We get asked and ask ourselves quite often, ‘what defines the length of a short film?’. In reality there is no standard length, and probably our strongest point of reference is basing ourselves on the Academy Awards submission standards, where a film running under 40 minutes falls under the short film category. But standards vary from festival to festival, as for other instances, Sundance considers films under 50 minutes as shorts.
Are You Targeting a Festival or an Online audience?
The real question is who is your target audience? This can make a world of a difference since there is a massive gap between an online audience and a theatre audience. People who go to theaters and film festivals are mostly film fanatics, they know what they are getting into. They are also stuck in a seat for the entire length of your film with only one thing to pay attention to, so a longer short film can definitely be grasped to its potential.
The online audience is much more diluted and much harsher. These are not all film fanatics and all have something else to do. Attention span for an online viewer is cut short with the slightest distraction from not only cyber junk, but also everything around them: kids, wife, football game, etc.
Watch: ‘Voice Over’ (10 Mins)
In essence, if your targeting festivals the sky is your limit (sky being 40 – 50 minutes) and it all comes down to your content. But if your targeting the masses of the online audience reaching for the sky will mean a loss of audience. My general theory for a short film is to make it as short as you possibly can! Grasp your audience quick and get rid of all the boring stuff in between to keep them focused until the end. The golden timeframe for an online short is between 8-12 minutes, enough time to develop a pretty solid story without too many viewer dropouts (depending on your film of course). But I’ve seen many successful shorts that run under 5 minutes, which in fact are the ones that have the most chances of going viral!
The timestamp is the first thing people look at after the cover image, so impress them with a beautiful poster and then with a luring length. A short that takes up less of people’s time will also encourage sharing, where for the same reason people will be more likely to tell their friends about it if they know it won’t waste too much of their time. How many times have your heard “I sent you a link, watch it it’s only 2 minutes!”
Your most likely planning to launch for festival and then carry over to online.
What should You aim for?
Presenting to film festivals doesn’t mean it has to be long. Again try to aim for the shortest possible, a 15-20 minute film can please both festival and online audiences – if the content is addicting enough.
Another thing to consider is the size of your fan base. If enough people know and love your work, they will take the time to watch a 30 minute film. A good example is Ryan Connolly’s ‘Tell‘, where running at 33 minutes his short has gathered over 400k views. If your a beginner or are relying on your friends entourage alone to spread the film, start off with something much shorter.
A short film’s length should also reflect on its budget, in theory the longer the film gets the more difficult it becomes budget wise, but also with the crew, especially for non-paid films. There are some exceptional cases where long successful films have been done on no budget whatsoever, but the exceptions are rare.
Exception: ‘Moments’ (28 Mins)
The hardest part about editing is cutting out scenes that you and your crew worked so hard for to create. This is often what happens in short films, directors try to leave everything they’ve created in the final cut, often to the demise of the film. Don’t be afraid to trim your scenes, watch your film from a different perspective and ask yourself if that extra bit will bring anything to the viewer’s experience, or does it in effect just prolong their experience? As an example, one of my short films was trimmed from 10 minutes to just over 5, just by trimming the shots and removed a few useless cuts, doing so hurt at first, but the result was an unexpected fluid flow.
Not a rule book
These are just mere suggestions and not rules. With the hundreds of shorts we watch weekly, we see the patterns in successful films. But there are the exceptions, so if you feel like you have a case for a longer short go ahead full steam!
Don’t forget to submit your short once your film is done, no matter how short!