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Should a Short Stay Short?

A desperate Hollywood may be misguided turning short films into features.

There seems to be a trend recently whereby a “low budget” short film is put online, which causes a kind of feeding frenzy as film studios fight each other to buy the rights. Two recent examples would include The Sundays (directed by Mischa Rozema) and Leviathan (directed by Ruari Robinson). The obvious aim is to get the next big blockbuster - Hollywood is desperate for new ideas. But will these films succeed? They look good, but does that mean the story is solid? Whilst putting material out onto the Internet to create interest is a more recent approach, filmmakers have made plenty of attempts in the past at turning shorts into feature films, with varying degrees of success.

An early example would be Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Conran, 2004) which ushered in the age of shooting everything on green screen (see Sin City and 300). Reviews for the movie were not bad, but the movie didn’t make its budget back. In fact, one could argue the short film version is actually preferable to the final movie. Shane Acker took his Academy Award nominated short 9 and (with backing from Tim Burton) imaginatively renamed it 9 for the feature film. It was a mediocre success with mixed reviews.

Not all shorts though are destined for lesser success in feature film format. In 2005, director Neill Blomkamp created the dystopian short film Alive In Joburg, set in South Africa. It went on to become the hugely successful District 9, a fantastic example of converting an interesting short into a compelling movie. There are other success stories; Sam Raimi’s Within the Woods became The Evil Dead, Mike Judge’s animated Milton shorts were successfully converted into Office Space and Guy Ritchie’s short The Hard Case became Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

It seems that some shorts are made merely to get funding for a feature film version. Certainly Leviathan is like that, kind of a “pitch” as there is already a well-known script writer on board. So why did they need to spend a year making a short? Surely a story outline and concept sketches would have been enough?

It is far easier to sell something when the final result is in front of you, plus if the Internet loves it, then it must be good, right? What seems short sighted is the reliance on the ability of a relative newcomer (who has maybe made a short in their bedroom) to take the helm of a motion picture. You can’t just scale up what you did on the short - it needs thorough rewrites and expansion. Once I had seen The World of Tomorrow, I didn’t need to see Sky Captain. I felt I had seen what I needed to see. This was also how I felt about 9.

It will be interesting to see how the brilliant short Pixels (Patrick Jean, 2010) will fare when translated to the big screen. It is a stunningly executed short with some great visuals and ideas. Sony felt the only thing needed to make it a classic were... Adam Sandler... and Kevin James. Pixels is being released in July 2015 and judging by the trailer, pretty much all the nuances from the original short have been lost, even the CGI doesn’t look as good!

What irks me about some of the claims of these shorts is the cost of making them. The Sundays mentions that $50,000 was raised in a Kickstarter campaign. A little digging into the credits shows that production started around 2012 and involved over 40 VFX artists. I’m not saying each artist was working on the project for 3 years, nor am I saying that they claim it was made for $50,000. But people see these numbers and think that this is what it costs to make shorts like this. It devalues work. One can see when watching The Sundays that it required a lot of talent and time to make the stunning visuals. This was also the case with another successful online short, Escape From City 17 - Part One. It was a Half Life based fan fiction piece and apparently cost $500 to make. Just the software alone would cost more than that! One should be proud of the time and effort it takes to make these pieces.

It will be interesting to see how some of these shorts translate onto the big screen. There is certainly a lot of potential. It seems like there is a toss-up whether keeping the original short director benefits the feature or actually impedes it. It does appear that mass Internet appeal is enough to get things greenlit, but are people getting too lost in the pretty visuals? Are stories irrelevant now? One thing I do know: adding in Adam Sandler isn’t the answer.

Let me know what your favorite shorts and their accompanying movies are in the comments!