How Long Should Your Short Be?
By Benjamin Craig | 14-Mar-2012
How long should your short be? An interesting question. Obviously this is determined to a large degree by the story you are trying to tell, and the way in which you want to tell it. But if you are hoping to also have your film reach the widest possible audience, the length of your film should also be set with the restrictions and realities of the potential outlets in mind.
Generally, there are two two of short films when it comes to running time: the short short (under 5 minutes) and the long short (5-15 minutes). Plenty of shorts run for longer than this, but if your film is clocking in much over 20 minutes, it runs the risk of finding itself in a no-mans land where it's too long for most short outlets, but too short to be a feature or for television. So unless your material is Earth-shatteringly good, it's best to keep a short film's running time under 15 minutes.
Here are the main reasons why:
Festivals. As a short filmmaker, festivals represent the single most important channel for getting your work in front of an audience. The vast majority of festivals will only consider shorts up to 15 minutes (and sometimes up to 20 minutes). There are of course some events which will accept longer shorts, but more often than not, these are marginal events which won't provide the best platform for your work. Almost none of the big festivals accept shorts which are over 15 minutes long, so films with longer running times suddenly have an extremely restricted festival outlook.
Buyers. Although there isn't much money to be made in short films, there are still a couple of dedicated short film distributors who are able to place quality shorts with buyers in various parts of the world. In almost all cases, shorts which actually return some money to the the filmmakers lean towards the sub-15 minute range, simply because the outlets which buy and show these films usually prefer the shorter shorts because they are easy to program alongside other content.
Audience. In many cases, your audience is going to be watching your film online, on television, or in another environment where full attention may not be given to the content. The longer the film, the more likely you will exceed the maximum attention span of your viewer.
Pacing. Just because you shot the footage, doesn't mean it needs to all make the final cut. Many shorts which land in the 20 minute plus range often don't actually need to be that long and the length ends up making the film feel dull and laborious. Very few short subjects warrant more than 20 minutes on screen so it's important to make objective editing decisions to ensure that the story is told cleanly and without any additional flab. Often some ruthlessly honest editing can turn a 20 minute yawner into a compelling 15 minute film. Don't be precious about the footage you shoot – edit for the story.
Cost. Funding short films is hard enough. The longer the running time, the more you will need to shoot, and the more you will need to spend doing so. If you are trying to make a 40 minute short, you'd be better off re-tooling the script into a 90 minute feature. It won't end up costing much more and the end product will suddenly have a place within a well-established market, and may actually have a chance of making its money back.
Awesome article Ben as always.