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Book review: How Not to Make a Short Film

I finished reading "How Not to Make a Short Film" (amazon link) by Roberta Maria Monroe, loaned to me by Cliff. Here is my takeaway in a nutshell...

Things worth considering:

Shorter shorts (say, 6-8 minutes or less) have a much better chance of getting programmed. Related to this, the film should get to the point...don't include unnecessary scenes/shots/dialogue/info. Look at what you've got and think about whether everything there is really necessary to get to the end point. If there is a more efficient way to get there, do it. I don't necessarily agree with this outlook from an artistic standpoint, but it is the nature of film festivals (and we are beginning to see this in our own festival). It will cause me to take a harder look at what is absolutely essential in my shorts...if I expect to have a reasonable shot at having a film accepted.

Keep it fresh. Stay away from cliche story lines. Now, the author has a good list of 50 cliche plot points. Many of them I agree with, many I scratched my head thinking I've never really seen that, and wondered where those films are. Still, this chapter is probably one of the only things someone should have a look at this book for. The rest I am giving you right here. There is a slight caveat to this in the "Things to take with a grain of salt" section below.

There is a potentially handy list of short film distributors in the appendix of the book, although some of it may be out of date at this point.

There is a lengthy writeup on why one should pay for actors and crew rather than use friends or anyone else for free, related to their reliability and quality. There are also some tips about how to spot red flags when paid crew tell you they can do more than they are actually able, and also whether or not there are going to be personality/ego conflicts. This is useful if you don't already understand why it is preferable to hire good people rather than make use of people who either aren't qualified or committed, or both, just because they are free or cheap. That said, not everyone has a budget for a full crew, and this leads into the grain of salt part of this review...

Things to be taken with a grain of salt:

I have no idea where the author is coming from when she repeatedly says a short film won't be of sufficient quality to be selected unless it has an extensive paid crew with a budget of at least $10,000-20,000, and preferably $30,000-50,000 or more, especially as this book was written 5 years after a prominent Sundance feature film (Primer) was made for $7000. Yes, Primer is the extreme case on the budget low end, but her stance on this is silly at best.

The book is littered with the author namedropping filmmakers and films, which the author clearly has a personal bias toward based on her own personal makeup. The weird thing is, as much as the author rants against cliche storylines, most of what she promotes (including her own two, self-lauded, award winning short films) are typical cliche film festival fare, and this brings me to another point...

Based on the author's perspective, which I assume and trust is in fact a case representation of an experienced film festival juror or programmer as she is, I am more than ever of the mind film festivals in general aren't exactly for people who love "film"; they are for a very particular subset of film aficionados who love a particular type of film for which film festivals exist and are curated by these same people. It's a weird self-congratulatory world where people make the same kind of films festivals typically show (and you can see the same type wherever you go), tell themselves it's fresh, and attract a crowd to whom they are basically preaching to the choir. It's as if the jurors/programmers pass over a bunch of films saying "cliche, let's show something fresh", and then just show the same type of material they show all the time. It's a bunch of filmmakers trying to be different, by doing the same thing over and over.

This distinction of a particular type of filmgoer is most evident if one examines how the general filmgoer reacts to films which are highly successful at festivals. Case in point: the author's own films which apparently showed at 100+ festivals. To me, the story type is cliche festival fare, and on iMdb they rate in the 5-6/10 range. Look at Sundance's past winners, or most any other festival for that matter and you will see the same trend; the films tend to not be highly regarded or well liked by the general filmgoing public. Yes, the masses love stuff like Transformers but the iMdb ratings do tend to at least reflect a fair degree of quality on the upper end, and I would suggest people who care enough to create an iMdb account and regularly vote for films skew more toward people who are serious about films, than the popcorn masses (not entirely, but it certainly leans toward people who appreciate quality). If the general filmgoers are dismissed from the conversation, it only reinforces film festivals aren't for most people; they are for a subset of people.

*EDIT: This is not to say there aren't exceptions to the rule, as there are some great films which buck this trend, but they are the exceptions rather than the norm.


Other than the list of cliche storylines to avoid, I am not sure there is much else to get out of this book other than the distilled info mentioned in the "Things worth considering" part of this review. The importance of keeping a short film short and concise is hammered home in this book, is valuable, and can not be overstated enough...but you don't have to read this book if you take that idea to heart. Also, although I listed the typical film festival perspective under the "Things to take with a grain of salt", it is apparently a major factor in festival selection the filmmaker should be aware of, for good or bad.

A sort of sideways thing to include mention of, the author does suggest several other books filmmakers should read, one of which is "Directing Actors", which I am thus far finding a much less biased and more densely valuable book than the one in this review. I will wait until I finish the book before fulling commenting on it.
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