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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Shorts & Snacks: Ten Meter Tower (2016)

The Tuesday after a long holiday weekend is always rough. Welcome back to work! Boo.

This week also has the potential to be crazy for me: major moments of “adulting” ahead. I’m not sure how prepared I am to face it, but I woke up this morning feeling rested and confident so that’s a start.

Considering this week, I remembered a documentary short film I saw earlier this year on the festival circuit, Ten Meter Tower. It’s an amazing examination of vulnerability and facing a fear. I’ve never jumped off a ten meter diving platform before (have you?), but there are other moments in life that create a similar sense of anxiety, doubt, courage or trust.

I think the film speaks for itself (and I have a LOT on my plate right now), so keeping this post short. I’ll be posting again soon about my SIFF travels, a festival I’m excited to experience for the first time.

For now take a break, grab a snack, take a deep breath and enjoy the insightful Ten Meter Tower. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments!


Ten Meter Tower
Directed by Axel Danielson, Maximilien van Aertryck
2016 / 16 min / Sweden / Swedish with English subtitles
People who have never been up a 10-meter diving tower must choose whether to jump or climb down in this entertaining study of people in a vulnerable position.

Shorts & Snacks: Fran’s Daughter (2011)

Today I’m posting about a very special short film. I discovered Fran’s Daughter in a pile of submissions back in the fall of 2010. I was immediately intrigued by this well-directed short about a woman who learns she may have been switched at birth.

The mood is set in the early frames – light creeping through a quiet house (the wallpaper a production design choice that has always stuck in my mind). The story, inspired by a This American Life episode, could easily go into soap-opera territory, but the film is excellently acted by these three women. These elements, and more, create a thoughtful drama.

Of course I had no idea at the time, but programming this short all those years ago would change my life forever. It was how I met my husband.

I am not a publicly sappy person, but as I am in Dallas on this anniversary of meeting Eric I thought it would be fun to share the film that brought us together. Just another example of how a great film changes your life course.

Grab a snack, take a break and enjoy Fran’s Daughter!

Fran’s Daughter
Directed by Eric F. Martin

2011 / 13 min / USA 

A short film about a woman who learns she may have been switched at birth.

Shorts & Snacks: Mr. Madila (2015)

I’m in the weeds. Deadlines for programming one of the festivals I work for are looming. One day last week, I watched thirty shorts in one day. Not my best, but certainly no piece of cake either.

Which means, I’ll be keeping it fairly short here the next few weeks. Today, I need a spiritual time out. A cleansing of the mind and body. And what better way to do that than with a quick short+snack with Mr. Madila.

I discovered this clever and fun animated short last year while researching for a Denver program. Rory Waudby-Tolley successfully combines humor with cosmic insight. When feeling overwhelmed with life, this short is a good reminder that the universe is big. This short both grounds me and encourages me. And lets me laugh with ease – which is always helpful to reduce stress.

My go-to snack during these times is not always healthy. I reward myself with small treats when hitting certain goals (in the past, that’s been soda – Dr. Pepper to be specific) and lately it has been a bite of cookie dough. Yes, the baked chocolate chip cookies are tasty too, but sometimes the dough doesn’t make it to the oven.

What’s one of your self-care habits or edible treats when you’re stressed? I’d love to hear your thoughts. It will help me get over the finish line!

Mr Madila or The Colour of Nothing
Directed by Rory Waudby-Tolley

2015 / 9 min / UK 

Mr Madila or The Colour of Nothing documents a series of conversations between the film-maker and a gifted spiritual healer, exploring the inner mind, the fabric of the universe, and the nature of reality itself, through the sacred art of animation. Oooooooh.

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!

 

Shorts & Snacks: Pink Grapefruit (2015)

If you’re feeling done with the cold and wet winter weather, then today’s short is the burst of brightness you need in your day.

Directed by Michael Mohan, Pink Grapefruit, tells the story of a young married couple who bring two of their single friends out to Palm Springs for a long weekend. It doesn’t go as planned. This romantic dramedy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win a jury prize at SXSW. Michael Mohan is a talented filmmaker and one you should have on your radar.

He’s an expert at capturing the subtleties of a relationship. I first met him through programming one of his earlier shorts, Ex-Sex. (Sadly, this short is not available online to the public, but it one of my all time favorite films.) I remember a lively Q&A following an Ex-Sex screening with one very uncomfortable old man who was…frustrated by what he had seen. The experience was great (though, perhaps, difficult at the time) and one of the reasons why the film needed to be shown to an audience. In Pink Grapefruit, Mohan explores an earlier stage of relationships.

There are many elements I love about this short: the characters, the setting, the production design, the cinematography. But what I love most is the quietness. This desert air creates a space where anything can happen, despite whatever intentions were created at the beginning. Mohan plays with sound, allowing the awkwardness and curiosity to settle in. The camera glides through the house. The imagery, not words, reveal the characters’ thoughts and secrets.

You’ve probably been there. If you’ve ever been set up you have definitely been there. The feelings of doubt. Fear. Caution. Then perhaps your heart beats faster with anticipation or confidence. Pink Grapefruit is a beautiful example of those moments and how they blur together to make something memorable. Plus, there’s just something about Palm Springs that creates a strange kind of romance, right? (Maybe I’m just speaking from experience on that one.)

As the title suggests a perfect snack to eat while your watching is one of winter’s best flavors: a grapefruit. I’m partial to the old fashion sprinkling-of-sugar on top. That first bite of tartness is vibrant enough for me. But if you want to do something a little different, then why not try a Rum-broiled version?

Have you ever been set up by a married couple before? Experience a desert romance?
What’s one of your other favorite recipes that include grapefruit? (I like to throw them into salads too.) Let’s discuss!


Pink Grapefruit
Directed by Michael Mohan

2015 / 11 min / USA 

A young married couple brings two of their single friends out to Palm Springs for a long weekend. It does not go as planned.

*A word of warning, you may want to watch this one at home (and not in front of the kids).

Shorts & Snacks: Treevenge (2008)

In keeping with the holiday spirit here, today I’m highlighting one of my all-time favorite short films, Treevenge

This short, directed by Canadian filmmaker Jason Eisener, made a splash on the festival scene in late 2008/early 2009.  Eisener and his team take a twist on a tradition of Christmas, picking out the perfect tree, and give us a glimpse of the experience from the trees’ perspective. During this particular Christmas, however, the trees have had enough and decide to fight back.

I saw this film at Sundance seven years ago and every Christmas since, it pops back into my mind. I showed the film to my family the following holiday and now we share a laugh each Christmas as we admire the family tree. I recommend watching this with others if you can – the howl of an audience laughing and cringing together makes the film that much more fun. When festival programmers talk about searching for a film that has an original and creative idea, they are talking about a short like this one.

Treevenge is definitely NSFW. If you are not a fan of over-the-top horror films then, fair warning, this short may not be for you. But if you are in need of a good laugh (and who isn’t during the holidays?), then grab your favorite Christmas cookie, take a break and check out Treevenge below. I bet you’ll never be able to pick out a Christmas tree the same way again!


Treevenge
Directed by Jason Eisener
2008 / 16 min / Canada
After being cut down, shipped off to christmas tree dealers, and brought home and decorated in celebration of christmas, the trees are fed up with the humiliation and abuse, and take their revenge on humanity.