Tell me about a 'film short'

I know it’s basically a, well, a short film, 40 minutes or so. I’m curious, because I look up acting credits for actors on IMDB and while most have upcoming projects listed, a lot also have appeared in ‘shorts’. As the public AFAIK never sees these, why do so many actors make these? Are they important in an acting career, to maybe keep busy in between projects? Do they ever get released for public viewing?

Shorts get seen not only within the industry, but at festivals, on television and online, and in home video releases. Actual theatrical showings, accompanying feature films, are obviously much rarer than they once were, but a couple of the animation studios still do it.

Oh, and while 40 minutes may be the Academy’s boundary from features, I’ve never seen a short that was near that long.

I imagine it’s a combination of serving as a “resume” for up and coming actors as well as giving actors in general a chance to act in roles or try out concepts without requiring the commitment of a full-blown TV series or feature length film.

Some of these are made as film school projects. Others are just self expression. Sometimes these are made to help an actor, director, etc. to market their work. There are film festivals and showings for shorts frequently in LA and NY.

Shorts used to be a big part of the movie business when they were packaged with full length films (remember the cartoon before the movie?). Look at the 3 Stooges, those were all made for theatrical release, they had no idea they were making films that were ideal TV episodes.

Occasionally a well received short will be extended into a full length film. The D.E.B.S. started out that way, among others.

It’s a lot easier for filmmakers to make shorts than full length films. And it’s easier to get funding and be able to prove yourself with a short, and then move on to features. Here’s a list of short films that kicked off directors’ careers.

Actors presumably appear in them to get paid, or because it sounds like fun, or to try something different, or as a favor, or to start a relationship with an up and coming director. It takes much less time to shoot a short compared to a full length, and it might be worth the time for a dramatic actor to show that he can do comedy, or to work with a guy who’s supposed to be the next Wes Anderson.

Yeah, that’s not terribly uncommon. Here’s a list of some feature films that were first shorts.

As someone whose job is to watch hundreds of shorts every year (I program them for a major international film festival), believe me, there are a lot–though those are often the hardest to program in a schedule because the run time can be very ungainly and from a curatorial standpoint, a long short (so to speak) needs to be really good, and most that run that length could definitely use some rigorous trimming.

Short filmmaking is an exercise in brutal editorial self-discipline and I see a lot more unsuccessful shorts than successful ones, but they’re all labors of love and while some are transparent industry “calling cards”, most are simply stories that come from the heart, assembled with very little money or resources but passion projects that they hope will get traction in the festival circuit (where they can network while planning their next film).

With the Academy Award nominations coming out in a few weeks, there is a road show in some arthouse theaters that screen all the nominated shorts–Live Action, Documentary, and Animated. Even if I don’t always agree with the results, these collections are well worth checking out.

Aside from the student works, and calling cards, what is the market for shorts? I’ve been to a few shorts festivals, and some of the filmmakers in their Q&A stated that this is all that they do. How do they make a living? Do they make a living?

Because I program them, I also get to do their Q&As at our festival every year so get to meet a lot of them personally.

They do make a living by often having below-the-line production jobs (commercials, TV shows, indie features) at the same time to make ends meet, and then do their own creative projects on the side, often between “gigs”. Some apply for grants, and many are relying on Kickstarter more and more for funding.

What they all have in common is being incredibly resourceful, so they take advantage of every opportunity (for crew, gear, cash) to assemble a team to make their latest project. And of course, most shorts are very modest in scale, so while they’ll have post-production (audio & music mixes), they can keep expenditures low by simply being realistic about what they can execute successfully–though again, some shorts are hugely ambitious and also ingenious works.

It’s not very common that they can monetize their work, though. Most end up going on free platforms like Vimeo or YouTube after the short’s festival cycle is done, though some filmmakers are incredibly productive and may have their own channel or series that can draw attention and nominal advertising. But this is pretty unusual, and their work largely is designed to speak for itself, as well as hopefully draw the eyes of promising collaborators.

Nowadays a lot of shorts are available on the Internet, as well. See, for instance, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which basically came about from Joss Whedon and a few of his acting friends being bored and slapping something together for the heck of it. You can buy a DVD of it now, but it was originally online-only.