How Long Should a Short Film Be?

My September One-Year Filmmaking students are screening their thesis films this week and, once again, this issue of length has come up. Although we recommend that students keep their films to 10-15 minutes, many of my students have made films that are 20-25 minutes.

The problem is that film festivals are inundated with hundreds, sometimes thousands of film submissions all competing for a place in, what is in all likelihood, a 2-hour program of shorts. Because festivals often have a cut off of 30-minutes for short films, few of these films get accepted. Film festivals want to help and support as many filmmakers as they possibly can, and accepting a 25-minute film into the festival means the five 5-minute filmmakers are going to be excluded.

So, my advice to my students (and makers of short films, in general) is to keep the film as short as possible. Naturally, you have to do justice to your stories. You can’t squeeze a 30-minute story into a 10-minute package without ruining it. But there’s no question in my mind that with every minute you add to the length of your film, the odds of getting your film accepted decreases.

Case in point: When my son Bret was 14, he took our summer program for high school students. In that program, he made 3 very short films. The first was 90 seconds, the second 2.5 minutes, and his last film 3 minutes. Although they were very well done for a first-time filmmaker, they were not brilliant. And yet he was able to get each of them into over 10 film festivals.

Believe it or not, even a 90 second film will open doors for you. One of my son’s films, managed to get into the LA International, at which point, he was contacted by writers, composers and even agents. In fact, the agent who represents Renee Zellweger contacted him to see if he was interested in hiring Rene for his next film!  Now, clearly the agent did not know that he was dealing with a 14-year old. I imagine he (and the other agents) just download the names of the filmmakers from the festival website and start sending out email inquiries.

So, although I understand that as you grow as a filmmaker it’s natural that you desire to make longer and longer films to demonstrate your ability to handle professional shoots, it is in your best interest to keep the running time short. Remember, festivals include your titles in the running time, so don’t put 5 minutes of credits at the end of the film. Many students are under the mistaken impression that the more names they can run past the screen at the end of their film, the more impressed the audience will be. The problem is that the audience has just seen your film and they’re only going to be as impressed as your film makes them. So keep your titles moving quickly. Just make sure they slow down when it gets to your name. After all, you’re the one you should be promoting.

Food for thought.

-Claude Kerven, NYFA NYC Chair of Filmmaking

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Published on: August 26, 2013

Filled Under: Film School, Filmmaking

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