a short amount of time that you have to be very judicious with not only dialogue but scene description and setting.”

Shorts offer storytellers a huge advantage over feature films: Control.

“With a feature film, you’ve got all these studio people changing things, and most writers I’ve spoken to who’ve written feature films say the movie that comes out is nothing at all like what they’d intended. You get to maintain your voice with shorts,” Buckley says. “You can express yourself in a short, and there are no commercial expectations. I love that.”

That’s because smaller production budgets, which are often self-financed, mean writers are not beholden to a studio or financiers.

“You’re not forced to change the characters or the world just because there’s some mandate,” Casinelli says, noting that on occasion budgetary constraints might necessitate small changes. “Even then, it still comes down to what you as a writer would like to do.”

Writing a short script is a great way to demonstrate your skills. Producing your script also allows you to showcase the talents of actors, directors, cinematographers, set decorators, and everyone working on the production. That makes short films great calling cards for all involved.

“Find a group of talented people, get in a circle, and you will all grow together,” Buckley suggests.

[Script Extra: How to Write a Compelling Short Film Script]

Short films often generate attention at film festivals, but they can also serve as proof-of-concept to secure funding for larger projects.

“Even if you’re a professional writer and you’re selling things, we all know they don’t always get made. So, one of the most rewarding things for me about short films is testing a bigger proof-of-concept. With Connie + Consuelo, I had so many people ask if I had a bigger design for a TV series or a feature,” Casinelli says. “If there’s enough meat to the story and characters in what you’re able to do in 15 minutes that people can see a whole world and story beyond those few minutes of screen time, you know your idea really has legs.”

As a producer, Casinelli appreciates it when a short film or tone reel is submitted along with a script. “Those are the ones that really pull me in and move to the top of my stack because I’m already curious and invested. I want to see what else they do with these characters and this world,” she says. “I always say it’s easier to get somebody to watch something for a few minutes than it is to get them to read something for a few minutes.”

Ultimately, though, screenwriters want their work seen.

A decade or so ago there wasn’t a huge market for short films, but Vimeo, YouTube, various apps, and streaming services have made short films more accessible than ever before.

“Instagram is a platform that has been growing to accommodate these types of things,” Casinelli says, admitting she’s been drawn down multiple short-film rabbit holes thanks to IGTV.

“The internet allows us to share these movies with millions of people all around the world,” adds Curry, who opted to distribute his film online, for free. “Twenty or thirty years ago, a short film might play in film festivals and then literally disappear. Nobody had any way of seeing it. Now, if you have a five- ten- or twenty-minute film, Vimeo, YouTube and other places are great ways to share them with audiences.”

Even you don’t intend to produce your short script, writing one can teach you the value of writing tight.

“With a short film, you can tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, or you can just tell one scene,” Casinelli says. “You really have to look at what your concept is, what your story is, and what the best way is to display it. The instinct as the writer is usually to write more, and to fit more in. Be judicious.”

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