Short films are a medium close to my heart.
They provide emerging filmmakers with an opportunity to practice their craft, explore their ideas, meet peers and showcase their abilities to audiences and the industry.
There’s nothing quite like watching a festival programme of shorts and being transported to a different vision of reality every ten minutes or so.
But they are poorly tracked by researchers and industry watchers. The nature of short films makes them hard to quantify and there is rarely a commercial drive to invest the time needed to dig deeper.
To go a small way to redress this oversight, I have sought to get a sense of the scale of short filmmaking.
How many short films are made each year?
This is a harder question to answer than it may first appear. We have two challenges to overcome:
- What is a short film?
- How do we know if a short film has been made?
Taken literally, a short film is a film under a certain length. I’ll address running time later in the article but length alone is not enough to paint a complete picture of what filmmakers mean when they refer to “short films”. Many film-based works are under ten minutes but wouldn’t be classified as “shorts”, such as music promos, video blogs, commercials and the videos of my niece’s school plays that my sister keeps sending me.
Therefore, for today’s research, I focused on short films that have played at a film festival. This includes any and all festivals, not just the big, well-known ones. This means we’re looking at a more consistent selection of films, rather than just “video content under [x] minutes long”.
It also has the added benefit of making it easier to tackle the second challenge, namely gathering data. I relied on online sources, from movie listings sites to film festival catalogues. While I may have missed some smaller films, I’m confident I have tracked the vast majority of live-action short films which played at film festivals over the past nineteen years (2000 to 2018, inclusive).
This methodology reveals that since 2000, the number of festival short films has increased significantly. In 2000 it was just over 1,000 whereas by 2015 it was almost 8,000 per year. This echos previous research I have conducted on short film festival submissions and feature-length movie production.
The chart below shows the number of new short films premiered each year, meaning that over this period just over 90,000 new live-action short films were made and screened at a festival.
This growth is likely due to a confluence of factors, including:
- Cheaper filmmaking technology;
- Increased information sharing online;
- A greater number of film festivals.
Let’s now take a quick look at three other topics which the dataset reveals:
- Key creatives
How long is the average short film?
Historically, a short film was defined as being on just one or two 35mm film reels, i.e. 22 minutes long. Today, airlines seem to define ‘short’ as under 60 minutes, the Oscars say under 40 minutes (although the average length of nominees is around 20 minutes) and at the Cannes Film Festival it’s just 15 minutes (although in typical Cannes style, some nominees are longer than this official limit).
Film festivals are perennially imploring filmmakers to reduce the length of their films, with most suggesting that ten minutes is already too long. Despite this, the average length of shorts in today’s study is 13 minutes and 31 seconds.
What is the most popular title among short films?
Rather pleasingly, the two most popular titles for short films are “Home” and “Alone”, followed by “The Interview”, “Broken” and “The Box”.
Directors, Producers and Writers of short films
Over 90% of short films only have one director. This is similar to the situation found among feature films (more on that here) despite the fact that short films are not bound by the “only one director” rule which Hollywood movies have to abide by. The rule comes from the Directors Guild of American (DGA) and is strictly enforced.
44% of short films have just one producer, 27% have two and the remaining 29% have three or more. Almost three-quarters of shorts have just one writer and only 8% credit more than two writers.
Finally, I thought it would be interesting to see how often one person takes on both directing and producing a short film. It turns out that just under half of short film directors also receive a producing credit.
If you would like to read more about short films, you may enjoy these pieces:
- What do Oscar-winning short films have in common?
- What do Cannes-nominated short films have in common?
- The UK’s secret 20% tax relief for short films
- Full costs and income of a major film festival – Raindance Film Festival (contains data on short film submissions)
- How does the BFI award its short film funding?
- What film festival directors really think (including advice on short films from the people who run film festivals)
This research is looking at live-action films, ie not animations or documentaries.
I added the festival criteria as, otherwise, I couldn’t be sure of a consistent and complete dataset. In the process of conducting this research, I found details of almost half a million short films over the time studied (2000-18). About 10% were documentary short films and 5% were animated. On closer inspection of my data, I discovered that rather than just capturing “short films” as I understood them to be, I had tracked many types of short-form content, such as TV mini-shows, online videos and music promos. This wasn’t the intention, hence the festival screening rule. Just to state the obvious, being screened at a film festival is not the only marker of success for a short film. Shorts are made for a myriad of reasons and festival acceptance only speaks to some of them.
My use of online sources in English is likely to have created some kind of bias towards Western films. I did what I could to spot-check this, such as ensuring that all films from major festivals are in my dataset and this didn’t seem to be a major issue.