An unproduced feature script has a .3 percent chance of being made in Hollywood. Short film ideas, on the other hand, can be made for significantly less money, increasing their chances of being produced.
But writing contained short films takes a very specific skill set. With a limited production and narrative scope, knowing how to write a short film starts with carefully curating your ideas.
That said, let’s dive into 22 ways to brainstorm short film ideas you can actually produce.
1. Start ending first
This doesn’t seem like a how to write a short film tip, so much as a screenwriting lesson in general.
However, brainstorming short film ideas that have their endings baked in up front, will make your shooting script that much leaner. It’ll allow you to only focus on the scenes and sequences need to achieve your desired ending.
Even if you want to flesh out certain parts later, having a barebones skeleton is great when a producer brings up budget.
Whether you’re writing short films, a television pilot, or a feature, you should always write what you know.
But this is even more applicable when it comes to tempering short film ideas, as you can shoot your in where you live, work, or if you’re a PA, both.
These are places that are easily accessible and cheap to use — or, better yet, free. You’re probably closer than you think to a unique location full of narrative possibilities.
Look to 2014 Sundance Film Festival selection, Dig, as inspiration for your own short film ideas. Shot entirely in the director’s backyard, it’s a great example of how starting with an easy to access location can yield something truly original.
One of the last steps of writing a short film is creating a script breakdown that details all the props, costumes, and crew needed to make your production come to life. It’s the foundation for your budget, and not a bad place to start when brainstorming short film ideas.
By creating a list of props, characters, and stunts to start, you automatically make your short film script that much more producible.
You can make a script breakdown using our free script breakdown template, or just plug your script into StudioBinder, where you can tag and enter elements that will auto-generate into lists for you.
Learning how to write a short film is difficult. Breaking a draft down takes seconds in StudioBinder.
Into dystopian sci-fi?
Lots of college campuses built in the mid-twentieth century feature cool, brutalist design — ideal short film ideas for college students who want big-budget looks in small-budget packages.
Just make sure you use our location scouting checklist so you don’t forget any signatures.
How about horror?
Yes, there are creepy forests and cemeteries all over the country, but there are also abandoned hospitals, warehouses, and zoos. Ask around, make friends in the community, and research permit costs as you brainstorm movie ideas.
This will require some reverse-engineering as you begin to construct short film ideas around physical spaces. But the payoff could be surprisingly fun.
To reach out to a location scout for more short film ideas like this, go to ProductionBeast, search “Location Scouts,” and immediately you’ll find profiles you can message for advice.
Take a look inside you, or, more specifically, take a look behind you — at what you did yesterday.
Did you meet someone? Did something happen at work? Was it actually totally boring?
Writing short films is all about economy. There might not be enough for a feature in your day at the coffee shop, but it could be a vehicle for some charming short film topics.
7. Find an old family story
And going even farther back, there’s often rich material for short film ideas in your parents’ or grandparents’ histories.
Think about what makes you sit up and pay attention. Or, conversely, what disturbs you or prompts you to ask difficult questions. To quote mythologist and accidental screenplay guru Joseph Campbell: “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
Once you hit on something that resonates personally, test to see if it’s an actual story or just a vignette.
Short film ideas vs. vignette ideas
A vignette is a funny, curious, or even harrowing experience that lacks dramatic tension. A story involves stakes, goals, and forward movement.
There’s usually a central character who wants something and encounters obstacles to that want. It’s not rocket science, and after awhile it becomes easier to recognize the true potential of real-life events for writing short films.
8. Create a storyboard
Have a great idea for short film sequence in your head? Maybe you shouldn’t ask yourself how to write a short film, but rather how to storyboard one.
Creating a storyboard and building your short film ideas around one sequence can yield not only a great script, but something producible, as you can show your team of creatives exactly what you’re thinking.
You can either do this by hand, or use software like StudioBinder that’ll do the heavy-lifting for you. Plus, it’s free to start.
How to Make a Storyboard
As you brainstorm movie concepts, keep in mind that short film ideas need a strong hook or clever twist to stand out. And twists cost production anything.
By twist, I don’t necessarily mean a surprise ending (like Fight Club or Shutter Island). I mean an idea that’s born of combining two classic film genres and subverting the expectations of both.
For instance, here’s how someone took a drama about infidelity and elevated it with an inexpensive sci-fi angle.
There are a limited number of genres, of course, but there’s a huge variety of approaches to each — especially if you mix and match them. Starting with a specific category can focus you by filtering everything through the same lens. A thriller gives you the opportunity to use intrigue and suspense; a romantic comedy sets the stage for the inevitable meet-cute.
10. Use irony to brainstorm movie ideas
Play the “what if” game when writing short films and see what happens when you add a character who seems out of place. Or an unpredictable event that throws a wrench in the gears of your story world.
Irony is key, here. It’s the difference between short film ideas people remember and ones they forget the second the movie’s over.
11. Get inspired by other mediums
Books, songs, live performance– art is built on the shoulders of previous art — and writing short films is no exception.
Try visiting a gallery or museum and see if any of the paintings spark short film ideas. You might discover that the most abstract images provoke the clearest sense of what you want to write.
Poems are great places to find material for shorts; they tend to be brief, and they leave plenty of room for creative interpretation as you brainstorm movie concepts.
Quentin Tarantino is a master of uncovering lost cinematic treasure and using it as currency for his own scripts.
This should be the easiest homework for short film ideas ever: Watch some classic movies and reduce them to their essence. Is there a core principle of that film noir or that Hollywood musical that you could adapt to a ten-minute telling? Or maybe there’s a single moment in that three-hour historical drama that grabbed you, but it wasn’t explored to its potential.
Don't worry about being Original (with a capital "O")
New short film ideas are all about putting fresh spins on old ideas. There are only so many plots, after all, but no one else will create the exact same story formula you will.
Current events might not be pleasant, but they do tend to be rife with drama and tension. There are many ways to portray war, injustice, and political strife without hitting the nail too squarely on the head. Again, narrow your focus to one specific person or one incident. Find the universal theme in the choice someone made, or didn’t make, and draft an outline based on that very simple situation.
Brainstorm movie ideas by scouring sites like Logform and take a deep-dive into some of the wildest stories of our times. And don’t let the facts hang you up — the more you invent, the less you’ll have to worry about life rights or copyright issues.
If today’s news is too overwhelming, do a quick Google search for the headlines of yesteryear.
Limit your investigation to a particular subject or region. The easier it is to contain short film ideas within the limits of space and clock time (a minute, an hour, a day), the easier it’ll be for you to write a compelling script.
15. Listen to the voices
When was the last time you were in a cafe and overheard a line too good to be true?
Except, of course, it was true. Stay glued to your notebook and write down those perfect snatches of dialogue. Then generate some character descriptions and see if they lead you to funny short film ideas.
Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan is particularly gifted at catching these accurate snippets of dialogue, especially when it comes to exposition.
16. Start writing short films, arc first
Sometimes the form itself can lead to interesting short film ideas. Create a beat sheet with a clear emotional arc.
A tragedy will begin with the hero in a state of happiness or grace and end with an epic fall where he or she loses everything. A classic comedy will reverse this dynamic. Then there’s everything in between — but try focusing on a single trajectory with limited twists and turns.
By knowing where your story has to go, you can then strip away story beats that could inflate your budget.
17. Brainstorm movie ideas around life events
Weddings, funerals, anniversaries, birthdays — these are all dramatic events by their natures and have the added benefit of being limited in scope.
Choose a central character who’s experiencing one of these events and you might be on your way to some perfect short movie ideas.
18. Put yourself in your 1st AD's shoes
This relates to the points about using physical places as inspiration to brainstorm movie concepts.
See how much high-pressure drama you can squeeze out of two or three people trying to escape a contained space (bathroom, cellar, etc.). Many 5 minute short film ideas have been triggered by these sorts of forced crisis situations — and they tend to make for inventive editing and camera choices.
Read up on script breakdowns, so you can budget how much your script would cost.
19. Use a short film idea generator
Writing short films can be daunting, but a simple algorithm can help shake things up and delete your inner critic.
Try a Mad Libs-style randomizer like this one to see what comes up. It’s a bit like spinning a roulette wheel, but you might find a useful element or two in the suggestions.
It’s important to note that short film idea generators should only be a jumping off point, and not necessarily where you start writing short films. It’s the glue you put between ideas that makes your work stand out.
20. Make a shot list
Just like storyboards, shot lists are easy ways to visualize your project before you type a single word. Thinking of camera set ups before you’ve written anything may feel counter-intuitive.
However, you’ll know exactly what you need to accomplish. And what rentals you should pursue.
In StudioBinder, you can easily generate a shot list without having an existing screenplay. Create a new shot list, add shots, and group them however you like. It’ll give your screenplay direction and make finding a DP a breeze.
21. Write a logline first
This seems like a no-brainer for writing short films, or any type of film, but having a great logline can fix most of the problems.
Try making a logline and running it by your inner circle. Because it’s only a sentence, it’s easy to try out a bunch without much hard labor.
Check out our guide on how to write an exciting logline that can catch a producer’s attention.
22. Stop writing short film ideas
And connect with production freelancers to see what they’d like to shoot, light, sound mix, and color correct.
You can cut your budget in half, if your crew is working on your short film movie for free. The best way to attract high quality talent is by creating a project that would be perfect in your crew’s respective reels.
As your list of things to incorporate (an underwater sequence, Steampunk costumes, etc.) increases, your screenplay will be begin to take shape.
Finding crew like this is as easy as searching on Facebook or using dedicated job boards like ProductionBeast, where you can immediately connect with freelancers.
Ultimately, only you will know if your ideas for a film project are worth pursuing. But there are ways to be practical about your passion.
Not every concept is meant to be a movie — but if you feel strongly about yours, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. And don’t forget to give credit wherever it’s due.
The “perfect” short film ideas will be the things you can execute better than anyone else. Stay true to your voice, because you can’t fake authenticity.
What’s your method to brainstorm movie ideas? Be sure to mention it in the comments.
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- 22 Ways to Brainstorm Short Film Ideas You Can Actually Produce - September 15, 2017