A popular question that filmmakers are often asked when screening a short film is “will this be made into a feature?”
It’s flattering to know people enjoy the project so much that they want to see more, but it can feel a bit foreboding if it isn’t something a screenwriter or director has thought about doing.
I recently watched a great feature film called THE STYLIST , a psychological thriller directed by Jill Gevargizian and written by Jill along with Eric Havens and Eric Stolze. It’s a story of “a lonely hairstylist [who] becomes obsessed with the lives of her clients and descends into murderous madness” and was developed into a feature after the short film of the same name dominated the festival circuit.
I thought Jill would be a fantastic person to talk to about successfully bridging the short film to feature film gap.
Below are 5 key takeaways from our discussion that hopefully shed some light on how you can take transform your own shorts.
Only develop the short if it is meant to be part of a bigger narrative.
Many short films are written as stand-alone stories. Trying to create a feature film from that can be a challenge resulting in a weak plot or underdeveloped characters. The key to a successful feature film script coming from the world of a short could be in developing the feature idea early, even while you are writing the short, rather than trying to squeeze an idea out of a thin storyline just to create a full feature.
As Jill stated, “We’ve seen features from shorts that have done well and they try to force a story out of it, but I think if it’s your intention [to write a feature], it’s a good thing to develop early.”
Be firm on what part of the story, or character arc, the feature is jumping off from.
One of the things I thought made THE STYLIST such a successful project was Jill’s choice to begin the feature with what is essentially a retelling of the short film as the opening scene.
The movie is a character-driven psychological slow-burn thriller, and with very specific character development choices, allowing the film to expand from the short in this way was total genius.
This won’t work for all projects, but for those that can use the short as a jumping-off point in that way, Jill offered that you should “make a definite choice about what part of the story or character arc the feature is jumping off from.” She said that she “wanted [her] feature to be a longer version of [the protagonist’s] self-inflicted downward spiral. She’s self-sabotaging because she doesn’t want to do this anymore but can’t control herself.”
Feedback from the short can help mold and change the feature script.
If your short film has already played online or in festivals, pay close attention to the feedback you are getting. The criticism and feedback can be a great jumping-off point to see where you may have problems in developing the feature, or what specific character choices, plot devices, and types of dialogue aren’t working.
In the short version of THE STYLIST, Jill mentioned that “[the protagonist] had scars on her neck… And I realized from viewers’ reactions, that took all the focus to just being external and being only about appearance.”
Jill went on to say that because everyone was focused on the scars her protagonist had, “it made me realize the feature needed to focus more on what’s going on inside her head, and that we should remove the scars completely. Something we only learned thanks to the reaction to the short.”
Have your feature script ready when your short is on the festival circuit.
If you are in the position of having industry buzz on the festival circuit with your short, it’s a great idea to have the feature script already written and in your back pocket. It’s something that Jill wished she had done. “I really wished I had had the script ready. Like, definitely as the short was premiering, like ready to go…we didn’t start writing the feature till after we made the short, but it was always my dream plan.”
Jill felt like she lost some of the momentum and industry attention that was generating organically from her successful festival run and “it was over a year until the script was ready to send to people.” Which set them back quite a bit in getting traction with financing.
The good news is that the success of the short film helped launch a very lucrative Kickstarter. “Because the short did so well at festivals, I thought we had enough of a fan base already that we had a decent shot at raising the money. And we were like, if we’re gonna do this, we need to do it now before any more years get further away from when it first came out.”
Reverse-engineer a short film from a feature film screenplay.
What about if you have a feature film script that you are having trouble getting optioned, bought, or financed? Well, you could consider reverse-engineering the project and mining that screenplay to see if there is a short film you could develop from it.
Short films can be a fantastic proof of concept, help create buzz for your writing, and are easier to finance and produce.
As Jill mentioned, “If somebody has a feature script, and they are having trouble financing it, nobody wants to read it, they can’t get an agent, whatever the challenge – I think it’s a great idea to make a short film with the same concept to gain some recognition and because it doubles as a proof of concept when pitching the feature.
She went on to reiterate that, “Not every film is easy to polish a short out of it, but you could pull out a scene from the feature if that makes sense as a solid piece, or it could be something that happened before the film. The epic franchise SAW started as a short film, which makes so much sense. I can see how any of those kill scenes would be a perfect short film!”
Jill went on to say, “I think it’s great if you can [create a short from a feature script] because if you haven’t yet made a name for yourself as a filmmaker, that can get you into festivals, and get people talking about you. And it’s really smart to attend the festivals if you can because that will make people remember your work. And if and when people ask what’s next, you have that feature script ready… Building a name for ourselves as filmmakers is really important.”
Wishing you all best of luck in turning your short film into a feature! Let me know if you are going on this journey and if these tips were helpful for you. I love hearing from the WeScreenplay community.
Put your best short script foot forward by getting notes from our professional readers.
Helenna Santos is an actor, writer, and producer with Mighty Pharaoh Films. She is the author of the poetry book “A Long Dark Summer” (2021) and was the founder/editor-in-chief of the entertainment website Ms. In The Biz for its seven year run (2013 – 2020). Her work as a contributing writer has been featured in MovieMaker Magazine, Film Inquiry, Backstage Magazine, Women and Hollywood, WeScreenplay, and BUST Magazine. As an actor she has appeared in many network and streaming TV shows as well as independent and studio feature films. She also works as a voice actor narrating audio books, animated characters, and commercial campaigns. Helenna is a mix of Filipino/Russian/German heritage and a US and Canadian dual citizen. She resides in Vancouver, BC Canada with her husband and their Bernedoodle pup. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter!