When making a short film, you should follow this general rule: make your film as brief as possible without taking away from it. In the short film world, nothing is better than a work that keeps you engaged and can move you in mere minutes.
Keep in Mind Time Restrictions
One thing to keep in mind is time restrictions that come with film festivals, grant applications, and more. For example, here at The Film Fund, your short film time must be no longer than 15 minutes.
At Tribeca Film Festival, the short film time can be no longer than 40 minutes. At the Sundance Film Festival, the short film time can be no longer than 50 minutes. At many other film festivals, though, the short film time cap may be placed at 20 or 30 minutes. Also, even when the maximum short film length is permitted to be so long, that does not mean you should take up all of that time. Usually, even when it is permitted, film festivals accept very few films that would reach a 40 minute runtime. After all, for every 40 minute film that is accepted, eight 5 minute films could have been selected and screened instead.
Deciding How Long a Short Film Is
If you want to write the script for a story that you know will be a short film, but you are totally unsure of how long you want to make it, you should simply decide on a default short film length that you can work towards. This length should probably be around 10 minutes. The 10 minute range is just enough to allow for the audience to get to know the personalities for the characters involved, and to allow for character development and for detailed storylines to play out.
As you write your film with this in mind, you can then recognize if your film can be cut down, or if it must be a longer-form project. A film that was originally intended to be 10 minutes long can end up being 5 minutes or 15 minutes, which yields two completely different viewing experiences. But this can be determined afterwards. When you write, simply focus on having an excellent story. Just remember the following rule of thumb: every page of your screenplay will amount to roughly one minute of screentime.
Daniel Sol, director of the HollyShorts Film Festival, says, “if the story is complete … then it doesn’t matter the length …. It does help to have shorter films. If the film’s really good, and it’s short, that’s going to be easier to program.”
There is also the consideration of narrative shorts versus documentary shorts. Documentary shorts tend to run longer because they must provide a decently-comprehensive view of the subject matter being addressed. Narrative shorts can end dramatically and mysteriously, without full introductions and conclusions and without tying up loose ends. Documentaries don’t work in such a way.
Sundance Film Festival programmer Mike Plante said about longer short films, “you start introducing plot points, characters, and a feeling like you are watching a feature… and then you gotta end the film. Almost always something about the plot is unfulfilled, or something about the characters is starting to grow, and then the film ends.”
Plante also spoke about the distinction between narrative shorts and documentary shorts, saying, “You can tell a complete story arc in a documentary inside 20 minutes, unlike a narrative film. It’s just a different type of film language.”
Budgeting Your Short Film
Your short film length might also have to depend on your budget. On average, production costs for a short film range between $700 and $1,500 per minute. The difference between a 5 minute short film and a 15 minute short film could thus be a difference of $7,000 to $15,000.
How to Cut Down Your Short Film Length
It’s easy to get carried away and make your short film longer than you intended it to be. You might have to go back into your script (or if you’re already in post-production, then into your film) and cut down material. You will likely either be cutting down dialogue, or removing scenes.
Cutting Down Dialogue
Dialogue can easily become unnecessarily long. If you’re looking to shorten your film by cutting down dialogue, try to get rid of the following examples.
If your characters are saying the same thing multiple times, cut out these extra mentions. Being overly repetitive is not only bad for keeping your film short, but also simply bad for the viewing experience.
Avoid including dialogue that doesn’t need to be explicitly told to the viewers. Viewers have good imaginations and can piece together things not explicitly told to them. Try to start each scene late and leave early. This can help cut out the introductions and conclusions of conversations, which can be a bore to viewers. Likewise, if any dialogue can be replaced with an action that conveys the same meaning to the viewers, cut the dialogue and let the information be conveyed visually. Remember: show, don’t tell. Dialogue should be a window into your characters, not a form of pseudo-narration through which you describe events to the viewers.
Speaking of dialogue being a window into your characters, if the dialogue doesn’t reveal anything about your characters, consider cutting it. Dialogue doesn’t always have to reveal very much about the characters. It can even be as subtle as a manner of speaking that highlights a bit of the character’s personality. But if there are stretches of dialogue that show the viewers nothing about the characters and which could have been said by any other person, then the dialogue should be made more interesting or removed entirely.
Finally, consider removing dialogue that doesn’t at all relate to the central question. If it’s entertaining and helps the viewer understand characters better, that’s not bad. However, in a short film you have limited time to tell a story. Above all, you must make sure your story doesn’t suffer because of your short film time restrictions.
There are always some exceptions to these rules. If one line of dialogue doesn’t propel the story forward but is clever, then feel free to keep it in. Overall, though, as you look through your script, you should be looking out for these four types of unnecessary dialogue. Your final product should be a film composed only of necessary and well-thought-out parts.
Sometimes, you’ll have to go beyond cutting dialogue and start cutting entire scenes. Removing scenes is a difficult process. Often, filmmakers become attached to their work and feel like all of the scenes are necessary to the film. However, even if certain scenes feel necessary, that might not actually be the case.
When looking through your short film, you must ask yourself about each scene: What’s the purpose of this scene? Does this scene relate to the central question of the film? Does this scene propel the film forward?
With scenes, you must be even more critical than with your dialogue. A few clever lines of dialogue that lack clear purpose can be tolerated. However, having a single scene that lacks clear purpose, doesn’t relate to the central question, or doesn’t propel the film forward, is a major issue. There is simply no room for such scenes in a short film.
You can also try to seek outside opinions about which scenes can be removed. External voices can be helpful, because they weren’t involved in production and thus don’t have the same attachment to the project and can be impartial.
Finally, remember the amount of scenes that can fit in your short film. Scenes usually range between one and three minutes. In a short film, though, you can get away with having some scenes that last a little under a minute. This means that even in longer short films which last around 15 minutes long, you could end up with only about 15 scenes. Always keep this in mind as you go forward with writing the script for your short film.
These rules also apply, albeit in a different way, to documentary short films. In your short documentary, you will have some central ideas that you want to convey about your documentary subject. Scenes that are peripheral to these central ideas should potentially be omitted from your final product.
For more tips about writing a short film script, read this blog about the subject.
Micro Short Films
All of the above advice about short films applies primarily to conventional narrative short films. However, there is not just one type of short film. There is a category of film that is even shorter: micro short films (also known as super short films or short short films).
These films usually last only about one minute long.
Micro short films require their own style of filmmaking entirely. When making a micro short film, you must make sure you’re doing things at an appropriate scale. In regular short films, you can cover almost any topic. You simply must scale down the complexity. However, with micro short films, most topics are simply out of the question, because they are impossible to flesh out in just a minute or two.
In regular short films, you can let scenes unfold naturally. But in micro short films, every successive shot should reveal something new plot wise to the viewer.
In the 2020s, it is a better time than ever to make and promote micro short films. The meteoric rise of TikTok has shown that on a mass scale, people love short, clever content.
Many film festivals cater specifically to this category of film. The Tres Court International Film Festival is dedicated to films that are no longer than four minutes. The Austin Micro Film Festival is dedicated to films that are no longer than six minutes. Also, festivals designated for short films usually have a micro short category. Examples of these include the Los Angeles Short Film Festival and Blackbird Film Festival.
Aspen ShortsFest, a popular Oscar-qualifying short film festival, even has a 30 Seconds and Under Short Video Challenge. Being able to convey a story in such a short film length is a very impressive talent.
Writing a short film has its own challenges. Many people don’t even know much about how long is a short film. But if you follow the above advice, you should be on your way to having the right short film length.
If you’d like to learn more about the structure of short films and how they differ from feature films, check out the Film Fund’s blog post about the subject. And if you’re looking for funding for your short film, remember to check out The Film Fund’s contest for the chance to receive up to $10,000.