To qualify for an Oscar in one of the Academy’s short film categories, a movie has to be under 40 minutes, including the ending credits. Though many a YouTube viewer has given up on watching short films that are far shorter.
So just how long — or how short — should a good short film be, anyway?
At TheWrap’s annual ShortList Film Festival, which held its awards ceremony Thursday night at the W Hollywood, TheWrap CEO and Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman asked the festival’s jurors what they think is the ideal length for a short film.
The panel was made up of filmmakers, actors, executives and festival programmers who judged 12 award-winning shorts from major festivals around the world. The films were between four and 15 minutes long.
“I think the short should be however long it is,” “When They See Us” star Marsha Stephanie Blake said. “It’s also how much time you feel like you’re in the seat. If I’m watching a short for 40 minutes, but it doesn’t feel like I’m in the seat for four hours, then I’m going to love it, and if I don’t notice the time go by, even better. I will say that the four minute short was as valuable to me as the 15 minute short.”
Blake said she would do any project she felt was good and worthwhile. Whether it’s a feature, a short, a TV show or even a commercial, she said the running time doesn’t matter to her as long as the material is strong. And the idea that quality is quality no matter the length proved to be a running theme among all the panelists Thursday.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s short form, long form, a standalone short or a feature or a series, but as Marsha said, it has to be good,” said Gena Konstantinakos, vice president of development and programming at Topic. She explained what Topic seeks in a film: “Each piece was emotionally compelling and had something to say.”
Festival juror Orlando von Einsiedel’s Oscar-winning short, “The White Helmets,” clocked in at 40 minutes. He explained that although the subject of Syrian first responders could’ve easily sustained a 90-minute feature, editing a short film allowed him to get the movie out to the audience quickly.
“I can’t talk against a 40-minute short because I’ve made one. It’s really individual. It’s about what the story allows you to tell,” von Einsiedel said. “The story was so urgent, we had to do it as a short to get it out quick enough.”
30West executive Vice President Tristen Tuckfield added: “You have to earn it. It’s better to not know what the run time is of something before I go in. … It either surprises you because the whole story is told in the amount of time it’s told in, and maybe it’s irrelevant how long it takes. But you have to earn it and can’t waste people’s time.”
The reality for many short filmmakers and the festival programmers is that run time is always a concern in programming a series of shorts, making it financially viable and getting it out to the widest audience possible.
“We have to think of screen time and putting on a whole 90-minute program together, so we usually cut it off at 24 minutes,” said Wendy Guerrero, president of programming for the Bentonville Film Festival. “If you’re talented, you can really catch the eye of some of these executives who are looking to showcase their shorts on their platforms.”
When filmmaker Todd Berger thinks about short films, he looks back at advice he got in his high school civics class and an essay assignment he received.
“We asked the teacher how long should the essay be? ‘Long enough to cover the material, but short enough to make it interesting,'” Berger said. “As long as it’s interesting, go for it! Make it 40 minutes, but make it interesting if it’s going to be 40 minutes. Also, I think 16 minutes is perfect.”
Check out video of the ShortList Film Festival’s jury panel above.