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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Bad short film titles

Creating a great title for a film can be tough. You want the title to stand out and stick with people. Something that highlights themes, characters or actions in your story. A hint of something scary, funny, dramatic or unworldly. Maybe it’s a metaphor or something poetic. Whatever the title, once you have it you know in your gut that it’s right.

Creating a bad title, on the other hand, is far easier.

When watching hundreds of shorts each year, there’s always generic titles that pop up several times. Before even watching a film, if I see a common title I think the film is amateur or lazy. My judgement before I even watch a frame: uncreative. A title is the first thing that sells your film to an audience – and when a short is a calling card of you to the world should you really make the title that ordinary?

Today, I’m sharing a few of the most common short film titles I’ve seen. I’m not saying that you can’t have your film titled one of these words. But what I am saying is that each year, I see at least one film – often multiple films – with this title. The one word title is most common. It doesn’t matter if you put it in all caps either. It’s still the same word. I’m wondering if your film is going to be the same as every other one as well.

As you’re reading this list, imagine what kind of film it might be. Does it perk your interest at all? Do you feel you already know what the film is about? Do you feel like you need to watch it?

Some of the title offenders include:

Repeat

Butterfly

Locked

Animal

Memory

My Name is…   (and then a name)

Crossing   (or The Crossing)

Numb

Float

Change

Beyond   (this is also usually followed by another word or two… which reminds me of the next one…)

After   (Pick a word, any word, to follow After and it has probably been done before.)

Hello    (Only Adele can get away with this now. #SorryNotSorry)

and one of the worst titles I see multiple times each year:

Home

Look, I get it. Being original is difficult. There’s a lot of content out there and plenty of films that have come and gone. But the title is the hook and just as much effort should be put into that as the film itself. So please filmmakers, make an effort with your title. I want that title to make me curious.

What are some of the worst film title’s you remember? What are some of your favorite titles? I’d like to hear them in the comments!

 

The Rollercoaster of Film Programming

First week back after a long holiday break is hard, amiright? Even if only a four-day “work” week. These are some looong work days.

I’m in the stage of my job where most of my waking hours are spent watching films, back to back to back. Documentary after documentary. All day and into the night. It is binging on a different level.

It is an emotional rollercoaster.

photo by Ilnur Kalimullin

In the past 48 hours I have watched documentaries spanning the following topics:

  • severe illness and the health care system
  • a biography of an author
  • the historical oppression of the LGBTQ community
  • the profile of an artist with cancer
  • the serial murder of prostitutes
  • a homeless artist
  • an exposé on bad police officers
  • racism in America
  • opiate addiction

The subjects above are vague to respect the filmmakers, but you get the idea. Telling a good story means showing the darker sides of humanity. And there are so many shades of darkness in this world. By the end of the day, I’m emotionally exhausted from the empathy and intellect that’s involved in watching each story. Even if the film is really, really bad – and believe me they can be – emotional effort is involved.

Tomorrow will be very similar to today. More stories of tragedy and hope. More stories of the world going to hell, slivers of hope and how we can try to make it better. I feel like I’m in a daze. The days blur into one and I loose track of time. This rollercoaster is going full speed and I can see the ups and downs ahead. My head hurts and my eyes burn.

All this watching means I am not leaving the house much. Other than emailing, socializing is minimal. The grocery store clerk probably wonders why I’m so chatty at the check out. “I really like your nail polish” counts as human interaction in my book.

This is the tough part of the job. The non-glamourous part. Some days are more rewarding than others. Yesterday I was fortunate. I saw a beautiful film. One that connected to a personal part of my own experience. I understood the character’s pain. My heart ached for her and the others in her world. I went through a journey of anger, sadness, and hope. It was magic. My heart was racing. I am excited that others will discover it soon as well.

Then, just like that, the moment was over and I was in the midst of a bad film again, dissecting the elements and issues. Seeing the world at its worst, holding out hope for a glimpse of magic again.

This emotional rollercoaster is at the core of festival programming. Watching and filtering and analyzing. Repeat. It is not for everyone and there are days when I struggle with it. I want to change the world, but get frustrated when I think I’m only “watching films”. I have to believe that curating can better the world, if only in a small way. It may be too difficult to measure, but this rollercoaster will lead me to sharing a moment that may change a life or inspire action. Remembering my place in this magic keeps me going.

Have you ever been in the deep end of your work or life and yet felt like you were right where you’re suppose to be? How do you describe your role to yourself when things are rough?