Making short films gives Oscars to filmmakers, opens careers for short film filmmakers, and dazzles audiences with small stories. A short film is a great calling card for an aspiring filmmaker or a fun side project for an established writer who has a five-minute story they want to tell. After all, a short film is just a short film with a clear, compelling storyline. There are so many short film distribution platforms where you can distribute film or just meet a short film filmmaker.
How long should a short film script be?
When writing any script, keep in mind that one page equals approximately one minute of screen time. If short films are usually less than 50 minutes long, you will need a script of 50 pages or less.
A good rule of thumb: try to write a 15-page short film and see where it gets you.
Why are short films so important for aspiring filmmakers?
If your goal is to make, produce, or sell feature films, you make it seem like making short films doesn’t make sense. But short films are much more than just an exercise in film school: a short film can have a variety of benefits for an aspiring or seasoned filmmaker.
- Find a representative office. Short films can be valuable calling cards for other writing or directing work, or for finding representation. This is especially true for young writers and directors who may not have big-budget work on their commercials. The short film is easy to distribute and gives busy agents or managers the opportunity to quickly understand the director’s creative voice and point of view.
- Make it visible. Submitting a short film to a film festival is a great way to grab attention. Screening your short film at a prestigious festival can raise your profile as a filmmaker and draw attention to larger projects. When applying for a film festival, remember that the shorter the film, the better your chances are, as most film festival programmers want to show as many short films as possible.
- Distribute yourself. Ensuring that an independent feature film is distributed to a wide audience poses significant challenges. However, short films are easy to publish online and share on sites like Vimeo and YouTube. Keep in mind that you will need to do some research to find your target audience.
- Reliable funding. Many successful short films have been used as proof of concept for a more ambitious project, helping a screenwriter or director secure funding to adapt them into a full-length feature film or television series. Prominent examples of feature films that began life as free short films include: Whiplash by Damien Chazelle, District #9 by Neill Blomkamp, and Saw by James Wan.
A step-by-step guide to writing a short film.
Writing short films comes down to four key steps: brainstorming, drafting, writing, and rewriting.
- Brainstorm. If you don’t have an existing concept for a short film, start by tossing every single plot idea on the wall and see what you like. Some writing tips that can help jump-start your creativity include: What images or events do you remember from your childhood? What themes in cinema attract you? What are your favorite examples of films in the style or genre you hope to make? Perhaps you are drawn to stories about family relationships, love triangles, victories of underdogs, or specific historical periods. Once you come up with an idea for your short film, write down any moments, scenery, beats, or dialogue that you would like to see in the film. Don’t worry about whether you actually include these elements or if they make sense: just write whatever comes to mind.
- Contour. Once you’ve narrowed down your brainstorming to a clear and simple premise, start outlining your movie idea. Like feature films, short scripts have a beginning, a middle, and an end. During the outline phase, your goal is to outline the overall structure of the film so you don’t have to know what’s going to happen at any given moment. However, it is helpful for some screenwriters to know every scene or beat in a movie before they start writing. The information sheet is a useful guide in the planning process. (Learn how to create a fact sheet here.)
- Write your first draft. Now that you know the shape of your story, start writing the first draft of the short film script. Short films follow the same script structure as feature films – think of them as short scripts. A good rule of thumb when writing a short film script is to enter late and exit early, in other words, enter each scene as late as possible in the action and exit as soon as the character gets what they need in the scene. You only have a certain number of pages to tell your story: don’t waste time on moments, exchanges, or backstory that isn’t absolutely necessary.
- Rewrite the script. It’s a common phrase among writers that writing is rewriting, and scripts are no exception. Once you have the first draft on the page, give it to friends or mentors for notes. When you return to writing your second draft, you will notice that you need to restart the process and create a new plan. Once your story is compelling, you can only rewrite the script to improve the scene or refine the dialogue.