Lisa and I had a coffee with a delightful young actress and dancer who wants to turn her musical into a feature. We wound up suggesting she make a short film.
I'm finding that a lot of independent features start as short films. It's not always widely publicized, but you look at a film like MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE or SLING BLADE or any number of other Sundance favorites, and there's often a short film behind it. Ditto indie genre films like HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN.
Likewise, 9, DISTRICT NINE, SAW, EVIL DEAD, SIN CITY, BOTTLE ROCKET, BOOGIE NIGHTS, THX 1138, and NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, to name just a few.
When you're trying to get a feature made, there's a lot to be said for making a short first. The short answers a lot of questions people have. It's hard for people to read a script and envision the tone, the visual style, even the style of the acting. If you're hoping to direct the feature yourself, people may wonder whether you can direct. If you can make a short film with the same stars, and the same director, in the visual style you want to shoot the feature in, then that will answer a lot of questions that the people you're asking to put up the money will have.
This weekend I've been story editing a very broad horror comedy sort of in the Troma Films vein. If I just had the feature script to go on, I'd be railing about the plotholes. But having seen the short, I know that the cartoonish characters and violence are part of what the filmmakers are going for, and I can evaluate the script based on that.
The short doesn't have to be the same story as the feature. It might be an excerpt from the feature. In December I shot a short film for Bravo!FACT which is a couple of scenes from a feature I'm hoping to direct. We were fortunate to find a couple of scenes that stand on their own, and make a microcosm of the feature. But not every feature has a short film you can carve out.
And you don't have to. You'll still be sending people the script. Make a short that sells the tone of the film, and maybe the main character. I'm hoping to shoot a horror short this summer that stars the bad guy (actually bad gal) from a feature I'm working on. The other characters are entirely different. The story is different, even the mythology is different. But if you see the short, you'll get what I want to do with the feature.
I wish I'd done it a year ago!
Of course, you need to make sure that you can do a professional job. If you're selling a special effects movie, the special effects in your short need to be as high quality as they will be in the feature. That may mean having only one special effect in the whole short; make sure it scores.
Every year it gets cheaper to shoot a short film. If you're just sending out your script, you're competing with people whose script comes with a disc or a link. It is a still a big chore to make a short. But consider whether you can. I think you'll be glad you did.