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.

Awards Season: Cinema Eye Honors ’17

Awards season is in full force. The Golden Globes were last night (Yay Moonlight!). Publicists and studios are working their asses off getting their clients and filmmakers in front of the press. The hosts for the Spirit Awards have been announced. Film critics are a buzz with possible Oscar contenders and FYC ads are popping up everywhere here in Los Angeles.

One of my favorite genres of films, documentaries, are often overlooked during awards season. That’s where the Cinema Eye Honors come into play. This week documentary filmmakers and industry leaders gather in New York City for the tenth annual awards. I’m honored to be a part of the nomination committee for Cinema Eye, but sadly I won’t be able to join in the festivities.

Cinema Eye Honors recognizes outstanding accomplishments and innovation in nonfiction filmmaking. The organization was born out of frustration with how documentaries were recognized in the past, how there was an awards emphasis focused solely on the topic of a documentary and not the artistic approach or craft. As filmmaking technology has gotten easier to put in the hands of artists, the documentary genre has boomed and expanded in exciting ways. While this was happening though, nonfiction filmmakers were not getting a proper spotlight on their work. You’d often hear more about social issue films getting all the awards attention. (In recent years, there have been many changes to the Documentary Branch of the Academy Awards to try to fix that. I’ll let you travel down your own rabbit hole there.)

unforgettables_collage-update
A collage of “The Unforgettables” nominees, the year’s most notable and significant nonfiction film subjects.

CEH awards include prizes for cinematography, editing and producing – all elements that make or break a great doc film. There are even awards for graphic design/animation and, always a favorite, the Heterodox Award which recognizes narrative films that incorporate nonfiction filmmaking strategies or style in interesting ways (think Boyhood).

Being on the nomination committee, we watched over 100 eligible films. So many amazing stories and voices. Talk about a hard job. Once our votes were counted, the nominees were announced and now we wait to hear the winners announced on Wednesday. You can take a look at all of the nominees on the CEH website. If you are interested in catching the best documentaries of 2016, I highly recommend checking off the films from this list.

Congrats and good luck to all the nominees!