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The Short Film is Dead: Time for the Emerging Filmmaker to Get a New Calling Card

07.12.10 @ 1:03PM Tags : , , , , ,

This is a guest post by Mike Jones, Lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

Filmmaking is full of traditions. These traditions are the “way things are done,” they are what is “expected,” they are “industry standard,” they are “default” and “accepted.” This is all fine and dandy until we recognise the innate implication of such Traditions is to imply Right and Wrong – that there is a correct way to do things and deviations are “incorrect,” not “acceptable” or, worse still, not “professional.”

These traditions manifest themselves in all manner of guises – creative, technical, business, logistic. I have written previously about how the tools of filmmaking (particularly software) possess internal philosophies that enforce traditions – traditions which may or may not be a good fit for your own creative processes. In a similar light, there occurs to me to be another long-standing and entrenched tradition (one that may not be serving emerging and indie filmmakers as it should) that needs to be questioned. That is the significance of the Short Film.

There are two ways of looking at how a Short Film serves the emerging and aspiring filmmaker. The first is as a Learning Exercise, the second is as a Calling Card. The short film seeks to be a learning experience by providing a paradigm for engagement in film production within viable financial and resource constrains. Simply put, the short film allows you to gain experience without the overhead. Similarly, as a calling card the short film aims to serve as a demonstration of the filmmaker’s abilities. It has the express purpose of convincing financiers and funding bodies of the filmmaker’s worthiness of trust to make a longer project. The theory is that a good short film is a large flag to wave in the air saying “this is what I can do in 10 minutes of screen time and no money, just imagine what I could do with 100 minutes and a ton of cash!”

Learning Experience and Calling Card. This is what short films are for…. and at the start of the second decade of the 21st century, the short film fails pretty dismally at both.

Learning Experience

The short film fails as a Learning Exercise because making a short film only really teaches you about making short films. The relevance of short film structures, patterns and conventions to feature and long-form drama are tenuous at best. A perusal of the award winning shorts from major festivals around the world in any given recent year will prove this point. Interesting, poetic, introspective, technically accomplished they may all be, but their connection aesthetically or narratively to longer forms is decidedly absent. And this is only right and proper. A good short Should Not be simply a feature film shoved into a small space. That’s a recipe for disaster. Slice-of-life, the punch-line joke and the microcosm observation are perfectly fitting structures for short films but they almost never work viably outside of the short-film format.

Whilst you personally may gain experience working with a crew, cast and technology, you wont be exercising, testing or tangibly expanding your understanding of those elements of story, character, theme, myth and metaphor that the short film – simply by its duration – does not wholly embody. Moreover, since there is no effective business model for short films – no audience and no market outside of self-indulgent short-film festivals populated almost entirely of other aspiring filmmakers – making a short film crucially doesn’t teach you about Audiences. Your short won’t prompt you to ask who your audience is, what they expect, what they want, how they engage, what excites and challenges them, how they will respond, what feeling-states they are seeking?

The deeper irony is that film schools the world over make short films as the fundamental learning experience and yet spend near 100% of their class time discussing and analysing Feature films. This approach seems to me much like going to culinary school, studying week after week how to make 3-course fine dining and then having to make a sandwich as a final project. A great sandwich is no doubt a work of art but it really proves nothing about competence in 3-course gastronomy.

I should point out here, for the record, that a large part of my own career is based in film schools and universities. I am, above all else, a teacher and I believe passionately in what Film School offers. If I want to build bridges I have to study bridge building. If I want to build films I have study cinema. Film School is a powerful means to do that.

BUT…. And there are two Big BUTS…. First, not all film schools are “good” and second is that to become “good” film schools need to be consistently and persistently challenged to evolve and adapt and live up to noble intention. So here I challenge the short film paradigm film school is predicated upon as a learning experience.1

There is an assumption I’m making with this argument against the viability and usefulness of the short film as a learning tool that should be pointed out. The assumption is that the intention of a short is to learn about, and prove competence in, making other longer forms of cinema (TV drama and features). It’s possible this isn’t the case for everyone. There may be limited opportunity for a financial career in it but you may be very happy making short films as a primary mode of artistic expression. Or else we may look to advertising which certainly thrives on short-form narrative. But if you dared to show your 10 minute dramatic short to an advertising company they’d laugh you out of the room – tell your story in 26 seconds or forget about it, mate! So here again, even in the microcosm of advertising, making short narrative films really doesn’t help you learn what you need to know.

Calling Card

This brings us to the other side of the coin; the short film as career Calling Card.

No matter how cool your short film is, it will largely fail to serve you if your intention is to make bigger, longer dramatic works. Short films fail because they do not demonstrate the crucial things that fill financiers with confidence. A short film, regardless of how “good” it is, can’t effectively demonstrate you can sustain character arcs and it doesn’t show you understand narrative structure. A short film doesn’t prove you know how to develop story over time or construct consistent dramatic tension and release. A short film doesn’t demonstrate you understand audiences and genre and know how to attract an audience. Without these things there is no real evidence you could effectively make an viable feature or long-form drama.

Since the birth of modern film-schools (and the self-taught DIY culture of indie filmmakers that grew up very much in parallel to them) the traditional established, accepted and entrenched process for emerging filmmakers was to make a Short as a calling card to validate your abilities to make a Feature or TV drama. It worked. For many years it worked. But its viability is wearing off. In 2010 the viable currency of the short film is dying. Either as Learning Experience or Calling Card the Short Film fails to satisfy.

Of course, this begs the question… Is there something better?

What’s an indie filmmaker to do? Lacking, as they do, time and resources to make a feature or a TV pilot? The answer is, and should be, staring us all in the face – the Web series.

Web Series

I would contest that the emerging filmmaker learning experience and calling card of the future (if not the now) is the Webisodic Drama. Where producers, financiers, funding bodies may currently ask to see your short and what festivals it’s been in, they will soon (and already are) asking “Where’s your webseries site and how much traffic do you get?”

The advantages of the web series as both Learning Tool and Calling Card for emerging filmmakers are myriad and obvious.

  1. The web series is resource-viable. It arguably takes no more money, technology or logistics to make an episodic online series than it does to make a short film.
  2. The web series can freely and easilly find a far larger international audience than a short film on the festival circuit ever could. In doing so the web series both teaches and proves audience engagement and the ability of the filmmaker to create for, gather, keep and motivate viewers.
  3. The web series can viably demonstrate the filmmmaker understands Character Arc and Story Structure. Whilst webisodes are generally short, the nature of their construct, spacing and structure connects very well to both feature film narrative turning points and long-form drama act-breaks, episodes and seasons. The web series may be small scale but the core structure is tangibly applicable and demonstrable, unlike most short films which (like a sandwich to a 3 course dinner) offer little direct overlap.
  4. The web series is innately a 360 approach where social-media and online ecologies are part and parcel of what a web series is. Where short and feature film projects the world over are being asked to add-on 360 elements (websites, trailers, games etc), the web series is integrated tightly to this model from the get-go.

Whether you are a film school student trying to work out what to make as a major project or a DIY indie looking for a project to launch yourself, the objectives are the same – to learn by experience and to build for yourself a kind of cinematic Proof of Age Card. It’s here that I feel eternally frustrated seeing talented aspiring filmmakers pouring huge amounts of effort and resources into glossy, story-less, low-stakes, short films with theatrical prints for self-indulgent film festivals that nobody watches. As with many long-entrenched elements of filmmaking, the tradition of the short film needs to be let go of and seen as the antiquated anomaly it is; a tool of a bygone era. A good short film can be great work of art but emerging and aspiring filmmakers need much more than a short work of art to build a career. The short-format, online, episodic webseries is the most dynamic, audience-driven, self-publicising, learning vehicle indie filmmakers (in film school or not) have ever had access to.

I suspect I’m preaching to the converted in this forum, or perhaps helping push forward those who were sitting the fence with niggling doubts, but my bigger objective is to change the culture of film schools. I look forward to the day when at the end of a semester major film schools across the world are pushing the go-live button on dynamic, dramatic, narrative structured, engaging, audience driven, genre inspired, socially networked, episodic cliff-hanging drama series… Rather than sending a collection of tapes and film-reels off in the mail to festivals no one will see or care about.

Time to forge a new tradition and file the old short-film one in the attic.

Mike Jones (@mikejonesnet) has diverse backgrounds in screen production, post-production and writing. Along with serving as script editor and screenwriter he has penned more than 200 essays, articles, and reviews on the screen-media industries along with three books for students of screen media. When he’s not teaching or writing about cinema he is playing computer games and is Lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School.

Creative Commons-licensed images from flickr users work the angles, ventana, and pinprick, respectively.

  1. If you want to read more on my thoughts on film school you may want to check out some of the articles I have written on this topic: Leading or Following – Reconsidering Film School, Holistic Thinking – Integrated Making: a manifesto, Filmschool Technology, and Film education and the culture of editors. []

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  • I think short films do have a place creatively… a one-off production will always be a way to show sides of a character that just don’t fit within a movie or a series.

    But effort vs payoff I would agree that the short film is dead.

    Most of the time a short film can’t be expanded into a good film, once the short is done it’s enough to whet appetites but not enough to satisfy, and all the work that goes into promoting it would go further if there were a bunch of related shorts.

    You could still make one of a series of web shorts more cinematic and visually intensive and submit it to festivals and then it would satisfy that itch and also promote the web series.

  • Nope. I can’t imagine a web series competing with a well made short film. Yes, those name actors are coming onboard, but they want to be seen and work is scarce. They aren’t in it for the vision that a director has about a cable quality indie episodic on YouTube. Wrapping up an idea, getting to the climax, all in 10 to 40 minutes is still moviemaking. And you can blow your technical wad on one project, rather than linger through several “episodes”, meaning the best of your auteuristic chops in one story. If webisodes are being seen, it’s the internet itself, not the webisode. Frankly, I’ve seen alot of crap webisodes, meaning it’s cheap, easy and anyone with a vidcam can pick up and start casting their friends for some great idea they had while they were stoned. Now, that happens in shorts, too, but there are short filmakers out there that pull it off with film, which no webisode can compete against. Webisodes = poor man’s TV.

    • agree with Mike almost 100%, as a working filmmaker/lecturer with an award winning feature and career as a writer, that the majority of shorts made by student filmmakers (I’ve watched thousands as a festival programmer) are down right awful calling cards. Yes there are exceptions like the few that get OPTIONED for a studio film and even fewer that get made (District 9 again). The European film financing model does encourage shorts to features from students of Euro and developing countries often very successfully…. but really guys how much easier and more fun to crash bang into a low to micro budget feature that should take you 12 days to shoot…. half the time I know of students of mine who have shot a 10 minutes film then sit in what would be development hell years after said short has been made?

  • i have panic attacks and my doctor reccomends relaxation exercise”;~

  • I found this post interesting because regardless if the short film is dead, or no longer useful or whatever, I believe quite strongly that the “mini-feature” is a new format that will in-fact become “very” popular in the coming years. This would be a feature length story told in roughly 60 minutes -or- told in two 60s minutes chunks. The reason I believe in this stems from the the rapidly changing way people will consume movies and video content. When a good chunk of the audience begins watching on say, tablets (iPad) for example, the min-feature just makes perfect sense. All it needs is some good marketing behind it. I think it’s inevitable, actually and has real potential as an attractive new format. Additionally, you want to talk about how Short Films are outdated… Film Schools in general on a mass scale are failing to keep their students up to date on the real trends taking place in what is now becoming and will soon be a very volatile and changing industry. 10 years from now the motion picture landscape will not look as it does now. All kinds of new businesses will and already are emerging that have “coped a clue” on what’s really going on out there and many of these new motion picture businesses will have nothing to do with the Big 6 Studios in Hollywood. I wonder how many film schools are telling this to their students?

  • Mike,

    Don’t listen to these folks slamming you. Your post inspired me. I’m sure everyone has opposing stories to backup their views, but film – like many creative fields – lacks one single best way to “make it” to use a phrase from music.

    I have been coming to the same conclusions as you as I watch what is happening out there, and there is a big difference between getting a short optioned and launching a sustainable career as a filmmaker.

    The web series will appeal to those who:

    1) Don’t want to play the studio games and wouldn’t know where to start.

    2) Want to run and control their own business.

    3) Don’t have quite enough money or fame to pull off $25,000 indie films (Ed Burns)

    4) Want to have regular, direct relationships with their audience.

    5) Do not see the odds of being the next District 9 in their favor.

    With the Internet converging soon with TV, popularly voted web series will show up right next to LOST and 24 level shows. Staying power and audience power will count more than that movie a few years back that did OK.

  • Frants Combrink on 12.29.10 @ 7:35AM

    I think the short film has a definite place. I am of the opinion that the short film is a showcase of potential capabilities, not so much of expanding on the short film into a full feature movie or tv series. I’m working on a short film that will be only that, a short film. It will hopefully show my capabilities of telling a story by means of finding base with the character, feeling the story, seeing growth, and finally, carrying a message to the audience. As artists we should…IMO…tell stories that either ask questions about our current situation (be it political, social, those little things that are actually just funny but we take it way to serious, or just some life wisdom) with the use of stories. Just a thought, my opinion for what it is worth. Thanks Mike, I did not know about the web-series option. Might investigate it at a later stage.

    • Frants Combrink on 12.29.10 @ 8:06AM

      Oh and the short film is a great way of saying things in a different way. Highlighting aspects of life in a different way. Like another said here, some things just can’t be said any better in 180minutes as in 5 to 10 minutes.

      Short films..yes another thing I just thought about…short films is a way of true artistic expression. It allows those who love story telling a means to tell those stories…as oppose to those who want to be Spielberg or Blomkamp.

  • mike jones you know what they say, those who do, do. those who can’t, teach – and in your case, write waffle like this. as for ‘personal attacks’, it’s jones who excels at thinly veiled ranting about his own students, i’m sure if they actually read this stuff they would find his assertions quite negative and hypocritical. if you position yourself as intentionally provocative, you should wear the consequences. the day you make a film worth more than 10 seconds of my time, you can start criticising

    • Vijay Raman on 12.7.12 @ 12:05AM

      I really feel that you should get a sense of what he is really trying to say in this article. While I do love the shorts, its important to really open up to this internet-world and maximize your potential as aspiring filmmakers…and you guys are tearing him apart for nothing..He is a teacher man, spare him..

  • Sarah Levinson on 02.1.11 @ 2:27PM

    Mike lectures at an institution, AFTRS, the premier media production training school in Australia. They are offering short courses on Webisode production. This is an expensive ‘film school’ education exercise, which is ironic for this blog site called ‘nofilmschool’. If Mike’s article is an attempt to generate marketing publicity for the course, then his writing is a massive fail. LMAO.

    I hope the standard for the institution is higher than what is revealed in Mike’s misguided argument. If people criticize him for his boastful, bloated and arrogant attitude, then he has only brought it on upon himself. I wonder if he calls himself an academic. I hope his ideas, and his statements are not a reflection on AFTRS, because if it does, then it is shameful and disgraceful. We all look forward to short films created by Mike Jones, or maybe not.

  • david hoyle on 03.25.11 @ 8:30AM

    A good piece. The vitriol of the comments it provoked suggests that it is right and timely to discuss this. It excites the innate conservatism of creative people, and must be good for that reason alone. More still could be said on the common introversion of the short, and their tendency to the solpicistic. It may be unfair to expect most 18- to 21-years olds to have much to say about the world, yet its does seem slightly wasteful to encourage them to use one of the most powerful media ever developed to produce, and aspire to produce, just short fictions. There are serious limitations – as is well argues here – to the short as both teaching tool and exemplar: but a more serious reservation seems to me to arise from its confirmation that our new media practitioners should aim for nothing beyond fiction. Film, and TV more so, can do so much more than that.

  • I keep enjoying good news share getting online for free grant applications therefore i happen to be looking around for the very best site to obtain one.

  • Vincent Galiano on 08.25.11 @ 2:47AM

    NOT a good article. He’s only talking about advertising and audience. That’s stupid, a filmmaker shouldn’t think of it. A real filmmaker should be an artist, not a seller.

  • Over here you have shared about the film making course and the information about the institutes. According to me this article has many points which are very helpful for us to know more about the film making courses and career.

  • Thx for writing & posting this, ‘helps me alot. Thx for the comments/responses everyone. Lotsa food for thought.

  • I think Mike is right. Most short films cannot reflect the elements needed to make a feature. Sustaining charaterisations, structure over 90min. or more is quite a different pie.One cannot learn these by making only short films. You need to make feature films to be a feature film maker. I use shorts as means of exploration of themes and ideas.Not for festivals or showcasing in a formal manner. Eventually some of these explorations feed into my feature film stories and screenplays.

  • I happen to be in agreement mostly here with Mike’s article. I started with a short film but my intention was to do my web series which of course came next (Day Zero the series). My pilot (here: is 23 minutes long, which sets the course of our episodes, of which we have 10 for season 1, so it’ll clock in at around 220+ hours total (bang for your buck!). We’re drama and sci-fi, giving us an edge, so character development is important to us, that’s why it fits the half hour TV slot unlike most web series. But I started it because of the sustaining factor, as we get a lot more experience than one short :)

  • Hi I come back to this site once again because it makes me think outside the box. There is a whole idea that just by making shorts, or even just shooting any kind of films, a filmmaker will become a regular feature film maker. I don’t think that happens usually. Short films as a form are not really the gate way to making long features. Whats more self funding can only work so much. At the end of day what is required is to learn to negotiate financial matters for a project. Whether its a short or feature or even a documentary, a filmmaker should try to involve more partners both for creative, financial support and ultimately distribution. Thats the crux of becoming a filmmaker making films which will be screened and distributed. The more one learns to cooperate, the more it becomes possibile to make bigger and bigger projects.

  • I was not going to waste my time commenting on this article, but it made me so angry that I could not leave without putting in my two cents. First of all I am a FIRM believer in short film making! The short film is alive and well. There are many companies online including Ouat Media that specialize in the distribution of short film. You could say that the short film is a separate form of artistic expression all to itself, just as theater is different than film. There is no reason to put down the short film! I believe that the standard method of feature film and TV production is riddled with inefficiency and wastes time and money. Notice that the author of this blog has not listed any feature films or television shows that he has directed or produced. So I think what we have here is someone who just writes and thinks and has little to no experience in the actual field of film production or distribution. He is probably too busy playing video games to produce any films himself! In short this blog is a list of personal opinions which may or may not have real world relevance. I am sure the web series has many possibilities, but the traditional ways of making films are antiquated and with all the new technology the entire way films are made will be changing. So this author would spend his time better actually MAKING MOVIES instead of just making up unfounded and arrogant opinions if the film industry!

  • Interesting article. It definitely got me thinking, and apparently many others on here as well.

    I really enjoyed your article Mr. Jones, and I thought long and hard about it. I actually think the days of the full length feature film may be numbered. I think people’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.

    I see short, “bite sized” bits of entertainment as the entire future. But until it happens, who knows? What I do know is that working on short films has been a great learning experience for me personally. You have to learn to crawl before you can walk, and so on…


  • Great post Mike,

    It seems nowadays most people are ready for the future and embracing the digital era and whatever technology is offering in terms of hardware and software, on the other hand, thinking is think kind’a analog I guess.
    Most indie’s still think a short film in a few festivals means a big deal. God forbit putting it online and ruin the exclusivity of the big screen and the small audience.

    The fact is, having the biggest audience possible in the tip of your finger is a blessing for anyone trying to show some creative work and most of us aren’t using that in our advantage.

    Maybe web-series is not were I would go, but I think we should make the most of our digital/virtual distribution options.

  • I disagree with the arcticle. I think most of the greatest directors made only short films, commercials or music videos before their feature debutes. Not everyone is like Robert Rodriguez :) On the contrary, I think there are more famous directors who started their careers thanks to their short films.

  • web series …
    A better calling card or not ….?
    It can be or not .
    And like jones i think this is a better way to practice yourself for features .
    Thanks for post Jones

  • Correct or not, Mike seems to have hit the nail and started a GREAT discussion. Most, however, are missing the point of Mike’s article. He is discussing the short film in relation to a feature film CAREER. Mike is not discussing the merits of the short as an art form but rather saying that a web series can SELL your abilities best with regards to a studio looking for a PROFESSIONAL FEATURE FILM DIRECTOR.

  • This money-grabbing, artistically bankrupt attitude is why I would never go to a school like AFTRS. Mike seems to forget that filmmaking is an art form and should be about creative expression above anything else. The short film is a valid format, and perhaps if the staff at AFTRS worried more about creative competency and less about career-expedience then we wouldn’t have such a hollow and disappointing industry here in Australia.

    • If you do films as an art form – fine, but just face the consequences, you`ll most likely make no living out of it. But most people who do shorts do it just because of that, they want and something to fill their refridgerators and pay the rent.

  • Definitely agree they are different beasts and because you can make an engaging 5 minutes, it doesn’t mean you can do it over 90 …but short films are bigger than ever. Accomplished feature filmmakers such as Lynne Ramsay are making shorts as a creative output, she just won the Bafta for best short only a few days ago. The internet and branded content mean short films are in demand more than ever. Websites are commissioning more than ever. Newspapers are commissioning more than ever. Major channels like Channel 4 and the BBC are now taking them seriously and commissioning them. If big names commission you to make shorts, people will take note and hear you out for other projects including longer form. That is my experience anyway

  • Mike’s not the first person to argue the limited value of a short – and I honestly believe after a couple there is little point unless you like them as an form. Hal Hartley for one seems to.
    But for people whom cant or dont want to pay the considerable amount for AFTRS courses it is an excellent basic training format.
    I thought Mike was leading up to advocating making DV features (regardless of initial awfulness – you will improve with each one) given the prohibitive cost of film stock, development and telecine is no longer neccesary.
    That would have been a plausible argument – and how my organization trains – a couple of shorts so you dont break things then off to featureland/
    But No – lets make mini tv series to break into feature film ! What have you been taking mate?.
    Oh I see – aftrs is now teaching web series courses .. – ah like to say job well done but not really.

  • People should be making works of art for their own sake and not strategising to get to make something bigger with money. No wonder the film industry is so dire. The mentality prevalent, even among short film makers is so conservative and panders so much to perceived “successfull” sensibilities that its cringeworthy. I can hardly bear to watch short films at festivals these days so sick am i at the trite twee PC conformism that the majority espouse. Most film makers should go out and get some character before inflicting their quaint middle class views on the world.

  • This is really untrue. I personally know two individuals who have secured representation through directing short films within the last 2-3 years. Admittedly, these films were relatively well-budgeted and extremely professionally executed, but the idea that short films are useless for a young filmmaker is ridiculous. Both of these filmmakers have made major career breakthroughs due to these shorts. The bottom line is that if the content is excellent then there is an audience for it, especially in the age of Vimeo.

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