One of the best ways to make your mark in Hollywood is by making a short film. Many of the greats, from Robert Eggers, to the GOAT himself, Stephen Spielberg, got their start after somebody powerful fell in love with their short film. In fact, hardly a month goes by that I don’t hear about another writer or director who broke through with a killer short film. Why? Here are a few reasons why a short film is an excellent entry point into Hollywood:
They are quick – A feature film is usually between 90 minutes and 2 hours long. This means that a hypothetical agent looking for new clients has to take hours out of their day to watch your film. Considering this agent probably has to go through hundreds of submissions to find a good fit, your two-hour epic is a poor use of their time. Shorts, meanwhile, can be an excellent show of your talent in as little as 5 minutes.They stand out – Even the best features have only a few standout scenes. Think about your favorite movie: Is every scene riveting? Is there no moment that you wouldn’t miss? Chances are, you said ‘no’. Even the best films only have a few truly standout moments. A short film, on the other hand, is comprised only of the standout moments.They are everywhere – Features (even more for TV episodes) are usually difficult to find. Our hypothetical agent would have to rent your feature, find it on a streaming service, or click through your Vimeo link and type in a password. Short films can be proudly displayed on your YouTube or social media, or downloaded to an agent’s computer in a matter of minutes.
Yes, short films can be an excellent way to show off your writing/directing style and promote yourself to agents and managers. But how do you come up with an idea for your short film? It may seem tricky, especially if you’re used to writing longer form screenplays. Short films don’t have complex stories or rich, full character arcs. This can be very frustrating to a writer. I know I’ve struggled to write a short film before, simply because my ideas generally come out too big. But never fear, because I’m going to end that brain fog for you today: Here are ten methods to come up with great short film ideas.
1.) A scene from a longer project
IP is king. What does that mean? It means that studios and/or production companies who might be interested in you are infinitely more likely to jump on board your project if it’s based on existing content. One of the best ways to come up with a short film idea is simply to rework one of the best scenes out of your existing feature film or TV series as a short. If you choose this route, you’re killing two birds with one stone. You’re making your short film, and you’re adding more value to your feature/TV pilot for when you decide to shop it around town. And who knows? Maybe a studio chief will watch your short film and decide to option it out right. Then you’ll already have an entire pilot or feature ready to go for them.
You can’t just pick any scene, however. It needs to be attention-grabbing and visceral. Here are some tips to pick the scene you’re going to adapt:
Make sure it shows the world of your longer script. If your feature is a romantic comedy about two people with human heads finding each other in a world where everybody else has goat heads, make sure the scene you pick has some goat heads in it.Keep an eye on budget. You don’t want to adapt your short film from a sprawling car chase sequence. The more stunts or VFX you need to employ, the worse the final product will look (unless you have a massive effects budget).Make it dramatic. The scene you choose should involve (probably no more than 3) characters grappling with profound issues, preferably those directly connected to your longer script’s overarching story.You can totally make your short film a comedy, but it must be the most funny scene in your entire feature or pilot, and it must follow the above rules (except it has to be funny instead of dramatic, obviously)
2.) The world around you
Let’s talk about budget. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t have one. You’re probably making this short film for pennies, if not less. Your friends are probably working for free (or, if this is a college film, for credit), and most of your budget is probably going to props and food. So write towards that. It’s not shameful to write within your means when first starting out. Oren Peli, who wrote and directed the worldwide phenomenon Paranormal Activity, wrote his film around the fact that it could take place entirely in his house.
Think about the assets you already have. Your own apartment. Your car. The bus or subway (although you’ll have to be discreet). Your college campus or workplace (if you’re allowed there after hours). Find the most interesting spot you have access to (preferably not outdoors, as the sound will be affected), and ask yourself: “What kind of story could I set here?”
3.) A picture
The 1990s film Miller’s Crossing, directed by the Coen Brothers, was based on an image one of the brothers imagined: a hat blowing in the wind. Obviously, they spun this idea into a sweeping crime noir film, but it works even better for a short film. So how do you do this?
Spend some time looking at pictures online. Download any that really speak to you into a folder on your computer.Narrow it down to between three and five of your favorite pictures.For each picture, start jotting down any characters you see. If there are people in the frame, start there. If not, imagine the kind of person that might be in the picture and write towards that.Once you have loose notes on a few pictures, step away for a while. When you’re ready, go back and re-read your notes to find the picture you’re most interested in adapting. Start outlining based on the notes you’ve just taken.
NOTE: Be sure not to use the actual picture in your final film unless you have the rights. Don’t be a copyright thief.
4.) A dream
There are two ways to come up with a short film idea based on a dream. We’ll go through each one individually.
A.) WRITE A SHORT STORY BASED ON A DREAM YOU’VE HAD
This is pretty straightforward. We all remember at least some of our dreams, even if only in fragments. Take some time away from your computer. Go for a walk. Try not to focus on remembering your dreams (that’s a trap it’s very difficult to get out of). Once you’ve successfully cleared your mind, try to think about the craziest, most intense dream you’ve had recently. Avoid sexy dreams, unless you’re a very specific kind of writer. Instead, focus on wild, crazy, unique dreams. Once you find one you’re interested in adapting, start writing down anything you can remember about it. Usually, after a short while, the floodgates will open and the ideas will pour out onto the page.
B.) WRITE A SHORT STORY THAT IS A DREAM
This is the second way to use dreams as fodder for your short films is by making short films that consist of dreams. There are some excellent benefits to this method. Firstly, you don’t have to worry about formatting your short film in a traditional way (or about continuity, for that matter). In addition, many editing and shooting mistakes will also be forgiven as style in a dream sequence, which is very useful for first-time filmmakers. Also, a dream sequence allows you to play with many different emotions and sequences in rapid succession, and even to tell tiny character arcs all in a single scene. Dream sequences are one of the only times audiences entirely suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to completely open up to whatever you’ve put in front of them.
5.) A Zoom short film
I know, everybody is done with the pandemic (if you’re reading this in the future, we’ve been dealing with this thing called COVID for a year and a half, now. Look it up, it’s wild!). We’re all itching to get back in the real world. But Zoom cinema isn’t going anywhere. The days of films like “Unfriended” being oddities are gone forever. Today, there are mountains of Zoom films and TV. From Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching” to an episode of the Emmy Award-winning series “Modern Family”. So why should you consider making a short film that takes place over Zoom? Here are a few great reasons.
Budget considerations – As we’ve said before (and will say again), budget is key when coming up with your idea for a short film. And the great thing about Zoom is nobody is expecting killer production value. People will forgive audio and video quality issues that they certainly wouldn’t forgive in a traditional film. You may even be rewarded for your “authenticity”.It does the work for you – Everybody knows what a Zoom meeting is. The moment you see those boxes appear on screen, you know what you’re in for. Which means you can save a lot of time on setup and introductions, and just get right into the meat of the story.They force you into a box (literally) – This is, after all, an article about coming up with short film ideas. And there’s nothing better for a blank mind than putting restraints on yourself. Once you’ve settled on Zoom as your set, you’ve narrowed down the scope of your project so much that it will be far easier to start writing.
6.) Two characters in a room
This is similar to method #5. Shrinking your location down to a single room, and your cast down to two people, gives you a number of guaranteed boosts right off the bat. Not only do you get many of the same budgetary benefits you get with a Zoom film, but you also get something else that’s priceless: you’re automatically dealing with one relationship. You have endless options for that relationship, but your short film will revolve around two characters in a room, working within the bounds of a relationship of some kind. Many great movies and TV episodes take place all (or mostly) within a single room. Movies like ‘Saw’ pit two characters against each other in one room, while ’12 Angry Men’ (which, admittedly has more than two characters), forces resolution between many different strongly-held beliefs. There’s magic to a single room (and two characters with opposing views in that room) that is short film gold.
Need help deciding what sort of relationship your characters will have? Start here:
They could be…
A couple (either breaking up or getting back together)Two strangers (falling in love or trying to kill each other)Two friends (learning a secret about on another)Two enemies (becoming allies or backstabbing each other)
They could also be…
Detectives (solving a murder)Parents of a bride to-beSiblings left home aloneCannibals planning their next killA couple trying to make love for the first time but messing it up
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The opportunities are nearly endless when you put two people into a room and force them to interact. But, if “endless opportunities” stresses you out, start with one of the ones I’ve listed above. I won’t sue you, I promise
This idea is pretty straightforward: take two genres and smash them together. Many great films have done it. The Coen Brothers, for instance, make a second appearance on this list. Their films are almost always a blend of genres. ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’ is a blend of Western and Epic, ‘No Country For Old Men’ is a Crime Noir and a Western. Come to think of it, they often genre-smash using Westerns. But you don’t have to. Not all genres smash as well, and some are just cliché (saying you’re making a dramedy doesn’t count as genre-smashing). Here are some genres you can try smashing together. See what you come up with.
You can be the one to write the world’s first ever Horror-Mockumentary or Comedy-Crime Noir. And these are just sample genres. Start smashing and you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect short film idea.
8.) Use a life event
Suppose you want to make an “important” short film. In that case, welcome NYU Undergrads. Just kidding, not everybody wants to make a Western-Time Loop movie. And for these people, it’s best to find subject matter that’s a bit more personal. Any great film or TV series is at least partially inspired by real life. While your important film doesn’t have to be based on an actual event from your life, there’s no rule that says it can’t be. So why not base your short film on a major life event that made a real impact on you. The best writing always comes from a place of true, raw emotions. So find an event from your life that really spoke to you and get writing.
Here are some sample events, broke down by the tone of film you want to make:
Positive Events: Graduation (high school or college), marriage, birth of a child, first kiss, first time having sex.
Negative Events: The death of a loved one, The anxiety of starting a new job or relationship, first kiss, first time having sex.
As you can see from above, many of these life events can play as positive or negative depending on how you spin it. An interesting exercise would be to take one of the happiest life experiences you’ve had, and write as though it was the worst thing that ever happened to you. Or vice versa.
PRO TIP: I’m not saying you should literally write a short film about your own life (you probably shouldn’t). Instead, I’m suggesting you write about a fictional character experiencing one of these life events, and learning the same lessons you learned (or failing to learn them).
Feel free to put your own spin on this method. Maybe mix one of these life events with a genre-smash or two.
9.) Write for your budget
Once again, it all comes back to budget. This is going to be the single biggest factor in getting your short film made and looking beautiful. And I’m going to say it one more time for the people in the back: There is no shame in writing with a budget in mind. For many writers, there seems to be a stigma around writing towards a budget. It’s seen by many as “selling out” or “hampering their creative vision”. I’m here to tell those people that they are wrong. Even among the most expensive films in the world, screenwriters have to write towards a budget. And that means you can too. So how do you do this?
Make a list of everything you have at your disposal for your film. This means, your car, your apartment, your iPhone (yeah, it has a camera). Do you have any bedside lamps you could use for lighting? Do you have access to a college campus or production company with cameras and other equipment?Actually write down your budget. Do you have one? How much personal money are you willing to spend on this project? Are you willing to use your credit lines (don’t)?Do you have a grant from you school or a fellowship? Do you have any investors? Do you have producers and/or other partners who can throw in some money or help you find some? Be realistic here. At the end of the day, how much money do you really have to make your film a reality?
Write towards this. Can you afford to pay actors? If so, how many? Great, now you know how many characters are in your short film. Do you have a cool apartment or neat courtyard at your office you can use after the workday ends? Great, there’s your location. How many people can you afford to buy lunch for? That’s your crew size, which effects how much you’re doing in terms of effects and fancy camera moves. For how many days can you buy lunch? That’s your shooting schedule (and, therefor, your runtime). You’d be surprised how much you can figure out, story-wise, simply by getting real about how much money you actually have to spend. And guess what? Doing it this way will make it less likely that you go over budget.
NOTE: This isn’t part of the story-idea generation process, but I highly suggest all new filmmakers checks out StudioBinder’s free Budget Topsheet Generator. It will help you get really granular about how you’re going to pay for this. Get it here. (We didn’t get paid for this)
10.) Use a story generator
Story generators are frowned upon, and there’s a reason this is the last method on this list. But writers block is a real struggle everyone faces at least once in their career (even those of you who claim you don’t). Once you get in your own head, you doubt your talent. And when that happens, it’s no wonder the ideas fail to materialize. So I’m not necessarily recommending that your finished product be based on a random story generator, but it can definitely help to get the juices flowing. Services like Plot-Generator.Org.Uk will randomly write a story based on variables you enter (and if you’re really really stumped, they can fill in the variables, too). Once you read the (admittedly terrible) story that’s written for you, you can take any pieces you like and begin work on your new-and-improved short film based (very loosely) on that story.
NOTE: If you don’t want your entire story to be written be a machine, but are only looking for some ideas, there’s a really nifty free service called Story Dice that can get the ball rolling nicely by randomly selecting six story elements you can incorporate into your story.
So there you have it, now you should be ready to start writing. Good luck! It’s going to be a long road, but I promise it’s worth it. Once your short film is written and produced, you’ll want an agent or manager to help shop it around to Hollywood studios and production companies. And the best way to get an agent is with a subscription to, wait for it, Get Me An Agent. Plans start at only $19.99/month, and every plan comes with your first month free. With a subscription to Get Me An Agent, you get all this and more:
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