How to write a short film - How long should a short film be?
Hello and welcome to my blog, where I offer simple and practical advice on how to write and make an interesting, engaging and hopefully successful short film.
In today‘s blog post I will be discussing how long your short film should be. Although maybe that should be; how short your short film should be.
Let‘s start with what your short film shouldn’t be - too long. After all it's called a short film for a reason. However, how long is too long?
Anything up to 30 minutes is usually considered to be a short film, while it is also sometimes defined as a film under 60 minutes long. However, I would highly recommend that you should be making short films that are considerably shorter than both 60 minutes and even 30 minutes.
I would recommend that, especially when first starting out, you should be aiming for a script of between 1 minute and 15 minutes in length. While, if you are writing your first short film, especially if you intend to make it yourself, I would suggest that you think about keeping it to under 10 minutes where possible.
(Remember when working out the length of your films in minutes, take the one page per minute rule into consideration. I wrote a post about that here: One page per minute.)
So what are the reasons that I, as well as many other people, will recommend that you try to keep your film to under 15 minutes and even under 10 minutes where possible.
First of all, if you are planning on either making the film yourself and/or if you looking for producers/directors/funders/etc to back you and help you to make your script into a film, then yes you need it to be interesting and ambitious but you also need it to be realistic and you need to try and remain pragmatic. One of the easiest ways to do this is to keep it short. In general, the longer your film, the harder and more expensive it is going to be to make. For example, it is very possible to shoot a 5-10 minute script in one day, while a 20+ minute short could take 2, 3, 4 or even more days to shoot and the longer the shoot, the longer you will need to pay cast, crew, equipment, loations etc.
Making a film, even a 5 minute short is hard! Done properly, the entire process of writing, pre-production, production and post production are going to mean putting in 100s of hours of time and effort. And it stands to reason that the longer the film, the more time and effort you will need to put in. Therefore, if you are new to filmmaking, especially if you are building towards making your first short, do yourself a favour and relieve yourself of some stress and keep your script short. In fact why not think about keeping your script simple by writing a script with just two characters and one location. Read more about that here.
These days people's attention spans are short and so your film should be too. I'm often more likely to watch two hours of back to back five minute videos on YouTube than I am to click on a video that is 20+ minutes long. So when it comes to sharing your film online, sometimes less is indeed more.
Many festivals put limits on the length of submissions. With many capping the length of a short at 20 minutes and some even shorter. Therefore, writing a script of under 15 minutes gives you a better chance of your film being eligible for more festivals. While it is also true many festivals place the limit at 30 minutes or even longer, it can still be very difficult to get a longer film into one these festivals.
As someone who has run short film screenings, I know first hand that it is difficult - if not impossible - to screen a 20+ minute film, when you only have 60-90 minutes of programable time. In order to include a longer film in your programme, it really does need to be top draw! Although I will try to include a great 20 minute short, I am unlikely to choose a good 20 minute film, when I could choose two good 10 minute films instead. This is because when curating film events, one of my motivations is to give the filmmakers a platform and ideally I am going to try and give as many filmmakers that opportunity as possible. So that's not to say I wouldn't and haven't shown films that are longer than 20 minutes, I have, but it is rare.
As well as festivals, some funding opportunities also put a limit on the length of your script. For example, this week my producer and I submitted a funding application to the BFI Network to part fund my short film The Lost Dog Detective Agency (wish us luck!) and they state quite clearly that they are only looking to fund short films of up to 15 minutes. I spoke with one of the talent execs a couple of weeks ago and he said that although they are open to reading scripts slightly longer than 15 pages, as part of the development process, they will be expecting the writer to be able to answer how they will shorten it to fit in with their requirements (of being under 15 minutes).
Now at this point, I also want to mention the other side of the coin. I think that it is important to also mention that the vast majority of films that have won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in recent years, have been over 20 minutes in length. While my personal favourite short film Fauve, which was nominated for the Short film Oscar at the 2019 Academy Awards, is around 16 and a half mounted long. So it can be done and it can be done very, very well.
However, unless you are at the stage of your career where you have the cast, crew and big budget required to help you mount a realistic challenge for an Oscar, I would highly recommend aiming to write and make a short film that is under 15 minutes long. From experience, and I have seen a lot of short films, I would say that the vast majority of films I have seen, that are 15-25 minutes in length, could easily have been edited down to around 12-15 minutes and would be better films if they were. But talk of editing, feedback and asking people to read your scripts are all topics for another day.
So how long is too long? Like most things, it's fairly subjective but in order to give yourself the best chances of writing and making a short film that is going to have a decent festival run and/or achieve respectable numbers of views online, I would recommend keeping that short to under 10 minutes where you can and certainly under 15 minutes.
And just to prove that I do occasionally practice what I preach. The runtimes for my trilogy of short films are letters 8min30sec, waiting 11min26sec, Scrable 13min30sec. So my first short film is under 10 minutes and the following two are under 15 minutes.
Those are my thoughts on how long or indeed short your short film script should be. I hope that you found this post helpful. Let me know what you think in the comments below and be sure to check out my YouTube videos. In my next blog I will be looking at the topic of the Three act structure.