I know numerous filmmakers who make short films to keep themselves sharp in between their major projects. I also know several students who shoot shorts with the hopes of being discovered. All of their creative knowledge goes into shooting the story they believe might help them achieve awards and attention.
However, the festival circuit is a highly competitive market with a uniqueness not considered by most filmmakers. Few producers contemplate the steps necessary to find the right festival for their story and build the film in a fashion that garners the greatest number of invitations by festival selection committees or jurors.
To help the filmmakers out, I’ve decided to write about a creative approach that will increase their chances of winning a meaningful award. I use the term meaningful because there are less than 50 festivals that will bring acclaim to a filmmaker out of several hundred. It’s easy to win an award if you’re willing to submit your film to small festivals with little competition. There are even fewer Academy Award-qualifying festivals.
The first consideration is the film’s budget. Few filmmakers have taken time to research their return on investment based on their out-of-pocket production budget. Statistically, the higher the budget, the greater the chance of being accepted by any given festival. This is true because the audience, and certainly the selection committee, can see the quality of a film increase with a bigger budget. That’s why some first-time filmmakers hate competing against a company like Pixar who enters high budget animated shorts from time to time.
While the selection process is easy for higher budget films, winning is not. The Short Movie Club conducted a survey and learned that higher budgets do not guarantee to receive an award. Here is a table I put together based on the research results of winners. I put it in the order of best to the worst chance of winning.
Odds of Win
You can see that the budgets, or lack thereof, create an interesting return on investment. The zero-dollar budget is filled with passionate friends who want to help make the film, but when production hits harder than most realize, their skills don’t make it to the silver screen. However, the volunteer cast and crew that gets to eat, thanks to a $500 budget, puts more of their sweat equity on screen. Budgets that exceed $20K are also hampered in the amount of effort that clearly comes across on the screen. Whether the crew is made up of professionals that are trying out new positions, or a passionate group that wants to use the short as a political statement, something falls short in higher budget films.
However, when a passionate group makes a film that they believe in, and have a few extra dollars for CGI work, great music, or something substantial that can differentiate the show from others, the odds of winning an award goes up.
Once the budget is settled, then the genre becomes most important. In qualified festivals, documentaries, dramas, and animation shorts rule the awards ceremonies. In unqualified festivals, animation, horror, and sci-fi bring home the awards. Selecting any other genre greatly reduces the filmmaker’s chance to win.
The one exception is niche festivals. For instance, a faith-based festival rarely will give an award to any film except for that of the faith-based genre. That also holds true for LGBTQ+ festivals not giving space to films that are not overt in their agenda.
Knowing the perspective of the festivals of interest prior to production helps the filmmaker creatively focus on the elements that are award-worthy. Promotional dollars can also be saved by not marketing the film to the wrong outlets and markets. However, the smaller the niche, the less likely the filmmaker will become known for his film.
The shorter the film, the greater the chances of a festival accepting the film. Here is a table showing the acceptance rate based on the length of the film.
Length of Film
Odds of Acceptance
The win rate is a very different set of percentages, as it reveals that brevity is king. The only exception is the 15-minute film that has enough time to develop a character that is worth rooting for. The caution comes in the development process that suggests the tighter the story, the better the chances of winning.
Odds of Win
I’ve been a festival judge numerous times and I can tell you that based on the vast majority of submissions that I’ve seen, 99% of them demonstrate that they are not award-winning films in the first 60-seconds. It is therefore prudent for filmmakers to immediately capture the attention of the audience with as much on-screen quality as possible.
However, most shorts do not immediately introduce you to the problem or the main character in the first 60-seconds, which guarantees that they will not win an award. Most film entries open with the mundane so you get a feel for the character’s life before something significant happens—killing the film’s chances of surviving the overloaded festival circuit.
Award-winning filmmakers typically open with a scene that oozes of the protagonist’s character or immediately drops the audience into the middle of a problem that is in full swing. While there are some films that win outside of that formula, the vast majority of awards go to the filmmaker who makes a film according to the needs of the targeted festival.
The process of developing a story for a particular festival takes a tremendous amount of creativity. And, it’s very limiting in that the film might not play well in commercial markets that do not hold to those constraints. In fact, if you make a 30+ minute film and release it on Amazon Prime, you’ll make good money and are almost guaranteed to not win a single festival award due to the film’s length—unless you apply to the Emmys.
Filmmakers have to pick between festivals and commercial exploitation. Rarely can a film be successful in both venues. Unfortunately, most filmmakers disagree with that statement, attempt to prove it wrong, and fail miserably. This multiple decade long attempt at reinventing the proverbial wheel in filmmaking continues with every generation. Their hope is more powerful than the measured reality.
Creativity must be applied with reason for success to ensue.