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.

Festival Travel: Palm Springs ShortsFest

Hope everyone had a lovely holiday weekend! Happy (belated) 4th!

A few weeks ago, I was asked by old friend and fellow programmer Landon Zakheim to participate on a panel at Palm Springs ShortsFest. It has been a few years since I attended this festival and the idea of having a little weekend LA escape seemed like a great idea.

Unfortunately, a heat wave took over the city that weekend so it was a little less than comfortable. Yes, the desert is hot in the summer, but this was a completely different story. Temperatures sat between 115° and 118°F. By 10:00PM the lowest it reached was around 95°F – practically balmy in comparison to the day. All this to say, my dream of sitting poolside with a mocktail for an afternoon went out the window. That and navigating festival events became a nightmare. I never wanted to leave whatever air-conditioned space I was lucky to be in at the time.

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E and I drove east from LA on a Friday afternoon wading out the traffic (and multiple car accidents along the way). After checking in to the festival, we swung by the pool where our friends, Zoe and Amanda, from the San Francisco Film Society were lounging under a big umbrella. We lasted an hour in the heat before calling it and heading to our own hotel to check in.

We met Zoe for dinner later that evening and when we discovered the restaurant was not at all crowded, we had to figure out post-meal adventures to kill two hours before the night’s festival party. First stop: the nearby casino. Casino’s are not my thing, but I’m game for taking a walk through one. My hometown has several casinos, so I’m attending one is nothing exciting for me and I’ve never been interested in gambling my hard-earned funds. Sitting at my first (penny) slot machine, I put in a dollar and lost 90¢ in 20 seconds on one bet. How were we ever going to kill time here? Zoe, E and I continued to walk around and played a little on different machines. Once I doubled my initial $5, I stopped gambling and cheered them on. E played another $6 and lost, so our household almost broke even in the end.IMG_6281IMG_9462

Leaving the casino, Zoe led us through the heat to The Tonga Hut, a local tiki bar. This spot was much more our scene: dark, cool and laid back. We ordered a round of drinks (a virgin pina colada for me) and played many of the games the bar had on hand. While she may not have won at the casino earlier, Zoe ended up being the Uno champion, beating us many times over.

We made our way to the ShortsFest party that evening at the Ace hotel. The party room slowly began filling with shorts filmmakers and an already warm room became hotter as most guests wanted to stay inside. We chatted with filmmaker Gillian Wallace Horvat and watched a filmmaker awkwardly corner actor Steven Weber next to us, bending his ear for an hour. As the night wore on, the room became warmer and it seemed best to call it a night.

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ShortsFest party at Ace, six years later. Married with baby on the way…far different this time.

Saturday morning, we grabbed breakfast at Cheeky’s and took a quick dip in the pool (that felt like bath water, but cooler than 98°), which was still empty and quiet by all accounts at our party-hotel.

We made our way to the ShortsFest HQ for my panel: Meet the Programmers moderated by Variety film critic, Peter Debruge. This particular panel is held yearly at the festival, to give filmmakers from the festival and the market an opportunity to hear insight and advice from those programming on the circuit. The main question is always, “what do you look for in a film?” Here we had an hour to talk about that and our respective processes of programming with each festival we represented (Sundance, San Francisco, Cleveland and Dallas/Denver/SIFF).

The difficult part about a panel like this is the spectrum of experience of those in the audience. Some have been to a few festivals, some have only finished their first film. There’s also a lot of variables involved with each festival and programmer. Each one of us have different taste and each festival a slightly different process based on how established they are or the structure and makeup of their staff.

Palm Springs ShortsFest panel 2017
On the “Meet the Programmers” panel with (L to R): Peter Debruge (Variety), Amanda Salazar (SFFS), Paul Sloop (Cleveland), Adam Piron (Sundance)

One key point we made was the importance of story and the filmmaker’s intent. The film needs to speak for itself and every choice that goes into it needs to be intentional. That creates a clear and unique voice. For example, if a filmmaker chooses to make it in black & white (especially since so much of it is video and we know you didn’t shoot film), there needs to be a clear reason behind why you choose to do that artistically. What does that mean to the story? Is it creating a particular tone or message that the dialogue or action does not? We can always tell if it’s just a haphazard decision in an attempt to stand out.

Rejection is part of the process and we spoke to how often programmers see short films they may like, but are not programmable: they are not suited their particular audience or don’t fit within the scope of the particular shorts block (even when not programming blocks thematically). What may work for an audience in Texas may not work with an audience in Seattle or San Francisco. You may only need one or two family drama stories, but you have five to pick from. There was also the age-old question of whether filmmakers should receive feedback if rejected and how not to email the festival with a nasty reply. People like to work with other nice people. Don’t be a jerk is an easy rule to follow.

It really doesn’t matter if you include a cover letter on your application. You don’t have to email us to check if we got the film as long as you sent it through the official channels (know that the system created to collect films by these established organizations works, because undermining that only shows a lack of trust). In the end, what does matter: if you told the story as concisely and to the best of your ability as possible. Doing your research, both for the film and where it will have the best audience. Learn about the festival you’re submitting to, who programs it and what they’ve shown in the past – does your film seem like a good match? It all comes back to the intention you have set from the beginning with whatever story you feel compelled to tell. Doing that hard work upfront will usually take care of the rest.

After the panel I was able to chat with a few filmmakers and give advice where I could, before grabbing a late lunch. We cooled down in our hotel room again before heading to another festival party. Sadly, that event was in a small un-air conditioned room. I quickly downed two lemonades and staying for all of five minutes before bailing. The heat was unbearable and I don’t understand how there was not a fan running somewhere in that room. We avoided the 117° heat and sat in our hotel room, watching as the pool was crowded with late twenty-somethings drinking and dancing. It was dehydrating just to watch them.

We tried to eat dinner at The Rooster and the Pig, but with five small parties ahead of us and the wait outside on the patio that plan failed as well. In the two minutes we considered waiting for a table, I started to feel sickly and a fleeting thought of “this is what heat stroke feels like” crossed my mind. So we quickly left and found the closest In-n-Out, drove through and watched the sunset from our car.

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It looks so pretty, but don’t be deceived.

By 9:30pm, the hotel pool crowd had gone back to the rooms so we decided to take a dip. The temperature had dipped as well (to a mere 99°F!) which made the air breathable outside for the first time that day. Couples slowly emerged from their room one by one, dressed up to go out to the local bars. While we intended to make it to the festival party that night at 10:00pm, the day’s heat had worn us out emotionally and physically, so we decided to stay in. Just as well, as our friend attended the party and said they were charging for water. BIG party foul, festival. Good grief. We made the right decision.

While this festival wasn’t the most enjoyable thanks to the weather, it was memorable. Hopefully six years won’t pass again before I can return to Palm Springs ShortsFest. While I’m not a fan of the market (I don’t think many industry actually attend it to make it worthwhile for filmmakers), the festival’s forum can be educational for those shorts filmmakers new to the circuit.

Do you think our panel advice is helpful? What other tidbits would you like to hear about?