For anyone wanting to get into the film industry, at some point, you will most likely need to make a short film as a sample to show what you could do with possible power over a feature-length movie. In some modern examples, short films have became feature films, because of their short film origins. Wes Anderson made 1996's crime-comedy "Bottle Rocket" from a short film of the same name a few years earlier. Paul Thomas Anderson made 1996's neo-noir thriller "Hard Eight" from a short film called "Cigarettes & Coffee". Another example is Jared Hess making 2004's cult-comedy "Napoleon Dynamite" from a short film called "Peluca" prior. In the horror genre, James Wan was able to make the 2004 horror-hit "Saw" from a short with the same name the year before. All of these short films transcended into feature-length films, because of their exposure in film festivals where experienced producers and financiers saw potential.
However, there are other filmmakers who just want people to know they can make something entertaining and/or cinematic.
Either way, these 10 tips should help you find success in the film festival circuit. Especially for those working with budgets that are pretty much non-existent.
#1 - Immediate Beginnings
Begin your short immediately where the story begins. Do not take any time to reveal credits or present any pretentious visuals - no matter how good they look unless they really, really contribute to the story by introducing characters or story. The only words that should appear in your opening is a brief title card and that can even wait till the end. Remember, the people in charge of choosing shorts for their festivals do not care who you are unless you're already established. They just want to know if your work is entertaining.
#2 - Theme
Scripted or improvised. There's a good mix between the two with short films. No matter which route you choose, you must have at least one major theme driving your story. 2011's Tribeca selection, "Donkey" tackled bullying. 2014's Sundance selection "Russian Roulette" tackled loneliness. With a solid theme to drive your short, you'll give your work something to talk about. I say this, because you'll most likely be working with a cast and crew full of amateurs. Nothing wrong with that, but a good theme is a metaphor for a good heart within bad person. A cast and crew of amateurs can create something amazing, but most likely, you'll get something basic or bad. A good theme can save your production faults from becoming stumbling blocks in the submission process.
#3 - Framing & "The Spielberg Face"
With a low-budget, you're going to encounter issues with production value (sound, lighting, image, setting, etc.). This can be overcome through professional framing. Most of your jurors who judge the shorts in these festivals have experience in film themselves and look for framing. Meaning, know your angles! You must know every angle must serve a purpose. If two people are talking in a room, it's okay to put on a wide-angle lens and capture the entire scene from one position as long as there's some rich dialogue and movement on the behalf of the actors. However, throwing in a few over-the-shoulder shots and 360 movements for perspective reasons will get you points.
As for the Spielberg Face, this is something that can save you from having a crappy setting you might be filming in. The Spielberg Face is a technique that should only be used at the right moments in feature-films, but you can use the hell out of it in a short film, because of the minimal length. It's really just a close-up that focuses and spotlights actor expression. Doing close-ups of actors (and make sure they can emote properly with their facial expressions and eyes) can distract your audiences from poor background. I'm a music video director and I've had to use this before. With low-budget filmmaking, you're most likely going to have a setting that's nothing too appealing. Constantly focusing on your character's reactions can make up for bad backgrounds. Spielberg uses it so well, he uses it especially when something major happens. He'll cut away from a shark attack to show a character's reaction and we always accept it, because it works. In fact, it wins Oscars. Steven Spielberg's name is on it, because he's a master at it. Close-ups work, but using close-ups during moments of action to show reaction can really enhance your character's personality.
#4 - The Three Act Structure
Most film buffs know of this structure. It's pretty much laid out like this (below) in its simplest form.
Act 1: Ordinary world. Establish main characters and story.
Act 2: New world. Something new to the characters has changed the ordinary world.
Act 3: An event fuses the ordinary world and new world together. The characters are left with a new look on life for better or worse.
This structure pretty much makes up every movie you watch and every book you read. However, creativity can make this overused structure unpredictable. You'll be given the course of seconds to minutes to execute each of the three acts with short films. Don't fret too much on being avant-garde when there's a perfectly good plot structure to manipulate here. It's been used since Greek mythology and we're still using it today.
#5 - Single Setting
There's nothing wrong with using one setting for your short film. In fact, feature-length movies like "The Breakfast Club" (1985) [high school], "Clerks" (1994) [convenient store], and "Phone Booth" (2002) [well, a phone booth] have used single settings to their advantage. Not only does this technique really help low-budget projects work, it also forces the filmmaker(s) to get creative. That's what's really important. Why travel the world for a love story when there's one in your bedroom? I know. It's that simple.
#6 - The Voice Over
This is entirely OPTIONAL, but can help your low-budget short get past potentially bad sound issues. Referencing 2011's Tribeca selection, "Donkey" again - this short's sound was entirely music and voice over narrative. Sound equipment can be too expensive for new filmmakers to get their short made. If it is, think of an alternative. Think of what your short film would be like if its sound was entirely voice over narration, music, and some creative sound design.
Another example is Sundance and SXSW selection, "Funnel" from 2014. It's a poorly made short about a man talking on his cell phone whilst walking back to his broken down car from the gas station. However, it's entertaining. The man's voice is done in voice over, but the filmmaker was smart enough to shoot the man from long distances to make the voice over seem more momentous - as if the filming and recording took place in the same instance. Just something to consider when you can't have proper sound equipment. No matter how beautiful your visuals are, bad sound can diminish it completely
#6 - Score! and Silence
"I can't possibly afford an original composition!"
Guess again! You can go to the Free Music Archive and legally use original compositions and songs for free. I mention this, because music can seriously enhance your work if edited with your short correctly. Think of a soft violin playing as a young woman walks to the door. It creates an atmosphere without you having to visually paint one. When she opens the door, the music stops playing when the character on the outside is revealed. The sudden transition from music to silence will definitely draw attention. The music cutting off when the character appears will (subtly) psychologically make the audience wonder who that person is. That's where the silence mentioned above comes in use. When correctly edited together, cinematic magic happens.
I also recommend checking out Bandcamp. It's a website where musicians of every genre sell their music and merch independently. I've found much music video work through these folks and many are happy to just have their music exposed in different mediums for free. I'm sure an e-mail asking them for their permission for you to use their music in your short can most likely result in you having free, good music to use.
#7 - Keep it Short
In order for a short film to be considered so, it must be below 45 minutes in length, but that doesn't mean you're given 45 minutes to work with. Rarely do film festivals accept any material that's over 10 to 15 minutes, because their lineup will include so many shorts as it is. Anything over 15 minutes will put a strain on their schedule. The best length to shoot for is anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes. You'll notice most short films selected into film festivals have that runtime. Yes, festivals accept films longer than 10 and 15 minutes, but that's only if they're damn good or made by established people. You're really taking a gamble when you submit something that long. Play it safe if you're new.
#8 - Credits
You should never be so concerned with everyone getting their name on the short. If it's good, people will look for whoever was behind the project. That's what IMDb is for. As mentioned in #1, never put your credits first. Put them dead last at the end of the film, preferably the final 20 seconds. That's a small amount of time, but I promise it will get you points in the submission process. Selection judges have no patience for credits. They're only there to watch stories. Not your name. A creative, efficient way to put your credits on the short is to squeeze them all in one or three frames. Never spend more than twenty seconds on credits at any time. Judges will appreciate it.
Using these 8 tips, you'll have a much better chance at getting into the film festival circuit. Good luck and I hope to see your work on the big screen someday!