Some people make short films for the love of it, but for most, making an independent short film is a vital step towards getting your first big break as a feature film director. Yes, the sad reality is that – unless you're Richard Curtis's niece, or your dad plays golf with Ridley Scott – you need a short film to prove to investors and agents that you can write a good script and know what you’re doing with a camera. But how do you get those investors and agents to actually see it?
Not everyone who shoots a student film on their iPhone becomes the next Sean Baker, and not every morbid documentarian becomes the next Errol Morris; other than pure, unadulterated talent, one of the things that’ll set you apart from the crowd is getting the right industry people to sit down and watch your short. It’s a simple empirical equation, but if no one important with bags of cash sees your film, how is it going to elevate you to Oscar-worthy stardom?
To help you out with this conundrum, we went to Thunderdance, an independent film festival based in east London, to ask aspiring directors and professionals about how to release your indie short unto the world smoothly and successfully.
Make Sure It’s Good
To start with, you need to make sure your product is top notch, says David Nutter, one of the judges at Thunderdance and a man who has director credits on The X-Files, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. At Thunderdance, Nutter says he was looking for emotional impact, number one, and narrative cohesion, number two. "There is nothing in the world more sellable than a killer story with rich, vivid characters," says the Emmy-winning director. "It's always the script, the script, the script – as it has been, and always will be."
Enter the festival's People's Choice winner: the directorial debut of Asim Chaudhry – AKA Chabuddy G from People Just Do Nothing – a short film called Love Pool. A gripping 17-minute tragicomedy (whose trailer you can watch below), it artfully tells the story of a guy who falls in love with a woman in an Uber Pool and becomes transfixed on finding her again.
"It's a situational comedy about how everything is so instant these days, how we want love like fast-food or Uber," says Chaudhry. He agrees with Nutter’s advice: "The writing has to be so good, but you've also got to have someone who you know can deliver your lines. On People Just Do Nothing we pride ourselves on our naturalistic dialogue and improv, and Love Pool’s the same: it’s based on my life, it’s not formulated and no one’s obviously standing there thinking of their lines. So write what you know, chat with your mates, take real situations and try putting them in a script."
Get It in a Festival or Three
Director Joshua Trigg started Thunderdance because he saw a gap in the UK festival circuit for a small indie shorts festivals where directors could gauge a crowd's response to their film, meet other film people in an intimate, non-scary setting and – if the film’s good enough – get a prize credit or a quote from one of the festival's big name judges.
"Someone can quickly tell you which are the right festivals if they've gone through the process themselves," advises Josh, who has made several narrative shorts, "So ask." His second bit of advice is to make a calendar for festival submission deadlines, as most have a second deadline when it gets more expensive to submit. And finally, if you're spending the money, you want to make sure your film is being watched: "So don't be afraid to email and check up on your film."
As for the cost of submission, Emily Seale-Jones – whose short drama Husk was selected for last year's Thunderdance – advises budgeting ahead of time, since she spent around £200 on submitting to 14 festivals. "Budget, but don’t waste your time and money just submitting to every festival that you like," she clarifies. Instead, look at your film’s themes, what’s been selected at a festival before, and for any that pay particular care to minority directors if you are one, and submit to those festivals, says Emily.
If you have more budget, you can hire a Festival Doctor to do this for you – a professional whose entire job it is to consult on which international festivals would be right for your film.
Or Go It Alone
Festivals are great because all the right people should already be invited for you, points out Josh, but if you don’t get into any, you could always throw your own screening. Emily walked into her local independent cinema, the Curzon Soho, and asked the manager if she could show Husk (which you can watch below) there. They offered to do it for £150 at a quiet time. Likewise, when Asim finished Love Pool, the first thing he did was set up a "friends and family" screening, to which he could also invite industry people (get your friends just the right amount of drunk to cheer at the end of your film, but not too drunk that they'll embarrass you in front of a TV exec). He even put on a Q&A after.
Meanwhile, Emma Scarafiotti – whose short film Six In The Beauvoir also won at Thunderdance this year – has decided to follow up the screening there with a screening of her own. Because her film, which looks at gentrification in east London, is experimental, she figured it would work for a gallery space, and has decided to show it in an art setting. But there are other options to get your film shown for free, she says, like if you’re a student: try your school or university.
The handy thing about film festivals is the opportunity to network, says Josh. So don’t be a wallflower. And crucially, he adds, if your film doesn’t get into the festival, don’t sit at home sulking, try to go along anyway. You might learn something from the people whose films did get accepted, and you might meet someone important. Similarly, Emily says don’t be afraid to (politely) ask those people for help: "If I hadn’t have asked about the Curzon screening, I wouldn’t have got it," she says.
"Networking is really just conversation," says David Nutter, "and conversation can happen anywhere." His advice would be to: "Attend every party / wedding / pub crawl you’re ever invited to; talk to anyone who’s willing to listen to your idea; and suss out any 'family connections' you’ve got insofar as access-to-film-industry-personnel are concerned."
He adds another tip: "Talk to anybody-with-access-to-capital, and – instead of requesting their own personal financial input on your project – have them provide referrals to others, within their profession, who might be interested in investing in your film project. This technique often results in their own interest being piqued, which often leads to they, themselves, investing in your movie."
Put It Online for All the World to See
Asim advocates getting your short online when you’re done with festivals: "Anywhere, doesn't matter, just throw it online and let the masses see it." People Just Do Nothing started on YouTube, and while there’s so much content out there that it can be confusing, the cream rises to the top, he says: "Be self-confident, tell people about it, say, 'My product’s great, have a look at this.' Word of mouth is the best form of advertising, so let it be organic. Promotional posts popping up in your timeline? Fuck off."
When it's released, Love Pool will sit on an online platform called Vero. Josh recommends Vimeo, whose Staff Picks and Short Of The Week get selected films promoted through the platform. If you get chosen for that, chances are you might be spotted by production companies looking out for fresh talent. And Emily suggests Little Dot Studios, who monetise your content (but don’t get too excited – probably not for much), specifically via their site Tall Tales, where Husk is hosted.
Emma, meanwhile, recommends trying online magazines who might write about your film (don’t forget to ask for that video embed) or else publish it in its entirety (especially if it’s a short fashion film or music video). Just don’t make the fateful mistake of sending it somewhere that it wouldn’t be relevant, and when you type the email, remember: "They need to see your look, know your purpose, who is the audience, and who benefits," she says.
Finally, Get an Agent
Ideal scenario: your hard grafting and/or hovering by the bar awkwardly, and/or sliding into execs' DMs has got you in conversation with someone who has more experience than you. Bingo! Now is the time for flattery, and the request to send a follow-up email asking for a coffee or another relevant contact. If you find someone who really likes you, you can ask them which film festivals you should enter, as a guise under which to show them your film. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback on those submissions, says Josh, who claims that Thunderdance and other small festivals are usually good at getting back on this.
The big turning point for Emily’s career, however, was getting an agent: "I was doing everything on my own until someone passed him the web series I made before Husk and my agent signed me. The difference between having an agent and not having one was huge. It makes you more legitimate in people's eyes; the chances of production companies watching your film is higher if it comes through a person they trust who says they’ve signed you. It also opens doors because it gives you access to their network."
So be on the lookout for agents at events and drop agencies emails with your work. Because if you get an agent, hopefully they can do a load of the above for you.