Matt Whitecross

Spielberg did it. Scorsese did it. Even Tarantino took a shot at it. All these people have one thing in common - they began their careers directing short films. And much as one would like to believe that with talent and the right script Hollywood will come grovelling to your door, the chances of this happening anywhere other than your feveredly optimistic imagination are slim. Make no mistake: cinematically speaking, the best way to get yourself noticed in the world is by making a short film.

So how does one go about it? To find out, I went to the last meeting of the New Producers Alliance, hosted at the Royal School of Art. The NPA is an organisation which seeks to provide an opening in this notoriously incestuous business for new film-makers who, in the words of publicist Jessica Kirsch, “don’t happen to have a dad who’s a film producer”. Present were Michael Wrenn from Alliance Distribution, Clare Binns of Oasis Cinemas, Nick O’Hagan, indie producer of Fever Pitch, and Emma Shepherd, Commissioner for Channel 4’s Short and Curlies.

The message was mixed: on the one hand, this is a relative golden period for short films, which are receiving more exposure on television and cinema screens than ever before. However, competition has increased proportionately, and making films is still as tricky as ever. Luckily, organisations like the NPA exist to give you a much needed helping hand. If you can’t afford or can’t be bothered with film school, there’s no need to wait. As Shane Meadows, director of Smalltime and TwentyFourSeven, has said: “There are people out there who won’t make a film unless they can shoot on 16mm: well I think, ‘fuck off then. Camcorders cost nothing.’ You can only learn the fundamentals of film-making by teaching yourself, which can be done with a camcorder (easily blagged off Bloomsbury TV). These efforts can then be sent to different organisations to secure funding for your dream project.”

So what did I learn? Well, here in ten easy steps is the beginner’s guide to making your very own short film:

  1. Build up a show-reel (on film if possible, but video is fine), both for experience and as a calling card. No show-reel, no funding.
  2. Before making the movie, make sure the script’s good. The script is all-important.
  3. If at all possible shoot your film on 35mm, but not on cinemascope. 16mm is a harder sell, but better than Super 16; video is even trickier. Both video and 16mm will require blowing up for projection, which is very costly.
  4. Keep your short films SHORT. 5-8 minutes is ideal. Keep the audience wanting more. [Longer films should be no more than 25 minutes to fit into the half-hour slot.]
  5. Be original. No one wants to see the English Reservoir Dogs/Trainspotting/Man Bites Dog. And don’t film one guy in a bedsit, due to budgetary/imaginary constraints. It’s been done before. And its boring.
  6. When searching for funding or screening - be cheeky. Pester people. Search all possible avenues. Indie director Steven Lowenstein managed to get his short The Key shown with The Usual Suspects by phoning the distributors. Lie through your teeth if necessary. Festivals, cinemas, TV, even Virgin airlines are looking for shorts now. If your film’s good enough, perseverance should pay off.
  7. Don’t forget publicity. Cinemas like The Ritzy and publications like Time Out will need stills and synopses, etc.
  8. Be careful. Even with short films, you’ll be dealing with the cut-throat world of business. Check deals, and don’t let them shaft you.
  9. Bear in mind that very few short films have ever made back their money. The people who help you will be doing it a) out of the kindness of their hearts, or b) for cheap publicity. Don’t take them for granted.
  10. For £40 a year, you can become an NPA member, and receive invaluable help with your shorts, and invitations to screenings and talks.

A short film has to be a labour of love, and will take up more time and effort than climbing Everest. This is definitely not a get-rich-quick scheme. But don’t worry - if you’re talented enough, the big bucks, Betty Ford clinic and Hello magazine will all come with time. Here’s Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape, Kafka) with some advice: “For those aspiring to a career in the film business, I offer this equation: Talent + Perserverance= Luck. Be ready when it happens.”

For more information about the NPA, get in touch with Jane Ivey, Rebecca Johnson or Phillida Lansley on 0171 580 2480, or otherwise e-mail them at

Reel Progress
Film Culture
Film Maker
Reel Independence

Further internet resources are available at Yahoo! Independent Movies and Film.


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