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How to Make a Living With Short Films: 4 Questions Filmmakers Need To Be Asking Themselves

"Exposure" is a free, essential guide that is a must read for anyone considering making a short film.

A student looks through a cardboard box in the shape of a video film camera during a cinema class by Alicia Vega as part of her Children's Film Workshops at a school in the Penalolen neighborhood in Santiago, Chile, . Vega, who started teaching cinema to children 27 years ago, says film has a uniquely transformative power: "My intention was never for them to become filmmakers, but for them to become better human beings, to discover themselves," says Vega, who recently documented her life's work in a book titled "Film Workshop for Children," so that others might be inspired to follow her leadChile Shantytown Filmaker, Santiago, Chile

A student looks through a cardboard camera in Santiago, Chile

Luis Hidalgo/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Making a short film is a common first step to starting a creative career in film. However, too many filmmakers put all of their attention into the short itself without considering how they plan to get their work seen, or catch the attention of a key influencer, online platform, movie journalist or agent who can help them take the next step.

There’s no easy way to exhibit a short film in an expanding world of festivals and online outlets. The answer is often dependent on every filmmaker’s goals. It’s a daunting and sometimes costly process, which is why it’s easy to understand why so many people focus on making the best film possible. But taking a “let the chips fall where they may” approach simply doesn’t cut it in a competitive landscape. Sundance alone received 8,740 short film submissions for this year’s fest.

With so many factors to consider and different paths to go down, the new guide to short film exhibition, distribution and marketing from the Random Acts Network is a vital resource. “Exposure” is a comprehensive 45-page PDF that walks filmmakers through the key questions they need to be asking themselves – using their goals for making a short as a starting point – to help identify the best potential options and take concrete, bullet-point action steps.

The Random Acts Network is a collection of British organization tasked with developing young artists

This is an absolute must-download and read for anybody even just considering make a short film, but here are four key takeaways          m.

Why Are You Making a Short?

Shorts can be a great stepping stone, but identifying the direction you want to take is an important factor that can dictate budget, length and exhibition strategy. Is this short a way to develop skills and grow as filmmaker? Is this project a proof of concept to make a longer, feature-length version of the story? Or is the goal to establish yourself in the industry as a rising new talent? You should develop a festival strategy and how to allocate your resources by identifying your ambitions and being honest about where you are with the quality of your work.

How Long Should Your Short Be?

There are number of great directors who broke into the industry by making a stunning 15 to 25 minute film, but making a longer short severely limits the ability for it to be programmed at a top festival. As Sundance shorts programmer Katie Metcalfe points out in the guide: “Anything over 20 minutes in length is potentially taking the place of two to three other films, so it needs to very strong.” Meanwhile films under 10 minutes are not only easier fits for a short programmers, they can also be paired as the opener to a feature length film at festival. Shorter length films are also consumed at greater rate online – increasing your chances of getting on a top platform – in addition to just being cheaper to make.

How Do You Build an Effective Online Presence?

Building an online identity for a short can start with posting stills from the first day of production. Also, if the goal is to be discovered, it’s important that people can find you. You’ll also want to arm your audience with accessible tools to learn more. These are all no-brainers: a website with striking imagery from the film, a short trailer (10% the length of the movie), short bio and directors statement, press kits, social media links and email capture (sign up for updates/newsletter). It’s also worth getting creative based on your strengths. Proud of your sound design? Embed Soundcloud links and show how you built such an effective soundscape. You can leave a strong impression with a trail of online resources, deepening people’s instinct that you are a talent worth watching and serious about your career.

How Do Your Craft a Proper Festival Strategy?

Trying to get into Sundance is not an effective strategy, unless you are fortunate enough to be one of the less than .7% accepted. Building a proper festival strategy takes research and time, but will pay dividends. The Exposure guide goes over how the right strategy is based on a number of factors: Eligibility, deadlines, how much you are willing to spend on submissions, categories and genres offered, whether your film looks like it belongs with the festival’s other shorts, prioritizing opportunities over the film’s life span (12-24 months), importance of awards and presence of industry influencers. And finally, if you get in, will you be able to attend the festival?

Hat tip to Short of the Week for first highlighting the Exposure guide.

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