The curse of the 40-minute drama

I still can’t get over how many filmmakers make 35-minute-plus dramas and call them shorts.

This week alone I have seen more than a dozen narrative shorts that are over this time mark in my batch of submissions.

It is driving me bonkers.

I have so many questions I want to email these filmmakers.

Who do you expect to watch your 40-minute film? 
Besides the fact that its my job, certainly others likely won’t see it. Besides your mother or your partner, who do you really expect to give up 40-minutes of their precious, hard-earned free time to watch (and even, pay to watch) this story? So many films often accomplish whatever story you may be telling in 40 minutes… in 25 minutes or less. Don’t you think you’d rather watch the shorter one too?

Have you ever tried to cut your run time in half?
Seriously, have you tried it? Editing is non-destructive. You can always go back. Your film can probably be cut in half. Easily. Most often with a drama of this run time, you’re repeating your point(s). Trust that the viewer is smart and will pick up the subtle clues you’ve laid along the way. Does each scene move the character or story forward? Does the scene make a point that is needed so the audience will understand or feel what they’re suppose to? 

Where do you expect people to see this 40-minute film?
There is storytelling on Snapchat and Instagram. These are 10, 20 or 30 second stories! While not directly competing with your 40-minute film, this is a form of storytelling that is creative and concise within our fast-paced, content-heavy world. 

TV? A half hour episode is actually about 21 minutes. (Commercials make up the extra time).  An hour” episode may be around the 43 minute mark, but is more likely considered episodic or series content. While some film festivals are dipping their toes into this genre of programming, if you’re submitting a stand-alone story into a shorts category, then the film likely doesn’t cross over well into TV or episodic. 

Online? YouTube and Vimeo viral videos are not this length. Attention spans are smaller and people have busy lives. They don’t commit to that much time unless they care about the subject, or perhaps, you personally.

And so, this kind of film is submitted to a film festival because that is where filmmakers are “discovered”. But here’s the (not actually a secret) secret: If filmmakers do their research, they would notice that most festivals screen shorts in 90 to 120 minute blocks. Why? Because that’s how slotting screenings work.

Each screening slot must allow for: loading in the theater, intros, pre-show commercials/trailers, the actual film, a possible Q&A and then loading out people (which always takes forever) and cleaning up the auditorium for the next show to cycle through again.

In other words, showing a shorts block takes time. Festival slots that run longer than 90 to 120 minutes means either:

A. a slot is lost completely. For most festivals, they try to get in as many as possible screenings because the org is paying for the auditorium rental by the day and need ticket sales as much as possible. More slots=more potential sales.
or
B. the next show starts late. And that is bad customer service. No one wants angry patrons.

When a programmer is comparing one 40-minute film versus two 20-minutes or four 10-minute films… which one do you think they’ll probably choose? The stronger film…which is usually the one that tells a better story in less time…so that the audience can have a fuller experience of storytelling, so more filmmakers can be included in a program, so more ideas can be discussed, or characters represented. Hard to justify one short hogging half the time of a potential block when you’re in that kind of competition.

You may disagree, but in my years of experience I can tell you, dear filmmaker of a 35-minute-plus short, you are not helping yourself with your epic run time. You have two options:

1. Cut it down. Be harsh with your scenes, thorough with your feedback. Editing is a skill and when used well makes a huge difference in creating a great film from a good film.
2. Develop it into a true feature film. This is no small task and takes equally if not more effort and thoughtfulness.

Either way, use this 35 or 40-minute film as a learning experience and move on to the next one.  Think about where it will end up, who will see it and why you’re making it. All roads lead back to storytelling with intention. Good luck.

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