You’ve just made a short film. The good news is: you may be able to get as many people to see it in a movie theater as an independent feature film does. Bad news is: that doesn’t pay anything. Distribution is a word usually saved for feature films. But short films may have the best option of all.
I’m talking about film festivals. Almost all film fests have a short film section, playing shorts in front of some features and multiple 90-minute programs of shorts. If you make a good short it’s possible to play literally 100 cities with it. Here is some strategy to go into the festival world with.
First thing is first – find another film that’s just like yours. I know, nothing else is like it, but find something similar in style and atmosphere, if not a similar story or form. Which festivals did that film play? Look for features too. It’s safe to assume that the festival programmers would like your work too.
For a short to play in front of a feature, it will need to be on the shorter side, often 10 minutes or less. But fests play a lot of 70 and 80-minute features and programmers love to get more talent in the mix and want to play a short in front of them. Something that isn’t exactly the same but compliments the show.
And think sideways – a fest that shows weird sci-fi films may also be into a stylish doc about Tesla.
Many festivals have a focus, and that’s the best way to spend your submission fee budget. There are tons of niche fests with a specific focus: documentaries, animation, experimental, genre, and some only show short films. Whatever you made, there is probably a fest that only wants that type of film, even shorts about mountain climbing.
Festival logistics help make decisions. Festivals have budgets for travel and rooms, but it often covers the features only. Don’t get sad, just see which fests do have stipends for shorts to help out, or prize money if that interests you. With CineVegas, any filmmaker with a short just had to get themselves to Vegas and we’d provide a room for 4 nights (gambling not included).
And don’t forget friends and family. You got parents in the US? There is probably a festival in their town and you know they’ll bring you home and feed you. Look cool in front of the parents that might have paid for the film too.
Side note: why try to go to the festivals? Besides the best reason – to see your film on a big screen with big sound and an audience – you will meet future collaborators. Just the people inside your shorts program will be great and most likely at the same stage of filmmaking you are: hungry. You’ll run into cast and crew, and if lucky a producer who wants to help on the next one.
Plus the motivation you’ll find at a festival to make more work is impossible to describe. You think you re the only one struggling, and then you meet others in the same boat and realize you’ve all made something that is worth sharing with others. This is how “waves” start.
Last but not least, try for the large film festivals. This may seem like the most important thing to go for first but not necessarily. Check their submission rules. If they require a world premiere, which is rare for shorts but it happens, then you would have to submit there first and see what happens. For many fests we just want to show the best shorts we can find and its ok to play another fest first as a short. In fact, every festival finds a great film at another fest. It doesn’t matter who finds it first, just that the film gets one or more champions.
The biggest thing is to keep trying. If you made a film and it doesn’t get into one of the big festivals, it’s not personal (I’ve been right there too). It can be frustrating waiting for the first show but it doesn’t mean you are a bad filmmaker, its just that every festival has its own taste and even then they can’t fit every good film made into the screen space we have. Keep making films and keep trying.
Want to learn more about the world of short filmmaking? Check out Sundance ShortsLabs on July 14th in NY and Aug. 11th in LA.These full-day workshops for shorts filmmakers offer firsthand insight and access into story development, production, and exhibition of narrative short-form storytelling.Hear directly from festival programmers and short filmmakers about their work.
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