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What I Learned About Writing Shorts from Film Festival Rejections

Short films are a great way to flex your creative muscles, extrovert your creativity, and expand your network. I’ve covered a lot about how to craft a compelling short film and what you can do with your short film once it’s done – but what happens if you create a film and it isn’t exactly Sundance material?

Here are some lessons that I have learned through festival rejections so you can start writing your short film with confidence.

 

Know Your Audience

Ah, Sundance. It’s the dream, right?

Not necessarily!

Before you submit your short film to festivals (and, I’d argue, before you even create your film), you should watch a lot of festival shorts! If you want to submit to Sundance, watch Sundance films. Then watch Slamdance films. You’ll notice a difference! Same for SXSW, Hollyshorts, or Screamfest. 

Festivals have a vibe — and you can get a lot out of your experience at almost any reputable festival. You don’t have to screen at Cannes to meet other filmmakers or industry professionals.

But you won’t screen anywhere if you’re not studying the craft.

Have a Simple Yet Profound Story

My latest short film is a very sweet romantic comedy. It looks clean, stars SAG-AFTRA talent, has a killer original score, and makes people feel good when they watch it. 

I knew better than to submit it to Sundance, but I still held out hope for SXSW, Tribeca, and Dances with Films. Though it advanced in its consideration, ultimately, it was a no for each of my stretch goals. 

I was disappointed, sure, but I was not down for the count. Instead, I decided to critically look at why it may not have risen above other contenders. 

The story is sweet and charming — but there isn’t anything especially profound about it. The lead character finds the love she’s looking for, but she doesn’t exactly grow or change throughout the film. Instead, she’s helped by an unexpected source. Looking back, I realize the lead should have also contributed something to the person who helped her find love. In this way, the relationship would have been deeper and the victory would have been more earned.

Know Why You’re Making a Short

Short films are special not because they are short but because in a brief time they are able to take a heightened bit of artistic license that few feature films could get away with. There must not be a moment wasted.

There should be a clear theme and no distractions from it. You can play with coincidence more than you can in a feature, where there is time for explanations. You can heighten the magic, the mystery, and the element of surprise.

How is your short film a poem rather than an essay?

Non-Character Characters

Because a short film is a small timepiece of art, go the extra lengths to explore how you can heighten your story with visual artistry. My rom-com had a great location and an incredible camera…but there wasn’t much creativity with cinematography, camera movements, or visual cues into the characters’ inner workings. 

You don’t need an Alexa to film your short — you need a vision. Great short films are poignant. I told a love story — but I didn’t do much to help the audience themselves fall in love. Perhaps if I’d thought about it in that way, I might have noticed that a simple girl-meets-boy story is a little unfulfilling these days. Next time I’ll know to dive deeper into the characters — what do they truly want? What do they fear? What makes them hurt? What heals them? And then I’ll find ways to pinpoint those truths visually.

Conclusion

Be specific about why you want to create your short film. Watch other shorts. Watch great shorts. Watch bad shorts. Study the careers of screenwriters that got their start in shorts. Learn from them and then apply those lessons to your own script.

No matter what happens, you will learn through the experience of creating. In this sense, you’ll always outgrow your own work. By the time you finish a short film, you’ll have learned so much making it that you’ll be better than it. This is exactly the journey we all have signed up to partake in. 

Keep making. Keep growing.


screenwriting competitionShannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com. She has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!