You are a writer/director either about to shoot or have just finished shooting your latest short film, and you want it to get on the Oscar shortlist or into Sundance. Well first of all, to even get on the Academy Awards shortlist or in a major festival you need to think about how you can make the best film possible. Below is a list of things you must do to make your film shine, from pre-production to the copy you send out.
Get my short film into the Oscars
By taking this step you are already ‘Thinking Big’ and are aiming for the highest goal humanly possible, and with the patience, the determination and the foresight to make it happen. Let’s get started.
1. Amazing written concept
Your story, your framework must be unique, original, clever, funny, socially intriguing, inspiring to a group of people, a social commentary that sheds light on humanity, a strong character piece, and much more.
There are many kinds of stories you can come up with, but originality is key, along with strong characters. You don’t need huge prologues and excessive character development, but through simplicity you can create something magical. Remember, ‘a simple idea is often a blueprint to genius.’
2. Genius storytelling
You have an incredible story that no one has ever heard, and the world must hear, but it has to be put into a screenplay, a plan of action, or a set of cards with instructions. Some of you reading this will be thinking that a pack of cards with your scenes written out sounds unprofessional and ludicrous, however some of the most entertaining short films have been created from that process. Don’t forget, the average time for a short film is 7-10 minutes, so when it comes to dialogue, establishing scenery, the time of day, and so on, don’t take 2 pages to tell us where we are.
3. Good acting
Why not great acting? Films often have a combination of average and good acting but sometimes this category alone is not the most important to qualify for a major festival or Oscar nod. However, great acting is going to be hugely beneficial to you, but watch out as great acting can get dismissed if the story is incomprehensible or just poorly conceived.
Some films are awarded solely on a technical level, but should you be aiming for the best performances from your actors, ensure they understand the story.
4. Great sound design and soundtrack
Sound is so unbelievably important that it becomes a drag for most writer/directors who overlook this crucial but fundamental rule of importance. Bad sound will get you nowhere, and you might need to dub your actors because the 747 you heard taking off next to you drowned out the sound. Also, if you drop sound, have inconsistent audio levels, or are just not getting good consistent sound quality, sort that out. There is nothing more irritating in life than bad sound when watching a professionally made movie.
On top of that, with great music comes that emotional depth that boosts your film to a new level, so try to bring on a composer early on in your film’s history.
5. Strong cinematography
Image is important, but not as important as sound. You need to convey story through image, and it should be original, colourful, or B&W with style, and with great framing. Just don’t forget to light it properly. This will bring your standard to a new high, so aim for it if you can. Films that shine have a combination of great sound, storytelling and unique visual aesthetics.
6. Flawless editing
There is no point making a film if you don’t get it edited properly. You can have the best sound, image, acting and story, but if your editor puts your HD film and renders it 4:3 your life is over.
Editing is the foundation of all your technical elements coming together. Editing depicts story from a technical standpoint, and your visual style. It also shows your ability to create suspense, intrigue, sadness, happiness and even boost the on-screen acting. Acting, is after all open to manipulation from an editor’s point of view.
7. A short film promotion budget
Promotion? What is that? It’s only the most important thing after you finish your film. Do you want it to sit on your shelf, or worse, on your hard drive? You need to get it out there. If you planned to spend all your money on your short film without thinking about what happens after you finish it, then unfortunately you have done what 80% of filmmakers do.
Make sure you have money to make DVD copies, and for festival fees to get your film out there.
8. Don’t give up after one film festival
If you think you have made it big with your one festival screening think again. It takes more than one festival to break out, even if you are getting selected in a big film festival, you need to create that success several times over so that people can recognise who you are.
9. Send your film to more than 5 festivals (and Oscar qualifying festivals)
Sending your short film to 5 festivals will most likely get you 1 or 0 selections. Its a tough market, and there are many like you just sending it out 24/7. Make a commitment to at least 10 or 15 to get 2 or 3 selections at the minimum. Success pays, but you need to pay to have the chance to succeed. Your $15 entry to the super famous film festival in your town could lead to you earning $15 million in a few years time, so don’t underestimate that small cost.
10. Get buzz for your film
Your film needs more than cold festival entries to ensure its success. Get reviews in journals, even indie ones. More eyeballs reading about your film means more interest in it. Get as much publicity for it as possible. Use social media, youtube (30 second trailers only) and all the free tools out there. Create a following to your movie.
The successful short filmmaker
Your success is determined by how far you go to make things as good as possible. In a perfect world nothing is close to perfect, but getting good at what you do, and doing your best to ensure that your film is produced to the highest standard will result in big rewards. Take time, don’t rush, and take a close look at this top 10 list. Our list is not perfect, but it’s a simple guide that covers the major areas of improvement needed to make a great short.
Short films that won awards
Below is a short list of exceptional films that have that something special, with a unique concept, great visual storytelling and more:
‘Cinnamon Chaser’ – A superb music video that won the SXSW music festival and entered the 2010 Vimeo Awards short list.
‘Stanley Pickle‘ – A short animation film that won the McLaren Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the LA Film Festival and many more
‘Logorama‘ – The 2010 Academy Award winning short animation from French production team H5
Recommended reading for short filmmakers
Why not check out our other guides on Film Industry Network to help you in your filmmaking careers?
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