The Short-to-Feature Film Gap: why it’s important to cross carefully

By Bradley Stevens | Budgets

May 16

Do you know anyone who has sold a short film? I know only 1 person that has. Only one. They spent somewhere around $3000, submitted it to 80+ film festivals, and got 1 buyer. Germany bought the rights to screen the film god-knows-where, and what did they pay?

$650.

To the average businessperson, filmmaking is a stupid idea. Business people will make an assessment on the viability of a business based on ROI- “Return On Investment”. Making $650 off a $3000 investment is not smart business. That’s just over 21% revenue. That’s a 78% LOSS on investment. Ouch.

And most short film makers I know wouldn’t have the patience to submit to 80+ film festivals. Let’s not forget festival entry costs, too. It’s simply not sustainable. Imagine pitching this business model to The Dragons Den, or Shark Tank– any of those business investor TV shows.

The Value of Film

Here’s the bottom line: Long Form content is the only content that sells.

TV Shows- people will buy a whole season in one go on VOD (Video On Demand), or will consume a whole season on NetFlix, or other SVOD (Subscription Video On Demand) platform.

Films- People will go and pay $15 – $20 to see a film in the Cinema, or buy it on iTunes, or watch on a VOD platform.

Short films have no inherent monetary value. That doesn’t make them worthless. For a filmmaker, making short films is a necessary step to refining your craft, honing your artistic vision, and getting proficient at what you do. It can also earn you some credits, those festival laurels, and maybe an award here and there. All good things… but not suitable to sustaining a career.

If you want to sell your work, and have an income, and be able to attract budgets that let you have creative freedom, then you must create long form content.

The Chicken and the Egg

When I graduated university, I began applying for jobs. Jobs all said “Suits a graduate, must have 2+ years experience”. WHAT?! Graduates don’t have 2 years experience! You need experience to get the job, but you need the job to get experience! The chicken and the egg!

And it’s the same in the film business:

How does one acquire the money to make a feature film? Well, they prove they can create profits for film investors/ studios. How does one prove they can create profits? Make a feature film that sells.

This is the chicken and the egg syndrome all over again! Without money, you can’t make a film. Without a film, you can’t prove that you’re worth investing in! AAARGH!

What do you do?!

Well, in my job situation- I knew I had to break the cycle, and I succeeded. What did I do? I contacted one of the job placements that was hiring and then I offered to work for free, as an intern to gain experience. After doing this a month to the point that they relied on me, I explained I was running out of money and would have to go find a paying job. They immediately offered me one. I’d proven I was capable and worth their time and money.

You have to break the cycle. Same with breaking the film business.

That might mean applying for grants… but they usually want a proven track record of success from you first. Or you can win a competition to get production funds… which are highly competitive. Or you can do what the big budget filmmakers do– presell your film into different markets… but if you haven’t got a strong track record, that ain’t gonna happen.

Squeezing Through The Eye Of The Needle

So instead, you fight the uphill battle: You make long form, commercially viable, critically successful, content… for very little money. The Micro Budget Feature Film. And you won’t be the first person to do this:

Darren Aronofsky made his first film, ‘Pi’, with $60,000 collected through crowdfunding mostly from family and friends. Shot in black and white, with mates from Film School, the film sold for $3 million. Aronofsky was proven a commercial success, and it was easy for him to then get the money for his next films, including Academy Award winning film, Black Swan.

Christopher Nolan made his first film, ‘The Following’, on weekends with mates. Also shot in black and white, on a budget of $6000 (yes, you read that correctly). His film was accepted into multiple film festivals. Although he didn’t sell his film then, the critical success meant that producers/ investors trusted his talent enough to put together a budget of $2million for his next film, ‘Momento’.

Gareth Edwards made ‘Monsters’ in 2010. Although you’ll see it written that it cost $500k, it didn’t. The production budget was closer to $15k. The 2 main actors, director, cinematographer, soundie, editor and producer piled into a van and drove around Mexico, stopping at scenic places to shoot. Gareth Edwards then did the post-production visual effects from his laptop in his bedroom. It made $4.2 million, and then led Gareth Edwards to the position as director for ‘Godzilla’, where producers trusted him with a $160 million budget.

So- what about you? Make your short films, of course. But don’t be afraid to fight the uphill battle, as many successful filmmakers before you have, and make a micro budget feature film, that is commercially viable or critically successful.

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