The world of cinema is a big one, and it’s only getting bigger. The proliferation of affordable professional-grade equipment and home editing and special effects software means every Tom, Harry, or Jane can make a film. The statistics are ballooning year-on-year. There doesn’t appear to be a single study estimating how many films are made worldwide per year (and to attempt to do so would be a Herculean task). However at Tribeca Film Festival in 2009, Chris Hyams estimated 50,000 films were made per year based on his analysis of film festival submission sites. A quick glance on IMDB lists over 220,000 titles as being released in 2016. Whilst that number includes TV shows and short films as well, crucially it doesn’t include the many multitudes of films that never get listed on IMDB.
Those numbers refer just to films made; this is before we have even begun to discuss films distributed and given release space. The British Film Institute in 2014 bemoaned that far too many films were released in the UK: 698 in 2013, a rate of 13 a week, which is double the number back in 2000. Let’s not forget that Netflix and other video streaming services are now also getting in on the act. By distributing releases on their own platforms outside of the traditional cinema-home release-TV pathway, this gives filmmakers access to huge audiences at the click of a button. The amount of films you can see and the numerous ways in which you can see them is at an unprecedented high.
So, where does that leave short film? The fact that it’s easier to make them than ever before, and even easier to upload them to Youtube or Vimeo or any other such site, means they have to work extremely hard to compete for our attention. Funding can be an issue too. Between 2011 and 2014 the BFI helped to fund 29 short films with a grand total of £1 million, with the highest awarded grant being £52,000. In the grand scheme of the UK film industry, that’s very little. Years of cuts to arts funding by the government - nearly always the first thing to go under any government austerity measures - means precious little finances are going to come the way of short films, unless they function within the veneer of advertising or music videos.
It's taken for granted that a lack of funding may be because a lot of shorts aren’t expected to make money; at least not in and of themselves. Often, they are made as a way of promoting a director’s CV, helping them get onto the funding ladder for their feature film idea in the same way an actor might do a screen test, or produce a showreel for casting directors.
Most directors don’t make a short based on an already finished script which they intend to turn into a feature. They prefer instead to make a short film from scratch. With a bit of luck and plenty of talent, a good short film can take a filmmaker a long long way.
Gareth Edwards, for example, took part in the Sci-Fi London 48-Hour Film Challenge in 2008. The idea is that filmmakers are given a title and a handful of other specifications on the morning of the challenge. They then have 48 hours to create and finish an entire five-minute short. Gareth Edwards won top prize in 2008, which he followed up with the indie science-fiction hit Monsters in 2010. After that came Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. To go from winning a short film competition to helming an entry in one of the biggest film franchises within a decade is no small feat. No small feat at all.
With that being said, the idea of a short film as a calling card or a CV-builder is contentious amongst many film circles. Lauren Wissot, a film journalist and a film festival programmer, speaking at a discussion panel in 2014, complained about short films “designed solely to tout the director or raise money for a longer film. Too often I feel like I’m sitting through vanity projects where I’m being pitched.”
Shorts are as deserving of evaluation and critical analysis as any other art form. Most of us won’t get as far as Gareth Edwards has, but any aspiring filmmaker ought to aim to make each short as good as it can possibly be. The short isn't a CV building block, but a living breathing thing that an audience can respond to. After all, Franz Kafka wrote three novels in his lifetime, but it’s the short story Metamorphosis which remains his defining work.
With this in mind, it's important to know the value of the short film. Why are we making this? What do people get out of this? The answer is always the story. A great story makes for a great film. A great film makes a great watch. A great watch means people will watch it.