Once upon a time, short films packed movie theatres everywhere. Audience flocked to see these films in their hundreds of thousands. They would arrive full of excitement and leave in awe of what they had just seen. These were the days before popcorn and CGI. Most of the early short films didn’t even have sound. All these films had was a musical accompaniment that came in the form of a piano, but nonetheless, audiences flocked to see them and support short films.
But alas, in time the films grew longer and longer, sets and production equipment got more and more complex. All of these things made films more and more expensive to make, but this is what audiences demanded. Gradually audiences came to expect films to be of a certain length to qualify as a proper film.
It wasn’t long before epics like the 3 hours 58-minute masterpiece Gone with the Wind were being shown on screens everywhere. Other epics like Ben Hur (3 h 44 m), Lawrence of Arabia (3h 48m), and Doctor Zhivago (3h 20m), would also end up being some of the most popular films of all time.
So as time passed, audiences settled into the ‘two-hour movie’, a timeframe that came to define what running time the average film would take from start to finish. These days, audiences generally accept that a film should be about 2 to 2.5 hours in length, though this does seem to be gradually increasing.
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Why preferred running times for films continues to increase is not really understood. It will indeed be interesting to see how running times evolve in the future, particularly as studies are starting to show that modern technologies such as smartphones are actually having the effect of actually shortening people’s attention spans.
What happened to the short feature film?Well, audiences moved on and the short film fell out of fashion. Short films found it harder and harder to get shown in movie theatres until eventually they were not shown at all. Gradually they began to be seen more and more as a stepping stone for young directors to get their foot in the door. But then along came MTV, which was to help reinvent the short film industry.
MTV helped to reintroduce audiences to the short film. It helped to popularize the music video and in the end made them a must for all major single releases. While these music videos nearly only ever had a music soundtrack, they were bold and incredibly imaginative in their storytelling. With such a rapid growth in the popularity of the music video came ever-increasing budgets.
Michael Jackson’s ‘Scream’ had an incredible budget of $7 million. At a mere 4m 38s in length, Scream is one of the most expensive pieces of film for its length ever made. And this was not a one off; Madonna’s Die Another Day would cost over $6 million, proving just how big these music short films have become.
With such big budgets, it is not surprising that the music video industry now attracts some of the biggest names in Hollywood. David Fincher, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and David Lynch have all made music videos.
Some filmmakers like Spike Jonze actually made their name making music videos and were then offered the chance to make feature films. So far despite his success, Jonze has made few features proving that at heart he remains a short filmmaker.
Music videos helped to create a huge global industry that allowed filmmakers everywhere to dedicate their careers to making short films. But what about more conventional types of short films, ones that were not focused on a song?
The truth is that the short film industry has never really gone away. While mainstream audiences have stopped watching more traditional types of short films, MTV showed that there is still a huge appetite for short films. Another example of how sort films have flourished in unexpected ways is the TV advert. These adsrequire powerful storytelling as they have only seconds to convey the strongest and most memorable message possible. Some TV adverts have also millions of dollars to create.
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The conventional short film might have seen traditional distribution channels disappear but the advent of the internet has opened up far bigger ones. Thanks to the internet and sites like YouTube, short filmmakers now have the possibility of reaching worldwide audiences with their films. Today there is a seemingly endless amount of sites which will either post or promote a short film. Sites such as Largo Films have gone one step further, dedicating themselves solely to the distribution of short films.
While it still remains a real challenge to get funding for new short films and also to earn money from them, this still can be done with a little good business sense and creative thinking. Youtube alone has hundreds of so-called ‘YouTube Stars’ who post their short films exclusively through the channel and earn vast sums of money through such things as sponsorship deals.
And for those short filmmakers who manage to gain some prestige within the industry, the possibilities are extremely promising. To counter the myth that short films never make money you only need to take a look at the highest grossing short films of all time. Alaska: Spirit of the Wild (1998) has made more than $100 million since its release, as has Antarctica (1991).
So rather than being all doom and gloom, things have actually seldom been better for the short film industry. The fact that longer feature films are now the norm doesn’t mean that short films are doomed. In reality, short films might have disappeared from movie theatres but they never really went away. The advent of TV saw an explosion of interest in the animated short film with companies like Disney making their name through such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to give but one example.
As we have seen, the short film would then become the mainstay of TV advertising and the music video. The real challenge to find new audience has beenleft to the short feature film. Fortunately, the advent of the internet and the increasing attention given to shorts by film festivals around the world has now led to a resurgence in mainstream interest in short films.
While we must wait to see exactly how the future unfolds, the short film has already proved its lasting appeal and shown that it is definitely here to stay.
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