How to develop, produce and distribute your own short films constantly without burning out.

ivan94film

Active member
Hello everyone, I am writing this complete guide on how to become an independent filmmaker because I feel like this is something I should have read when I first started out. This is, in other words, a manual I want to give to myself 10 years ago if I could travel back in time.

This will be a wall of text, but for those of you who have the patience and are willing to read all the way through, you should have a better understanding of what it takes to become a filmmaker and how the whole process works from beginning to end.

I am not a “guru” and these instructions should not steer you away from your path if you have already found success or have a solid business model. This guide is from my own personal experience and the information presented here could be inaccurate or obsolete in a few years, depending on many different factors in the ever changing independent film world. With that disclaimer out of the way let’s get to it!


I personally believe filmmaking can be divided into 2 categories. The first is “Serious” filmmaking and the second is “Popcorn” filmmaking. Both have their pros and cons. This guide will concentrate more on Popcorn filmmaking because that is the path I have chosen. I will digress here and there and talk more about serious filmmaking for those interested in going down that path but the main subject of this guide is on how to produce and distribute entertaining popcorn short films at the no budget level. ($50-$2000)


What is Serious filmmaking? “Serious” in my opinion consists of non-genre films, mainly pure dramas and period dramas, non-narrative, avant-garde & experimental filmmaking. If you wish to go down this path, then know that this is the more expensive, difficult, longer & slower path. However the rewards can be very huge if you have the fire in you to become the next Terence Malick or Barry Jenkins as you will be very well respected and seen as a serious storyteller and win many awards. These filmmakers also have the opportunities to do blockbusters such as Chloé Zhao and Cary Joji Fukunaga, while pure popcorn filmmakers rarely enter this exclusive space and are not as respected by film critics.


What is Popcorn filmmaking? Popcorn films in my opinion, are high concept, genre films with a clear simple narrative that can be summarized in one powerful sentence, aka Logline. These are the type of stories that resonate with a global audience and have the potential to go viral online. This is also a highly competitive space but it is also where most legends such as David F. Sandberg (lights out, Shazam), Andrés Muschietti (mama, It) & James Wan (Saw, Aquaman) got their big break.


Filmmaking is one of the most expensive art forms in the world. The sooner you realize that 99.999% of short films don’t make any money, the quicker you can decide which of these 2 paths you want to take. Short films are a huge investment in your career and time. You are building a portfolio and also playing the lottery to see if one of your stories goes viral (popcorn) or gets critical acclaim (serious).


The myth of the “overnight sensation” glosses over how many of these successful filmmakers we worship have at one point struggled like us and made dozens of short films that were never released or shown to a wide audience. For every Tarantino there are thousands who gave up and never reached their full potential.


Another disclaimer I want to point out is that filmmaking is a full-time commitment. You are committing at least a decade or more of your life to becoming a starving artist. For most people this will mean losing their 20s and seeing their friends drive cars, buy houses, have children , etc. Is that the path you want to take? If filmmaking is truly your passion then it will be an easy yes. I have seen over the years many talented filmmakers who have given up because they have taken full time jobs or lost their passion, this is the death sentence. If you don’t have a family that supports and invests in your career then you will need to get a part-time job to make ends meet, but the moment you take on another full-time career, your filmmaking dreams will be secondary and non-existent. Another trap you can fall into is if you become a full-time music video director or full-time employee at a rental or post house, so while you are working in the entertainment industry, you won’t have time to become a narrative filmmaker.


OK, so how do we make MANY short films and minimize costs & risks i.e. how do we not go broke and in debt within a year?


According to a PHD study by Dr J.T. Velikovsky, Ph.D, titled StoryAltiy (do read his blog, very good info) the cheapest movies to make that gets the most viewers are horror films by writer-hyphenates. This is very important.


I will start with explaining writer-hyphenates. A filmmaker is a visual storyteller. So in that sense your greatest asset, is your ability to tell a good story. All the legends, Tarantino, Rodriguez, Cameron, Nolan etc all started out as writer-hyphenates. That means you need to be able to write screenplays. If you are a director, producer or actor that requires the help of a writer and their ideas to create art, then you don’t have a voice and won’t stand out in the overcrowded space of low budget visual entertainment.


Writing is the cheapest art, and yet it is the hardest of all filmmaking skills to master. To make a good popcorn flix and stand out amongst the crowd, you either need a very powerful concept or a very emotional story that resonates with the audience or better yet both!


Now I believe writing is not something that can be taught, it can only be honed through years of experience but I can part with tips and knowledge that I find most useful through years of scouring youtube for tips and tricks.


By far the biggest mistake, filmmakers make, is that they confuse a situation for a story. Writing and filming a good situation can open the door for you as evidence by short films such as Lights Out, Mama, and Panic Attack, but these legends would not have the opportunity to direct Hollywood movies if they had not mastered the craft of telling a story. Go read Lights Out treatment for example. If David F. Sandberg was not able to write that treatment, Lights Outs would at worst, not get made or at best, the idea would have been bought and he would maybe get a story credit but have no further involvement.


What is a story? A story is a situation that propels the protagonist to find inner change. This internal change, the hero’s journey, whether positive (star wars) or negative (requiem for a dream) is what gives your story a moral and a thematic statement which is a subjective answer you present at the end of the story. This statement is not the absolute truth but gives the audience food for thought that propels ordinary situations into myths. Example Star Wars Episode 3: Did Anakin (tragic hero) kill all those people to save his love, or was is for greed? Your goal as a popcorn filmmaker is to create myths that can be turned into new franchise blockbusters.


Now to start writing a story you need a powerful concept. A concept can be summarized as a logline. A very powerful 1 sentence, that will hook your audience and make them want to watch your film. A logline should consist of the protagonist, the conflict (what they must do/what is stopping them) and the reason for it (what is at stake?)

Example: A desperate junkie must rob his father’s drug store so he can go cross country with his girlfriend to meet his dying mother.

This logline tells us everything we need to know about the story. It could be a dark comedy-heist-road movie, there are two antagonists, his father, who is preventing him from getting the money, and his girlfriend who probably fuels his bad drug habits and his dying mother which is what’s at stake.

With a powerful concept it is time to put it into a structure. The most popular structure is the 3-act structure. This structure can be seen in countless movies, and the worldwide audience is so accustomed to it that if you do not follow this structure, then most viewers will think you didn’t “nail” the story or something feels off. In essence, the 3-act structure is the beginning middle and end with multiple turning points (big and small situations where the protagonist can’t turn back and must go forward). Google 3 act structure and put them up on your wall. Drill it into your head. 2 of the best ones are by Blake Snyder and Michael Hauge.


The 3-act structure is there to give you a narrative line you can work with. Some of my favorite films, El Topo, Too old to die young and Memento do not follow the typical Hollywood 3 act structure, but these Auteurs have complete mastery and understanding of beginning, middle and ending that they know how to bend the rules and create compelling narratives that the audience can easily follow.



The 3 act structure is the physical conflict your hero must overcome but there is also an internal conflict you must tell. This is where the Hero’s journey/arc comes in. The most popular one today is Dan Harmon’s story circle, based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. This structure fits best with Mythological hero stories such as Luke Skywalker, Frodo, Bilbo etc but there are different types of arcs you can use. Example Flat arc (cat in the hat), Disillusionment arc ( Thin red line), Fall arc (star wars prequels) Corruption arc (Godfather) etc. Google for more arcs and details.


Now if you are a beginner popcorn filmmaker who has done less than 3 short films, these story tools should be studied and honed but your best bet is probably writing a powerful situation with a very strong concept where the main character doesn’t go through a change. Why? Because your best bet is to start with 5 minute or shorter short films, preferably at least 3 before doing longer shorts. If you can hold the audience’s attention for 5 minutes then you can expand and create more complex stories and scale up to 10, 15 then 30 and finally feature length. If you are a serious filmmaker then drama requires internal change so you do need to implement a character arc and see if you can fit that within the 5 minute time frame.


Last words about writing, at any time during the filmmaking process, you should constantly have a minimum of 5 loglines in your incubator that you are constantly developing. This is so that you have a good concept ready to go and develop once you are in postproduction on your latest film. That way you won’t have an unproductive moment in your quarterly schedule. Treat your company and career as a startup. If you only have one concept and it flops what happens?



Ok enough about writing. Let’s talk about Horror. Why are horror films the most viral genre? Horror films are the most viral because they are the cheapest to make and presents a narrative that resonates with all cultures worldwide. Horror taps into our primal fears of life & death. A good horror film will reach a wider audience than a difficult drama story that is very culture specific or dealing with taboo topics many cultures are not ready to face yet.
 

ivan94film

Active member
With the over-saturation of visual media, the few ways to stand out is if you have a name talent attached to your project. A short film with Brad Pitt or Meryl Streep will have a built in audience, and will receive free press but the chances of you or me attaching big names are 0%. Horror is one of the few genres that doesn’t require a big name actor to go viral, other genres could include sci-fi and fantasy to some extent but those genres require heavy visual effects, elaborate costumes and set pieces that is outside the budget for most independent filmmakers. I am not forcing you to create horror short films but if you want to survive as a filmmaker and constantly create, you need to make the cheapest movie possible with the widest audience possible. The quicker you realize short films are a loss leader and that you are playing with your own money and time the quicker you will understand that film is an art but also a business. Your main goal is to get views on your films and build an established brand so that big money can finance your more ambitious projects.


Now for the serious filmmakers, you have a difficult story to and you don’t want to “dumb it down” by turning it into a genre film. What can you do? My suggestion is you go to filmfreeway and filter out to only free ($0) festival submission fees and see what type of films they are looking for. You will quickly get a sense of what type of stories the industry deems important that they are willing to watch submissions for free. Usually these themes revolve around environment, water shortage, immigration issues, cultural integration, LGBT, feminism and also animation. So if you have a powerful dramatic story to tell, try to see if you can fit in within these themes. If you are a member of the LGBT community or have multiple female or LGBT filmmakers in Above-the-line positions such as director and producer then, the doors will open for financing through government grants and private grants that support equality and change. In other words this path is a team effort and the more powerful friends you have, the higher chance you will succeed as a serious filmmaker.


OK back to popcorn. Now that you have a completed script how do you make the film? As previously stated, the best bet for a long and sustainable career in the independent world is if you become an Auteur. Writer-hyphenate is a must, but the more you can do the stronger your vision will be, the cheaper your production costs will be and the less reliance you will have on others. Example: you have a cinematographer who dropped out last minute, what now, scrap the film? Beg and pay someone else even more money to work on your film in a desperate last minute call? NO! This is not sustainable and a terrible business plan.


You need to be able to direct actors, operate camera, light, produce, edit, color grade, sound edit & mix and create visual effects all by yourself. Yes. This is crazy. This takes years of practice and skills. How do you do this? If you have parents who can support you and you are still young, early 20s, I suggest you go to a film school, and a good one if you can afford it. Film school gives you practical experience and access to all equipments and mentors. If you do go to film school then don’t be the kid that only wants to direct. Everyone wants to direct, but if all you can do is talk to actors but you know nothing about sound, editing or camera lighting then you won’t become an Auteur, unless you have a deep trust fund and can afford to hire professional crews to bring your vision to life.


A common counter argument is don’t go to filmschool save that $10K-40K and make your own movie! I guarantee you if you’ve only watched youtube tutorials and never been on a film set and you blow all that money on one passion project, you will make a stinker.


Side note: The only position I would spend money on is the production sound mixer as they are the hardest to find and you can’t operate both camera and sound unless you do dry takes but that will double the length of your schedule. Today 2022, there is a $600 investment known as zoom F6, this field recorder allows your actors to scream or whisper and you will still have good sound without clipping or terrible noise. With the F6 and a reasonable microphone like rode ntg3; total cost around $1000, you will have the ability to give this equipment to non-filmmaking friends and family and have them help you out on set. Yes, this is a big investment but it will pay off if you are planning on making filmmaking your career, see this as the total cost of 10 days of hiring a professional production sound mixer who owns their own equipment.


Another way to gain experience is through the music video route. Music videos are constantly made and super ultra competitive. It is the race to the bottom to see who can do it for the least amount of money or for free. As a beginner, you should beg every single musician in your area to do their music video for free. That way you can learn how to operate the camera, experiment with lighting and apply the knowledge you got from free youtube videos or film school on your own set.
 

ivan94film

Active member
To practice sound recording and what is necessary to get good sound, you should visit or email all film schools in your city. Most film school students hate doing sound so there should be an open position in the sound department you can volunteer for. Ask as well if you can help out with the post sound work and prepare a showreel to show them if necessary.


A valuable source of knowledge is your local film institution’s library. At least in Europe, there will be a library dedicated to just filmmaking. Nobody goes there, and there are plenty of books you can read from industry professionals. Just watching youtube videos will not give you the proper information since many of the gurus skim through the advanced technical details.


OK so you have the basic skills and knowledge to operate the camera, sound recording, producing, directing, and writing so what’s next? Well you make your film. I have already written 3 posts in the forum about directing tips, scheduling tips and budgeting tips so that should help you out if you need more details.


Sidenote: Financing, from government film institutes, local film organizations and private or political institutes are reserved for serious filmmakers (with some exceptions). This is one of their advantages. But unless the serious filmmaker is well connected with established film industry mentors or have name talents attached to their serious drama, or have made a successful award winning short film (minimum B level festivals) you, the serious filmmaker, probably have a better chance of getting money by buying a lottery ticket. If you are a popcorn filmmaker then forget about these sources of finance. You need to finance your own films and give yourself the greenlight authority. When you spend your own money, you will think more like a producer, you won’t mess around & waste money, and you will be able to make short films faster than the serious filmmaker.


Basically the process goes something like this, some steps can be moved around: logline - treatment - script - shotlist & soundlist - storyboard - shooting script - script breakdown - prelim. budgeting - fix casting, locations, crew, costumes, props etc. - scheduling - final budget & schedule - contract signing (own your actor’s image rights on every production) - test shoot (good to do but not always possible) - floor plan (after location visit or test shoot) - Call sheets - The shoot (day 1, 2 etc) - Post production - ingest, proxies & backups - sync footage & sound - Review all shots and take notes - Edit (usually 3-4 versions if you have filmmaking friends have them watch it and give notes) - Edit lock - Online - Vfx image retouch etc - color grade - Final cut lock - Sound editing - composing - sound mixing - sound lock - final mastering (HDR, SDR, P3 etc) - PR kit creation - Distribution

Wow, there you go, this is what most short films go through from script to screen. But we’re not done yet.

Remember when I said your goal is to get the most views possible? That’s where marketing comes in. Yes outside of filmmaking you need to know how to market your film to stand out from the highly saturated short film market. You should have already planned your marketing during preproduction before you shot your film.


Most articles online on short film distribution will tell you to distribute your films via film festivals, famous short film channels & websites or local broadcast networks. NOOOOO!


This is the old method that no longer works. Unless you are a serious filmmaker with a very, very good & complex drama story or you have stars or influencers attached behind or in front of the camera then by all means go through with film festivals such as Sundance, Toronoto, Tribeca etc or famous short film distributors, local government funded channels/platforms , etc.


The name of the game is ownership, like what music artists are doing today, it is very unwise of you to sell or lend your film and give someone else temporary or permanent exclusivity of your work, plus you still have to pay them to watch your submission. You want full control of your movie and detailed viewership data so you can tweak and improve marketing and future projects to fit your fanbase’s taste. Also forget about limited theatrical distribution of your short film at that local art house theater, that money is better spent on your next short film or digital ads (more on ads later).


Many of you including me, have spent obscene amounts of money, praying and spraying for a bunch of A & B level film festivals that end up with rejections and wasted submission fees, don’t do that! Outside of the big A+ festivals Sundance, Toronto, Cannes etc (less than 10) your film will not be seen by any real important people and even if they do see it you will most likely not get that phone call because they are waiting and watching if you can make another big hit. Now can you do it twice in consecutive years? If yes then you are a savant, and will be the next Steven Soderbergh.


When you commit to a budget for your short film, you should at least spend another 50% of that budget on marketing. Even better if you can do a 1:1 ratio and best of all if your marketing budget is above your production budget. Don’t go overboard however, since you still need money for your next project. How do you market your film? First of all you want to upload it to the two viable platforms for narrative short films, YouTube and Vimeo, Facebook is a distant third but things could change in a few years.


Now if you are a serious filmmaker, and your film’s festival cycle has ended and if you have won awards; You will want to put those laurels from the respected festivals on the video thumbnail and upload them to Vimeo first. If you get a staff pick then your film might go viral and more industry titans will watch your short leading to possible manager signings and meetings with executives who are interested in your next serious drama or high concept story. If you failed to get a staff pick and don’t gain traction on Vimeo then you want to upload it through the famous short film channels and work out a deal with them. Still I believe it is in your best interest to own exclusivity and promote yourself but these infrastructures can help you reach more important industry insiders if you already found success through the festivals.


OK back to popcorn filmmakers. Upload to vimeo as well, but don’t use the vimeo link to promote your short film! Use youtube instead and don’t put your short film behind any paywalls Vimeo on demand etc (you won’t make that money back unless you have stars or you’re already famous). The free marketing at your disposal is friends & family, facebook filmmaking groups & specific genre groups. Also influencers and famous people if you know any. Twitter if you have a large following, Reddit and other online forums such as the one you are on now. Do your research and find as many as possible. Trends show that most viral films today actually go viral via Reddit. Reddit is a community that hates advertisement. So the best way to advertise on reddit is by becoming a famous contributor in specific film or genre related subreddits first before promoting your film. The best form of advertisement is if other people share your film instead of you yourself. Again reddit hates ads. This is a form of grassroots marketing that is complex but achievable. Another thing to take note is what reddit is currently talking about. Can you make a short film out of that?


Now that you have saved a bunch of money by not buying lottery tickets (submitting via filmfreeway) what do you do with that money? You buy ads. Yes, the 2 biggest, are Google Ads and Facebook Ads, there is also snapchat ads, tiktok ads, reddit ads and bing ads. In my experience the cheapest and best are google and facebook, you could try the others but they won’t guarantee the best results. Snapchat & tiktok users want reality TV content, reddit users hate ads and older people or non-tech savvy people use bing.


If you have only used the free marketing techniques 2 paragraphs above and you do not have access to a large following or an influencer or star talent, then you should probably get around 1k-2k views. Decent but still terrible. That’s where the ads come in. By targeting the correct audience through age brackets, interests and hobbies you are more likely to reach a real human who clicks on your ads and watches your short film without leaving after 10 seconds. This will help you build view counts and add subscribers to legitimize your short films and it will also help potential viewers who find your short film via the youtube algorithm to give it a chance and click.


When it comes to Horror, Google ads, the best ad platform is very strict. The best way to market your horror short film directly on youtube’s ad platform (cheapest most views) is to make a horror film that does not show blood, death, violence or any scary jump-scares. Yes this is counterintuitive but that is the game you have to play. You are basically making a horror without the horror, more of an atmospheric scare that a 13 year old can watch without being traumatized. I am not condoning that you compromise your vision but the more shock and gore in your video the more expensive your ads will be, since google will ban your ad from running. Sci-fi, comedies (non sexual) and fantasy are good to go as long as they are not violent and show blood or death. Remember PG-13.


OK with all this information said and done, are you still interested in becoming a filmmaker? Do you dream about becoming the next Christopher Nolan or Katheryn Bigelow?


If you are then know that you are looking at 12-14 hour work days everyday, yes even weekends if you have any chance of releasing at least 4-6 short films a year.
Yes this is a very grueling and uncertain career, and once you do make it to the top at a Hollywood level, you will be seeing some 20 hour work days if you are shooting epics and actions sequences that cost millions of dollars per hour.


This is the truth most people don’t realize. Savants like Christopher Nolan and Tarantino work constantly and never gave up. Filmmaking is their life and biggest priority. Scorsese, left his first wife and child to pursue his career (not condoning). So if filmmaking is your true passion then everything I’ve said won’t deter you.


If you are however still interested in video and entertainment but everything above is too much then the better option is if you become an influencer/vlogger or a how-to-guru. These videos are easier to churn out weekly and will cost you much less, though competition is also stiff. You can use this guide to create a compelling narrative for who you are and why you matter, plus the marketing portion should help you out as well. Mysteryguitarman started out as a vlogger and became a movie director (Arctic, Stowaway) thanks partly to his viewership base though if you watch his interview, his youtube fame didn’t help him much in getting his projects funded, his powerful high concept short films did.

And if you are a serious filmmaker, then the mountain to climb is even taller and the fall will hurt even more. But if that is your end goal and you want to be the next Barry Jenkins or Terrence Malick making 2-3 oscar winning movies every 2 decades then go for it, but don’t give up.


This should about cover it all as a basic guide in how to create your short film. More technical details can be learnt via youtube, film school and by making short films. So if this guide can help the next up and coming Spielberg then I am very happy and have done my job.

Never give up on your dreams!
 

Maura N.

The Last Black Unicorn
Staff member
Thank you for posting this, @ivan94film ! It is difficult to find relevant advice when you do not have the experience to know what to do. Because of this, I am confident it will help many of our members who are just starting.
 
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