Every time I finish a film, I always hear this question: “What are your next short film ideas?” Whenever I hear it, my brow furrows, my palms start to sweat, and I squeeze out an apologetic shrug.
It’s not that simple, you see. I’ve learned from years of making short films web series, and indie features, that the choices you make at the beginning can have a huge impact on the success or failure of your next project.
In this post, I’m going to show you how to soft through all those short film ideas to find a concept that meets your strategic needs and serves your career.
Define the Goal: Why Make a Short Film?
Before you dive into that pile of script ideas or short screenplays, take a step back and ask yourself: What is the goal?
There are lots of answers to this question. Some may draw from their impulses as entertainers:
These are typically the first responses to the question, but they’re actually just part of what defines your next film’s goal.
The answer to “why make a short film” should come in the form of Audience, Medium, and Purpose. In other words:
“To screen to [Audience Type], through [Medium], to achieve [Resulting Goal].”
Here’s how the parts of the formula break down:
"I WANT TO SCREEN TO [AUDIENCE TYPE]...
- A broad, “general” audience. I don’t recommend this as a primary goal! Read on, and you’ll see why.
- A narrow, niche market. Audiences of a particular ethnicity, religion or cultural heritage.
- A very narrow market of individuals and small groups. Studio executives, agents, managers, investors, etc.
… THROUGH A [MEDIUM]...
- Film festivals. Get specific - what types of festivals? Which ones?
- Internet. Youtube, Amazon, etc.
- Other. Private links, museum or gallery shows, private screenings, etc.
...TO ACHIEVE [GOAL]."
- Build a fan base
- Win awards
- Prove something. Like a proof-of-concept for a longer project, or a “calling card” to prove your filmmaking abilities.
- Make Money. It’s almost impossible to make money with a short film, but if this is one of your goals, you’ve got to articulate it early, and be disciplined in shaping the project to serve this goal.
- Connect with your audience. This is where that first list comes into play. You’re making a movie to reach an audience through a medium to make them laugh, cry, think, scream, etc.
Think through this list, maybe add to it, modify it, make it your own. Identify the specific goals you have for this film.
Your goals can be layered, too. Perhaps you want the film to have a festival run before it’s released online. Or perhaps there are several types of audiences that are important for you to craft the film for.
If you do have multiple, layered goals for the film, make sure that you prioritize them, so you know which goals are the most important.
A NOTE ON MAKING PROFITABLE SHORT FILMS
This isn’t an impossible goal, but it’s a very difficult one to achieve.If you’re interested in making money off your short film, I encourage you to attend a film market or two - not just the big ones like the American Film Market in Santa Monica, but short-specific markets like the Palm Springs Film Market that coincides with the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival.
Plus the weather will help you come up with some great short film ideas!
Talk to other filmmakers, find out what worked for them. Talk to the buyers, find out what they’re looking for (and what pitfalls to avoid). Talk to the exhibitors, find out if there are specific trends they’re noticing in what types of short films are being seen.
Are they looking for award winning short films? Or for certain TV or movie actors in the key art? 2k? 4k? Do certain genres sell better? Specific running times?
There are other avenues to generate revenue from a short film, from online services to the educational market - there’s more to discuss than I can fit here, so I’ll write a more extensive article on this in the coming months. In the meantime, research the market! Don’t guess at what’s going to sell or who’s going to buy.
Defining your Strategy: Approaches to Short Film Funding
Now that you know what your goals are for your short film, you’ve got to lay the foundation for your film’s startup strategy. You need to understand, in broad strokes, where the money and resources will come from.
There’s no need for specifics yet. Let’s not forget, we haven’t actually reviewed any short film ideas yet! We’re still preparing for that step. The question is simple: Where’s the money coming from?
If you've been saving up, self-financing is an option. You don't have any extra fundraising costs, nor do you have anyone looking over you shoulder with pesky suggestions.
The downside, though, is that all the risk is on you. If your short film doesn't meet your goals, you'll be on the hook for the loss.
This is an increasingly popular strategy to fund short films. There are even websites that specialize in funding film projects.
Most crowdfunding websites take a percentage of your funding to keep their lights on, so you'll have to factor that in to your fundraising numbers.
In addition, successful crowdfunding campaign will require extra expenses you'll need to consider -- those reward t-shirts won't ship themselves!
Perfect for those of you with "rich uncles". Uncle Pennybags and Uncle Scrooge don't count, for the record.
They don't necessarily have to be related to you, though! Any connection you have with someone with the money and desire to be a patron of the arts is a potential donor.
All this costs is taking your potential patron out for coffee or lunch. And it's entirely possible they'll pay for that, too.
These are very rare. Most short films don't turn a profit, so very few investors are willing to put up money in exchange for a cut of profits that won't exist.
This is also the most expensive fundraising approach. Equity investing is strictly regulated by law, so setting up an investment plan of any kind will require legal help.
Investors are really only worthwhile for larger projects with extended marketing potential. Think proof of concepts shorts that might be turned into feature films or a pilot for a webseries.
Pictured: The average budget for a studio film
If you’re making a film for a “national audience”, who do you turn to for money? Everyone? You’d have to spend a fortune just getting their attention - and most of them won’t know why they should care to help you make your movie!
Next, you’ve got to estimate how much you expect to realistically raise from the method (or methods) you’ve selected.
If you’re going to spend your own money, this is easy to figure out. Decide how much of your own money you want to spend, and set that as your budgetary parameter.
You might be tempted to say “I’ll make this film with a bunch of friends, and we’ll all work for free, so it won’t cost anything.” If that’s the case, here are two cents:
- It might be cheap, but it won’t be free. Decide how you’re paying for lunch, small incidental expenses that might come up, etc.
- Identify your resources. If you’re getting something for nothing, know what it is and where it’s coming from.
If you’re going to run a crowdfunding campaign, consider using a crowdfunding campaign calculator tool. These vary in complexity, and they’re all essentially taking data-driven guesses, but they’re a good way to get a ballpark sense of what your crowdfunding potential is.
A Note on Crowdfunding Calculators:
Crowdfunding calculators can provide you with more than just a bottom line! Use them to research what your campaign needs to be in order to be successful.
I used the calculator at Jewcer.org to prepare to raise money for “The Pirate Captain Toledano”. The calculator indicated that with my social media presence and intended time commitment, I’d raise roughly $3000 for the film.
But by looking at what questions the calculator wanted me to answer, and by tweaking those numbers, I learned some techniques for improving my campaign’s success.
Free short film idea: an old-style calculator falls in love with a crowdfunding calculator.
For example, the calculator wanted to know how many hours per week I would commit to running the campaign.
The more hours I committed, the better the campaign would run. It seems obvious, but it’s nice to see how much an extra hour per week can influence the final outcome. That campaign (which you can see here) raised over $18,500 for my short film.
Working with Direct Contributors
It is perhaps hardest to figure out how much money you can expect to raise from direct contributors. You might have an idea of how much your rich uncle would be willing to give you, or you might have to ask to find out.
The only time the fundraising numbers will be abundantly clear (with a bit of research) is if you’re making the film to make money, and are soliciting investments.
In such a case, you will likely research the potential profitability of the project you’re developing, and you will set your fundraising goal based on that.
Remember: investors want to make money, and where there’s risk, they’ve got to see a very high potential reward to feel comfortable with their investment. If you think you can make $10,000, don’t seek $9,000 in investments.
Putting it Together: Short Film Ideas that Serve the Strategy and Support the Goal
Now that you’ve gone through this process of figuring out your film’s goal and the broad implementation strategy, you have some parameters to brainstorm movie ideas. Start by gathering as many short film ideas as you can.
- Come up with short film ideas of your own. You can write these yourself, or commission a screenwriter to write your screenplay for you. Check out our blog post on this very subject, here.
- Solicit submissions from screenwriters. Most screenwriters have unproduced short screenplays that they’d love to see put on screen. Reach out to your writer friends directly, or solicit screenplays through Facebook, Craigslist, or more sophisticated screenplay websites such as InkTip.
- Collaborate with a screenwriter to come up with something new. Brainstorm movie ideas together and develop them collaboratively.
- Find good stories to adapt. Sometimes, good short story ideas can translate well to the screen. You can brainstorm movie ideas by reading the newspaper, reviewing short story blogs and online magazines.
- Just remember, if you’re adapting someone else’s work (or life story) you need to secure the relevant rights. Intellectual property is property - don’t steal it!
You might discover that all the prep work you’ve done is informing which movie ideas you’re selecting.
If you put out a call for screenplays or short film ideas, you can be very specific in detailing what you’re looking for. This will help limit the number of submissions you receive, and will hopefully save you time in finding the right screenplay or story.
Once you have a handful of short film ideas that you like, and that could help you meet your film’s goal, you can analyze them for the way they serve your strategy.
This is so important, I’m writing it as a graphic:
Here’s what I mean: If your strategy includes a crowdfunding campaign, you MUST find movie ideas that serve that strategy. You need to have a clear answer to the question “why would people pay to MAKE this movie?”
I’m planning a longer, in-depth article on how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign later this year. It’ll delve deeply into who contributes, why they contribute, and what you need to do to inspire their generosity.
For now, just remember that if crowdfunding is your fundraising strategy and your short film idea is a personal story about a dog you once met, it might not be the right choice for your next film!
This is also where you consider the scale and scope of the movie ideas on your list. If your strategy stipulates a budget of approximately $1000, you’ve got to pass on the globetrotting action adventure, and give closer consideration to the two-hander set in a basement.
If you’re not sure how much your movie ideas will cost, consider scratching out a rough, preliminary budget.
Or you can keep it as simple as scratching out some numbers on a napkin.
You’re just looking for a very rough budget, to see if your short film ideas are in the budgetary ballpark.
Your short film idea must SUPPORT your goal!
Of course, if you want to make people scream, you’re probably looking for horror or thriller short film ideas. But this requirement that your concept must support your goal goes much deeper.
If your goal involves getting into Sundance, you’ve got to understand what Sundance is looking for (smart comedies! Or so they’ve told me…)
If you want your film to go viral on YouTube, you’re probably looking for very short story ideas with a twist that might inspire lots of social media buzz.
Whatever your goal, make sure that the short film ideas that you consider can actively push you closer to your goals.
What not to do:
I know a director who wanted to create a calling card film to demonstrate his directing abilities. He wants to direct family-friendly dramas, but the film he chose for his calling card was an over-the-top parody of a popular film (that wasn’t a family-friendly drama).
His film has some beautiful footage, and some quirky comedic scenes, but none of the types of scenes that family-friendly dramas commonly require.
No serious, emotional conversations, no moment of happy resolution, nothing that actually proves the director can direct the material that he wants to direct.
When he picked his short film idea, he lost sight of his goal, and the film failed as a calling-card piece.
Just Do Your Thing Anyway
If you really love an idea, and it serves your strategy and supports your goal, but it’s just too darned expensive, don’t give up on it too quickly.
When I wrote “The Pirate Captain Toledano”, I knew right away that the project would cost much more than I expected to be able to raise. The film takes place on a 16th century tall ship - a very expensive set!
Before shelving the idea and writing something new, I called around to inquire about filming rates on tall ships. Not surprisingly, the numbers were astronomical. But when I told people about the project, they got intrigued, and when I shared the script with them, they got very excited.
In the end, The Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California, offered us a substantial discount on their filming fees, and even contributed rewards and marketing to help expand our crowdfunding campaign’s reach and appeal.
The Ocean Institute literally has a pirate ship.
Their offer of support changed the complex calculus of the project by cutting the budget and boosting the crowdfunding potential. The impossible film was suddenly within reach.
The Dance of Ideas: Goals and Strategies can be Fluid
As you work through your list of screenplays and movie ideas, you’ll find that your goals and strategies are fluid, and they interact with each other.
For example, if you set a particular audience as part of your goal, you might find that it influences the type of fundraising you can expect to do. That, in turn, can impact the scale of the movie ideas you’re considering.
Don’t be afraid to take a step back and make adjustments to your goal or to your strategy as you discover different ways that their interactions impact your film idea options.
Ultimately, the goal is to narrow your list down to three or four possibilities.
Taking the Next Step: Choosing the Short Film Idea that’s Right for You.
If you’ve followed this process through to the end, you may still have a few movie ideas that survived the culling.
They all serve your strategy and support your goal. Now it’s time to make a decision. Which of these movie ideas is right for you?
The nice thing is, for the purposes of the business of making a short film, all of your surviving short film ideas will work.
Now you get to check-in with yourself as the creative person who will be responsible for shepherding this film through the chaotic, often gut-wrenching filmmaking journey. Which of these film ideas do you love the most?
Whichever movie idea you pick, you’ve got to love it. Not just like it a bit. Love it. Love what it can become. You’re going to be married to this thing for months, and possibly years if the festival run goes well.
If none of the remaining concepts have that indescribable magnetism that draws you in, don’t despair.
It’s better to spend a little more time looking for the right film to make than to throw your valuable time, energy and passion into a film that doesn’t sufficiently inspire you.
You can issue a new call for short screenplays, or you can go back further and tweak your goal or your strategy. Be patient. Be systematic. You’ll find it.
Once you’ve got it, go ahead and make your short film! If you implement this process to identify your next project, please check back here and let me know how it goes.
And if you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them whenever I can.
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