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By Admin | May 16, 2011

Why didn’t my awesome short film get me that dream career?

I just spoke at Steve Montal’s class at San Diego State this week – where The Indie Film Rule Book is a textbook for the class – and I was shocked to find out how many students are planning on making a feature over the summer: 1!!!

Most of them had made short films during the semester and all of them had supposedly read my book and yet only one girl, Kelly Urig, was planning on making a feature this summer! What the hell?!!!

Come on, kids, you have all the resources at your fingertips, and most of them are free!

Why is it so important that you make a feature?

Here’s the deal, sadly short films just aren’t taken as seriously as features. There are just too many of them out there. You make a great short film and you’re among thousands, you make a great feature and there are only a handful each year.

Plus, automatically by just making a feature, you stand out. Not to mention you can potentially make money for yourself and/or your film.

Yes, there are exceptions. Sometimes someone makes a fantastic short film and they are suddenly directing a big budget feature with name actors – but this is very very rare and generally these short filmmakers have done something so outstanding that everyone knows about them and their film by the time they’ve gotten their deal to direct their studio film with stars.

Normally here’s what happens:

  1. You make a good short film.
  2. You get into some good festivals and have some good screenings.
  3. You are treated a little like a second-class citizen at festivals where there are feature films.
  4. You are not given airfare or hotel rooms.
  5. You spend way too much of your own money to get to festivals just to try and meet the 3 people in attendance who might care about working with short filmmakers.
  6. When you meet them even they don’t care that much.
  7. You watch your friends who have made features get agents and managers and other deals.
  8. You get bitter and jealous.
  9. You make another short film and try again.
  10. You watch your friends who made features start their careers, getting meetings and pitching.
  11. You make a great short film that starts the circuit again.

Here’s what happens when you make your feature:

  1. You use your favors to push just a little harder to organize and shoot a feature film.
  2. You spend more time cutting your film, than your short filmmaking friends.
  3. But you get into the same festivals, because your film is good.
  4. You go to those festivals and you get some press.
  5. You meet agents and managers. Some care, some don’t.
  6. You meet producers who want to make movies with you in the future because they trust that you can pull off a good feature film.
  7. You come back to LA and listen to your friends who are short filmmakers complaining about being overlooked at the festivals. And you know some of them are even better writers and directors than you are.
  8. You start pitching and eventually get other jobs.
  9. You watch you short filmmaker friends doing the circuit again while you go into production on another feature.

Here’s the thing, you need to already be making the kind of films you want to make to get people to let you make more of that kind of film. So if you want to direct short films for the rest of your life, keep directing short films. I you want to direct features, start directing them now.

I know the idea of directing 90 minutes of material can seem overwhelming, but it’s really not much more overwhelming than directing a short.

Just doesn’t make sense to limit your opportunities when you don’t have to. You have enough people in your class to use for favors, and then to do favors for, and the feature doesn’t really have to cost that much more money.

Start with Kickstarter. And as Steve reminded you in class, set a start date, get your film made!

No, I don’t hate short films or short filmmakers. I actually think there are some amazing shorts and that short filmmakers often find ways to do amazingly beautiful and innovative things with shorts, in a way that they might not be able to do with features. And yes, I do think there are some stories that can only be told in a short format. I just don’t want you to limit your opportunities while you have your shot right now.

Heidi Van Lier is a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. She has directed 3 feature films, with another one on the way. Her first film, Chi Girl, won the Slamdance Film Festival in 1999. She has written a film school textbook called The Indie Film Rule Book, available on She has been a programmer for the Slamdance Film Festival, and on juries and panels at countless festivals around the country. She has an expensive 8-year-old daughter, send help.

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  1. Vaughn says:

    This is a how-to that should have the following disclaimer:


    Almost no feature films, that anyone outside of those areas can afford to make, have the production value to get approved for a theatrical run and become a hit. People win the lottery every day, they get bit by sharks, but only once every ten years does a Blair Witch come along.

  2. Roberta Munroe says:

    My dear,

    I agree with you – there are some filmmakers who would fare better making a low budget feature than a short. But, like with anything, they are the exception rather than the rule.
    Let me add to this conversation that I have clients who have only made a short film or two, who have agents and/or managers, who are being told by them that they “need to make another short that displays that they can accomplish X,Y & Z” before they will be taken seriously as a feature director contender.
    Like doing the festival circuit isn’t for every filmmaker or film, neither is forgoing the short film route to make a feature.
    I’m of the 10,000 hour school of creativity: Spend the time honing your craft as an artist and you will be richly rewarded. You will also be provided with the reality that: You’re either talented in this field or you’re not.
    Why not find this out at the budget, time & resources level of a short film over a 3 day shoot rather than the quite arduous 3 week shoot/1 year post & distribution level?

    I’ve watched over 15,000 shorts, at least 2000 features, made 4 of my own short films and produced 6 of other directors. And what I’ve learned is that NOT every person who wants to make a film has the talent and/or skill set to make a good one (or even a watchable one). You might be a great storyteller but have ZERO skills directing actors, managing a crew, communicating with your producer or editor and all the other skills a DIRECTOR needs to succeed.

    Better to find that out with a $10k budget that you can repay in a year or so rather than a $100k one that has you hiding from your friends and family. IndieGoGo, Kickstarter and the others best work (as the numbers bear out) in the $10-$30k arena. I’ve seen a number of failed campaigns where filmmakers attempted to raise over $50k – a pretty moderate budget to make a feature with.

    Heidi, you would have to agree that the number of micro-budget features has significantly increased in the last 5 years (Sundance is getting somewhere around 3,000 feature submissions annually). So your odds as a micro budget feature filmmaker are now in the same arena as those you would have had as a short filmmaker at this stage of the game.

    As I began this comment, there are some who would do well making a low budget feature rather than a short – but they are the EXCEPTION. Most artists should learn who they are AND learn IF they are talented in the short format genre. And beyond that they should find out if they even LIKE making movies as a director! I’ve had clients who after making a short realized they’d rather stick with writing. Ha!

    Thank you for your always inspiring posts – now let’s schedule those cocktails!

    Author, How Not To Make A Short Film: Secrets From A Sundance Programmer

  3. Heidi Van Lier says:

    Awesome, Roberta! I’m just frustrated because these kids have all made their short films already, they know they like doing this, they’re in film school, and they have all the resources just sitting there waiting for them. Agreed the market for features is more saturated, but it still means something if you’ve pulled off a GOOD feature vs. a GOOD short, which you seem to agree with.

    Yes! Drinks soon! Thanks for awesome comments Roberta and everyone!

  4. Bwakathaboom says:

    What kills me is meeting people who say their short took 18 months to 2 years to make. I gotta wonder (but am too polite to say) what they hell were they doing with their time? A FEATURE shouldn’t take that long!

    At the very least, I’d say get together with a handful of other short film makers and release a compilation movie “4-Rooms” / “4bia” style. At least it’s something you can sell.

    The flip side of that advice (in my opinion) would be vfx guys making their debut (as you said “doing something outstanding”) where a short film probably makes more sense financially and career-wise. Long form (for guys who can’t tell a story) is risky.

  5. Austin Wolfe says:

    Very interesting post to read and spam round, thanks!

  6. Mike Chinea says:

    I think you just wrote the syllabus for a class that should be taught at film schools but never will.
    Again, you are right on target.

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