Above the common question “How long is a short film?*” should be the more significant question, “Why a short film?”
Good short films are enjoyable and moving, with stories that can have an impact as strong as good feature-length films or powerful TV series. You can laugh, cry, and be inspired watching a good short film.
But, why a short film? Long considered a sad attempt to mimic the more robust and legitimate feature length film, shorts have often been given … well … short shrift.
Those were the old days.
Today, the entire environment of content, what I term “The Blended Screens,” is changing.
In the beginning of communications, production, distribution, and screens were the major function for mass media. Getting something made, and then getting it to an audience, required massive and expensive logistics. Production, distribution, and access to screens were in the hands of only a few well-heeled and connected enough to afford and control them.
What we now routinely refer to as “content” became a commodity to fill the pipelines constructed for production, distribution, and screens, and those pipelines became silos. Content had to fit within the needs of the pipelines to the screens.
That’s the way we always assumed it had to be. The gatekeepers for production, distribution, and screens were the monarchs, and we who were creative tried to get into the pipelines by begging for access from the gatekeepers of production, distribution, and screens. We had to fit our creativity into their silos.
That is no longer the case. Silos have broken open into “The Blended Screens.”
We passed through the era of Digital Disruption in media, which ironically paralleled The Great Recession. During that era, production became accessible to everyone. Every kid today now has a smart phone in their pocket that has more video production power than the TV studios I ran when I was young. Distribution is available in every home, office, and coffee shop. Silos no longer constrain the identity of a type of creativity. “Movies,” “shorts,” “TV shows” no longer are the unique definitions of what can be made and shown. We used to tremble at the all-powerful production, distribution, and screens. Now, we know that marketing is all-powerful. The Blended Screens means that production, distribution, and screens are now available to all of us for whatever we create.
Breaking open the production silo.
When I was shooting television way back when, I carried an Ikegami 79EAL 20-pound camera on my shoulder, tethered to a Sony BVU 100 U-Matic ¾” cassette recorder which weighed 12 pounds and was the size of carry-on luggage. The system was 280 lines of resolution. In analog, there were “lines” not pixels, but the measurement of 280 lines would compare to the 1080 measurement of 1920×1080 High Definition video. This system, excluding lens (glass is still quite analog and unchanging), cost about $75,000 in the early 1980s. And, that does not include any editing capability, which was an extreme cost for equipment that filled two rooms.
Film production was similarly prohibitive.
The silos of analog “film” and analog “video” broke open as digital overtook both. Digital was immediately superior to analog video production and its adoption was quick, beginning in the early 1990s. It took almost two more decades for digital to advance to acceptance as the quality of film. Since then, digital has overtaken film production, too.
Digital can be cheaper, and is readily available. So, production is no longer exclusive to powerful gatekeepers.
My current personal story about production today is our comedy short film project “The MURDER of James Dean,” which ended crowdfunding at https://igg.me/at/TheMURDERofJamesDean. I started in this business carrying a $75,000 videography package of a 20-pound camera and a 12-pound recorder; today, our cinematographer will be shooting with my one-pound Sony A7 mirrorless full-frame camera recording onto a one-pound Atomos Ninja 2 on a small 1 TB HDD, costing about 1/40 of that old package (not even considering inflation) while creating at least five times the picture quality. And the short film will be edited on my laptop computer.
Breaking open the distribution silo.
The Internet. It’s been around for more than half a century. Like computers of old, it was originally text-based and monochrome. Then, in the mid-1990s, came what Vice President Al Gore promoted as “the electronic superhighway,” the World Wide Web. It launched tremendous expansion of the Internet’s capabilities and reach.
My first computer, when I was young, was a TI99/4A in 1980. It connected to a TV and recorded onto a shoebox cassette recorder. I got on the Internet shortly after, using email in 1985 via MCI Mail. My connection to the Internet was a 300 baud acoustic modem that I’d place the handset of my landline phone into. Everything was plain text, there weren’t even pictures. It was uncommon for a home to be connected to the Internet, and even at that, the connection was a phone number you dialed before place the phone on the modem. We have seen tremendous technical progress, and more is to come.
Today, the Internet is beyond ubiquitous. It is so integrated into our society that its misuse destroys societies. It also can deliver anyone’s video to anyone.
With the creation two decades ago of Adobe’s Flash format, video was suddenly easy to distribute, as the development of the MP3 format had done earlier for music. YouTube started out and, as an exciting coincidence, some farsighted and imaginative people decided that adding cameras to cell phones would be a good marketing idea. With the Internet explosion allowing YouTube to share those cell phone videos with the world, the distribution silo began to collapse. YouTube quickly became a behemoth, with outrageous statistics that one cannot even comprehend. It seemed to be a Goliath that could not be beaten, but today Facebook video is overtaking YouTube. We are in the midst of another revolution. Another silo breaks open.
My current personal story about distribution today is, again, our comedy short film project “The MURDER of James Dean.” Short films can be distributed through film festivals, which has been the normal path (in recent history) for discovery by audiences and by Hollywood. However, today, short films are gaining more attention by being promoted online rather than through myriad and expensive film festivals. If we are successful with The MURDER of James Dean, we will submit to top-tier film festivals, and then go to online distribution.
Breaking open the screen silo.
So, what is a “short film”?
When the pipeline silos existed – and there still exists the legacy of those pipelines, but they are no longer the only access we have to production, distribution, and screens – they imprinted upon creativity specific categories and specifications to fit the screen upon which the pipeline displayed its content.
“Movies,” developed as an industry a century ago, were shown on that pipeline silo’s movie theater screens. They were about an hour and a half long, originally shown only once, and then occasionally re-released.
“Home Video,” developed as an industry three and a half decades ago, released movies that had finished their theatrical run and now were shown in that pipeline silo’s physical media (VHS, then DVD), which you had to pick up in a store.
“TV shows,” developed as an industry about seven decades ago, were shown on that pipeline silo’s TV sets, originally shown only once at a specified day and time, known as “appointment TV.” When we were young and naïve, everyone sat down on Thursday nights at 8:00/7:00 Central to turn on the local NBC affiliate station and watch “The Cosby Show.” Everybody. That show was so successful, it’s appointment time changed a lot of the daily flow of life.
“Web series” started to bridge the gaps between these silos. Originally no better than the cat videos on YouTube, Web Series climbed quickly in production value and audience impact. They could be any length, seen at any time, be created on any budget, and be produced without any greenlight from any gatekeeper.
Today, we have “The Blended Screens.” What is a movie, a home video, a TV show, a web series? It no longer matters what screen we see it on. If it’s a 90-minute story that moves you to tears and shows on YouTube on your mobile device while riding in a car, is it a “movie”? If you watch a live worldwide sporting event on a movie screen in a theater, is it “TV”? The screen doesn’t matter anymore. Today, every piece of content created with at least some reasonable production value and creative energy can be viewed on a 2.5” smart phone screen, a 19” computer screen, a 32” TV screen, or a 50’ movie screen. And who knows what kind of screen is next? In addition, we are now in the era of “second screen,” watching one thing on a 32” TV screen while also watching something on a 2.5” smart phone screen. Some movie theaters are even playing with the idea of allowing second screen viewing, so patrons could watch something on a 50’ movie screen while watching something on a 2.5” smart phone screen.
Today, if you want to create something, you go out and do it. Take short films. Often considered a cheap effort to cheat a “real” feature length movie, short films are themselves an art form that should have the same emotional impact on audiences. Short films can be on any screen, through any distribution. They are often used as ‘calling cards,’ encouraging existing audiences already following talented people, uncovering new audiences for everyone involved, and gaining attention and traction in the legacy world of Hollywood.
For all the breaking open of the silos, we have not left the legacy world far behind. Hollywood gatekeepers continue to hold sway over the most powerful production, distribution, and screens. However, they are no longer the only path.
That’s where we were with our comedy short film project, “The MURDER of James Dean.” The number one goal of our film, as with most short films, was to entertain our existing audience. A good short film will also uncover new audiences for everyone involved. It will also open doors to Hollywood gatekeepers so new opportunities can arise.
Where do short films fit in the new era of “The Blended Screens”? Everywhere.
Right now, there are few opportunities for profit from a short film. That is changing, of course. As the mobile generation continues to shift its time and attention to mobile screens – which will grow more powerful with the new 5G cellular systems – short stories of all kinds will become more prominent and rewarded.
An example of what’s around the corner is currently nicknamed “NewTV” by industry giant Jeffrey Katzenberg, who, along with prominent businessperson and former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman (while both are rich, powerful, and business-savvy, their political differences are amazing; he a major fundraiser for Democrats, she a solid Republican who ran for governor). They are betting one billion dollars that short form content will be the wave of the future, and profitable.
We are seeing the blending of all screens. Movie screens dominated our society originally, then TV screens, then computer screens, and now mobile screens. And on all of them now, we can show anything at any time.
* The answer to the question “How long is a short film?” is similar to “How long is a piece of string?” It is whatever length is necessary to tell a great story, and not one second longer. There are contests for short films of one minute or less, and there are limits set at 50 minutes by major industry players, including Sundance Film Festival. Mike Plante, short film programmer at Sundance Film Festival, says, however, “shorter is better” because they bundle shorts together into a group for single screenings.