1. Your script is the real star; don’t rush it.
Development of the script for “The Landing” was initially a slow process. The major reason for this was our excruciatingly long search for a location that simply didn’t exist and the very real concern that we may not be able to raise the budget to pull off the American setting. What this did for my producer/co-writer Jade van der Lei and me, however, was give us time to develop the script further than we might have had the money or locations fallen into our laps earlier. Many young and hungry filmmakers (present company included) are excited to get out and shoot, but if you’re going to do anything that requires a budget and multiple days of unpaid technicians’ time on set, you really want to make sure the film’s foundation is strong.
2. Use VFX to break down geographical barriers.
Sci-fi and visual effects usually go hand in hand in a very obvious way — but in our case, our use was far less so. As mentioned above, the biggest hurdle in the production of “The Landing” was definitely the fact that we were trying to make an American-set film in Australia. Initially, we were so intimidated by the thought of trying to fake American landscapes and architecture in Australia, but then it dawned on us that multi-million dollar Hollywood films do it all the time with the productions that they shoot out here. Fortunately for us, we didn’t need an excessive budget, as we were able to make use of the leftover scraps from one of these films, namely Bryan Singer’s 2006 film “Superman Returns.” Repurposing a gorgeous barn that had been built for the Kent Farm sequence in the film, we had found a unique slice of architectural Americana but we knew there would need to be extensive visual effects work undertaken as the “Superman” production team burned down the surrounding farmhouse set leaving the barn a lone structure in a field. In the end, we created the farmhouse from scratch as a combination of matte painting and set builds, which, composited together with the barn, gave us a complete faux farm. It was a huge effort (with upwards of 50 VFX shots), but aside from physically building these structures in Australia or traveling to the U.S., we simply had no other option but to fake it.
3. Don’t be afraid of editors who are ruthlessly honest and opinionated.
Every director knows how easy it is to get attached to lines of dialogue, shots and sometimes even entire sequences that can become superfluous in the context of the film that is emerging in the edit room. We can go into a sphere of denial, but eventually, we’ve got to see reason either on our own, or from others. Before The Landing, I cut my own work. It was something that felt more of a measure of control than anything, but on this one I knew the end product would benefit from a lack of self-placation. Our Editor was direct and unwilling to have his opinions dismissed easily. He made me fight for every decision that went against his in the best possible way. Editors should be strong in skill and voice. Without both, the magic that is collaboration is void.
4. Beware the “Great Wall of Fifteen Minutes.”
The festival circuit is ruthless in its subjectivity. There are so many reasons why your film might not be a fit for a particular festival, but what I believe to be the biggest hurdle is the running time. For some festivals, including Cannes, there is a very clear regulation that no short film can exceed 15 minutes to be considered for the festival. I believe, however, that this wall exists to some degree at all film festivals, even if their regulations allow running times beyond it. Just imagine you’re a programmer. You’ve got five films that you absolutely love, and 20 minutes to fill in the program. One of these films is 20 minutes long, and the other four are just as strong, but have varying lengths between 5 and 15 minutes. What are you going to do? The Landing for example is 18 minutes long. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that festival programmers questioned whether our film was worth programming over a 10 minute AND an eight minute short film, and that this was a deciding factor behind our festival rejections. The reality is that once you cross that 15-minute line, your chances of festival acceptance is likely going to take a hit of some kind. Be prepared if you’re going to attempt to climb this perilous wall.
5. Second Life: Release your film online.
Seven days after our online release, “The Landing” has been watched approximately 20 times more than the numbers of viewers at the 50+ film festivals we screened at over its year long festival run. I believe that the best way to treat an online release is as if it’s your own, self-distributed cinema release. What worked for us was hitting short film curation websites like Short Of The Week and FilmShortage. With Short Of The Week (SOTW) especially, we found an incredible launch pad to elevate the film to their readers, which included Vimeo staff members. This resulted in “The Landing” becoming a Vimeo Staff Pick and then pushed us out further. From there, a series of emails to blogs in addition to others hearing about the film from SOTW or Staff Picks led to us racking up views via articles on Gizmodo, The Verge and io9. The best advice would be to not let the internet audience do all the work, and that you need to do the legwork that a distributor would normally do by reaching out to people and self-promoting the film. Use whatever success it’s had on the festival circuit to your advantage. We won a few awards at festivals, even qualifying as one of the shorts up for Academy Award short-listing this year, which might have helped bloggers make the decision to take 18 minutes out of their day and consider us for an article. It must also be said that a long short will find even more difficulty online than on the festival circuit, as the 15-minute wall lowers into a 10-minute one. To some, double digits on the minutes counter can look exhausting as hell.
Watch the film below:
Hailing from Brisbane, Australia, writer/director Josh Tanner’s filmmaking endeavors include “The Foal” (2010 – official selection Palm Springs ShortFest, Brooklyn FF) and “The Landing” (2013), an ambitious Retro Sci-Fi short film, which made its world debut and took Best Short Film at the 46th Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival, qualifying it for the 2015 Academy Awards. The film went on to screen at over 50 film festivals worldwide, and win a total of 11 awards at festivals including the Rhode Island and Cleveland International Film Festivals. Josh is currently in development on a feature adaptation of “The Landing” and a supernatural thriller titled, “Contact Lost.”
READ MORE: Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Ignore Short Films at Festivals