The simple answer to this question is that your short movie should be 40 minutes or less, because this length will assure you that your movie is in the short film category, rather than the feature film category, but there is a nuance to this answer that must be explored in greater depth because it really depends on what your intention is with making this short movie and your individual project. You must ask yourself…
What is the purpose of my movie and my goals for it?
Why did I make this movie?
GOAL: To Entertain Audiences
If you are interested in entertaining an audience then the one key thing you need to remember is to not be boring.
I have gone to so many film festivals where the movie just went on and on and on…
The movie… usually a documentary, but sometimes narrative… didn’t need to be that long but the filmmaker just left in full interviews with very little b-roll or repetitive b-roll.
Later in this blog post, we’re going to talk about the one reason why you might want to do this to your project, but if your main purpose is to entertain then you must be aggressive with editing it.
Generally, when I am making a short film, I end up watching it over and over and over again because I am usually the one editing it.
I don’t mind this because it helps me to decide what is making me bored in the process of watching it repeated times and from there I can cut those parts out and create a tight film that will keep people entertained.
What I have actually noticed is that my own tendency is to cut my movies too aggressively and have them be shorter than they probably should be.
So after I have edited a rough cut, but before I have cut sections out that I found boring, I have enlisted a few trusted friends and fellow filmmakers to take a look at my rough cut to tell me if the movie lags in energy and interest, and if so, where their interest waned.
Sometimes because filmmakers stare at their movie for too long in editing and get too engulfed in it to make objective observations about it.
So my way of balancing that danger is to involve my friends and get an informal critique on the rough cut. I also try to step away from it for a few days during the editing process so that I can look at it with fresh eyes and get some gut reactions upon first viewing it after a few days have gone by.
These are my techniques for making sure my movie stays interesting and powerful to the audience and doesn’t have any boring sections, but you can do it however you like.
The point is just to make sure that you don’t let your movie get boring so that the audience loses interest.
I am sure that many of the too-long movies I have seen were cut like that because the director or editor was so blinded by love for each scene and each nuance in the story that it was too painful to remove the excess to make a more entertaining final cut, but for public screenings or even online screenings, it is much better to make the cut that is most appealing to your audience as long as it keeps the integrity of the original story, and to perhaps create an “Extended Version” or “Director’s Cut” that will allow for greater creative self-indulgence.
GOAL: To Win Awards At Film Festivals
I making this 2nd because I feel like it goes along with my first answer to this question.
If you’re interested in winning awards at film festivals you first have to get into that festival which we will talk about in a minute, but second, you have to make sure your editing is tight and that your movie stays interesting so that you have a greater potential to win awards.
There are some festivals that reward Avant-garde material that is more artistic than story-driven, but those are few and far between, so do your best to cut parts out that you don’t find interesting and that you don’t think your audiences will find interesting.
GOAL: Get Into Film Festivals… Lots Of Them. Presigeous Ones.
Before you can win awards at film festivals you have to get into them.
The way that some festivals schedule short films is to schedule them in blocks.
For example, there is often a 90-minute screening block consisting of 5-10 short movies.
Often there is one main short film that is about 30 minutes long and it is mixed in with a number of shorter films that are usually 20 minutes and under.
Of course, this changes from festival to festival, but the take away is to try to keep your movie around 30 minutes or less if you’re going for a short film block in a festival.
It is much easier for a film festival to schedule one or two minute short movies. It is easier to coordinate and plan.
Therefore, it is easier to get into a film festival with a shorter short film than a longer one.
I have had friends with very good movies not get into festivals that I feel they should have been accepted into and I believe it is because their movie was a longer short film and wouldn’t fit into the festival schedule.
Meanwhile, I have seen short films at festivals that were of a very low quality but because they were only one minute long they were able to be squeezed into the schedule.
But what do you do if your short film is very long, like 30 minutes?
A solution to that problem is to cut a shorter version of the film that is more easily accepted by film festivals. This is especially handy if the film festival is competitive.
Be sure to give this shorter version of your movie a different title than the longer version, otherwise, it will get very confusing for you and everyone else and you could potentially send in the wrong version if you get accepted.
This shorter version will also be listed with its new title in IMDb.
GOAL: The Strongest IMDb Credit Possible
Despite complaining earlier that I have sat through many excessively long films that should have been much shorter, I can see why other filmmakers let their movies be boring And a longer duration than they should be.
What I’m about to say is controversial but it’s the truth.
As someone who has yet to make a documentary feature film but has watched other filmmakers make feature film length documentary films that should have been 10 minutes long, I can say it’s frustrating to witness this and to know that if I had just said, “Screw the audience enjoyment and screw making a cinematically interesting movie that is perfect in length… I want that IMDb credit that says I made a feature film documentaries!” I could have done it easily by now with the multiple projects I have already shot.
So I, as a filmmaker who goes to film festivals and watches as much as she can, reluctantly need to tell you the truth in all this.
I can’t believe I am saying this, but if you are going for the best IMDb feature credit you can possibly get, then make it long enough to make it a feature film if you have enough footage.
Just don’t invite me to the screening because this is how I end up in screenings where the movie is 2 hours of black and white shots of the desert set to Wagner and sounds of people screaming. TWO HOURS!!! It’s horrible to sit through projects like this, especially when the director is in the row behind you.
I’m obviously not encouraging you to be boring, but at the end of the day when you look at a rundown of what people’s IMDb credits are and you see feature films listed under that person’s credits, it looks good.
The person looking at your IMDb is unlikely to sit through your 2-hour movie of black and white desert scenes and will never know that is is a pile of cinematic crap.
But they WILL know you are a bad filmmaker if you end up working for them in a directing or producing capacity based on your IMDb.
And you will have a tough time creating an audience that follows you, except for those people who love 2-hour black and white movies consisting of desert shots and screams set to classical music!
The truth is that people scan an IMDb the way they look over a resume, 10 seconds to scan the page and mentally checking off boxes regarding the number of movies you made, the running time of those movies, the dates, your position on the movie, the release date (to see how long you have been in the entertainment business) and if the movie won any awards or got any press.
So if you can get your movie into a bunch of festivals that are hungry for material and it’s a feature film then you’re gonna have an alright IMDb credit even if your movie is poop.
I’m probably going to regret writing this because I’m probably going to be at a film festival where someone reading this has made a poop movie and I will watch this poop and be frustrated after 2 hours.
And then this filmmaker will ask me how it was and that he/she was inspired by my blog and I will have to just grit my teeth through the whole conversation.
In most cases, you wanna make the best movie you can possibly make.
What that means is getting great footage for your narrative film or documentary film and cutting it in a way that is interesting and with strong pacing that makes sense and feels good to the audience…
Therefore, when it comes to short films, the ideal question to ask yourself regarding duration is “How I short can possibly make it so that it still makes sense and feels like a good pace but also is most likely to get into film festivals and win awards?” (if you want to cover most of the bases I mentioned above)
But the caveat to this is if you are looking to expand your IMDb with stronger movie credits, you may want to expand the material you leave in your movie and get that feature film credit, rather than the short film credit.
If the movie you are making is your first movie, I don’t recommend that, but to each his or her own.
The ideal would be to get that feature film credit AND have an interesting movie with good pacing but I can’t withhold the realities of credits on IMDb and the importance of having a nice mix of features built into that IMDb profile.