Inside the Short Filmmaking World: From Budget to Festival

Liz Manashil

Nicholas Thurkettle’s “Anya.” Credit: J. Van Auken

Liz Manashil is a filmmaker and the manager of Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative.

I have made dozens of short films, but it wasn’t until this year that I jumped into the short film festival world. There were highs and lows and some key takeaways — which I’ll share in part two of this piece — but it struck me that along the way I have made friends with some pretty prolific shorts creators who work in this world a lot.

I thought that maybe their perspectives could be helpful to me and others in the field, so I interviewed my friends Nicholas Thurkettle and Jim Picariello on their experiences with shorts filmmaking and festivals.

Enjoy a few insights from these two filmmakers, and stay tuned for part two! As always, feel free to reach out to the Creative Distribution Initiative directly with comments: creativedistribution@sundance.org.

Origin

Why shorts? Are you making them for recognition or to leverage into a bigger project, or do you want to stay in shorts?

JIM: Though I loved making Super 8 films and videos with my friends from ages 8 to 14, my original intent as an adult was not to become a filmmaker. After a few years of trying to break into screenwriting (as perhaps a fifth career shift?), I eventually realized the sheer number of people trying to break into the field and how few available slots there were. I had heard over and over, it’s hard to get someone to read your 110-page screenplay, but easier for them to see your five-minute short film. So I decided to make a short film. I lucked out with the relative success with my first one and the connections and opportunities which it opened for me.

I don’t have any intentions to make these short films into larger projects, but to simply get better at the craft of storytelling through film, and also have more opportunities for vertical networking and making friends with those in the industry, if and when my films get into festivals.

And if my ego feels a little boosted by any awards, so be it!

NICK: The primary goal of my first short was just to make something. I’ve been lucky enough to sell and option feature screenplays, but on that first day I called “Action!” I had never seen Hollywood bring a script of mine to full fruition. This stuff doesn’t finish on the page; you want to see it come to life.

Once I made that choice to own a little more creative destiny, the secondary goal kicked in, which was to challenge Writer Me to conceive of an idea that was dramatically compelling but as idiot-proof simple and dirt cheap to execute as I possibly could imagine; because I am constantly, how you say, ”le-broke,” and studied theater in college, not film, so I have limited on-set experience.

Making shorts has definitely become addicting. With each one I can quickly dip my toe into different techniques and tones and see which ones feel right, all while incrementally expanding my ambitions and building a network of battle-tested collaborators, which is absolutely indispensable.

Features are the goal and those scripts are already written and waiting. Laurels and awards certainly provide boosts of confidence, which you need when going down this crazy road, but their ultimate value is in how they build your credibility for when it’s time to ask people to invest in a larger vision.

Do you plan on making any of these shorts into features? What do you love about short filmmaking that is unique to this field?

JIM: Shorts are easy and cheap to make; features are difficult and expensive. There you have it. I do have an idea for a short, based on a feature I’ve written, which was a quarter-finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship. My hope would be that I could have that short as a proof of concept of the larger feature, like Whiplash.

It’s possible that I may continue the theme of my newest short, Passive Aggressive Dads, with short sequels or, based on how well it does at festivals, it could possibly turn into a web series if there’s interest.

Nick Thurkettle and cinematographer J. Van Auken on the set of “The Retriever.” Credit: Jennifer Weatherup

NICK: I’m plotting a sci-fi thing for fall that could open up into a larger world, but I honestly get turned off at festivals when I see shorts that play too much like pitch reels, or like they just filmed 10 random pages from their feature. I fall in love with a short that makes a complete statement and sticks the landing, because to me that’s great storytelling.

I think the lower investment of time in a short is a compact with the audience that you can dare a little bit more. Often when I sit down for a shorts block, I know nothing except a title, so I have no idea what type of ride I’m about to go on. You don’t get a thrill like that at the multiplex, and so any short that runs with that license in some way, I’m happy to see.

The Shoot

How long was your shoot? How did you fundraise for it? What teammates are integral to your productions?

JIM: For my most recent short, Passive Aggressive Dads, the 4:46-long short was shot in two six-hour days, having had an afternoon of prep, and not including setup and breaking down on each of the days.

We fundraised using Seed&Spark, which was wildly successful.

For this production, my producer and DP were integral. We hired a talented sound guy, [and] I wouldn’t say he was integral to the process, but having one was critical to its quality. In my past few productions, it was usually just me and my DP calling all the shots. Having a producer is a new experience for me.

NICK: My shoots have all been one or two days, sometimes with a rogue pickup shot. They have ranged anywhere from 5 to 13 minutes without needing more production time than that; they’re conceived that way as soon as I start typing the script. (Side note: making my own scripts has made me a better and more responsible writer!)

I’ve scrounged for filmmaking money in all sorts of ways — I sold off old video game systems, voiced a couple of characters in a talking animal movie, replaced lunches with cheap grocery store smoothies for like a month; I’ve driven Postmates (that gig economy sure keeps you humble!); and last year I literally found a $100 bill in a parking lot and my first thought was “WOW! I don’t have to put crafty on my credit card this weekend!”

I haven’t yet done any fundraising for a short. I’m not opposed to it, but I’m clinically gun-shy about asking too much of my friends and loved ones, so I only want to play that card when there is no other alternative. That said, my largest short, R&R, would never have happened were it not for two very dear and loved friends of mine simultaneously offering privately to invest in bringing something to life. I accepted their help, and now as a consequence I am three times as anxious for that one to do well out there in the world!

As for collaborators — for several consecutive shorts, my first phone call has been to a cinematographer/colorist named J. Van Auken, who is way, way better educated and more talented than I am, and who for some unknowable reason has never stopped wanting to work with me. It is crucial to make strong connections with people who are good at the things you’re bad at. Only now he is moving across the country for work, so part of the plan for my next short is that it’s designed to force me to be my own camera operator and sink or swim based on that!

While no one else has worked on every single project; there are absolutely recurring people, sometimes moving from front of camera to behind and back again. They tend towards a common personality type in that they are madly dedicated to the pursuit of making stuff. I’m honestly a terrible motivator, so I gravitate to people who are already insanely restless to create. All I have to do is give them something to do and point them in the right direction and they’re off to the races! My dear friend Nikki Nguyen, who does both standard makeup and special effects makeup, is the perfect example of this; on a short like R&R I was thinking even from the story phase just how I could get the most out of Nikki’s talents in a brief, super-intense frenzy.

Budget

How did you budget your short-form work? Have you been able to monetize any of your shorts, and are you in the black on any of them?

JIM: My first short cost $100 to make, and that was for lunch and odds and ends (and did not include the $800 I spent to submit it to festivals). That short helped win me a job with Sesame Street, which paid me $12k to make them a short about the number six. I also won a thousand dollars’ worth of Adobe CC software as a festival win. Otherwise, there was no direct monetization for that short.

We wanted to make this new short look and sound a bit more professional than my first, and it also had more actors, so thus more moving parts, so it was going to take more money. My goal was to find talented people who wanted IMDb credits more than their normal work fee, so my producer tapped a young man who works for a lens company as a spokesman, so he already had all the latest equipment. But he wanted to be able to have his name on something good, and he loved the script, so he was in for $1000 for three days’ work — one for prep and two for shooting. And he had a day’s drive on each end, so in all his fee was a bargain. Our super-pro local sound guy charged us just $500 for two full days, and all our actors were unknown locals, which we spent around $500 total on. My producer and I didn’t pay ourselves. So, all in all, Passive Aggressive Dads cost around $2,500 to make.

Jim Picariello’s “Passive Aggressive Dads”

NICK: At first I would just keep a spreadsheet log of every expenditure I made. Oftentimes the biggest line item was treating everyone to dinner at wrap. But as we got bigger and needed to keep the expense monster caged, the advance budgeting has grown more detailed and robust. For my third short film, we used SAG-AFTRA talent for the first time, and working with the union demands that you have your stuff in order so you’re not wasting those artists’ time. None of my shorts are in the black, though I am on the cusp of monetizing one starting this November 1! We’ll get into that more later.

Did you include line items for marketing and distribution in your budget? How much did you budget for festival submissions?

JIM: We didn’t budget for marketing, since we figured we’d do that through relatively inexpensive postcards for the festivals and working with newspapers which were local to the festivals. I wouldn’t know what else to do with a short film.

As for submitting to festivals, we budgeted $1,500, but because of our crazy-successful crowdfunding, we have bumped that up to $2,000.

NICK: My first time out, as with a lot of folks, I had no conception what the cost of a festival run would be. It is common for me to spend more on submission fees than I spent making the short! Nowadays I am a lot better informed and have learned quite a few tricks for getting maximum festival bang-for-buck, and so I don’t go into a project unless I know I’ve got the resources to support and potentially travel with it. It’s likely to be a part of your life for a year and a half or more, if you’re lucky!

Marketing and distribution is something I’m still struggling to learn about (stop me if you’ve heard this from a filmmaker before!). For the first time, I have just landed a distribution deal for my short The Dinner Scene, and while I don’t anticipate it turning a profit for us, I’m thrilled just for the professional benchmark, and for the chance to see some raw data about a paying audience.

Marketing efforts have thus far been extremely home-brew, but I got an object lesson about that recently — I was trying to promote two different shorts at the same festival, and for one I had postcards which I had designed myself, while the other postcards were designed by someone with genuine artistic training and skill. The latter were getting scooped up everywhere I left them, while my self-designed postcard, I could barely give away! That lesson has been painfully noted.

How important are festivals to you? Do you apply for waivers, and if so, how?

JIM: Festivals are everything. Betting on becoming a viral success on YouTube or FunnyOrDie, etc., is not practical (and you can try to do that after the festival run anyway.)

I am literally in the mode now of figuring out how to ask for waivers. I’m starting with asking the 17 festivals which selected my last film, and I have been successful so far. I’m also tapping friends from the industry to see if they have any connections which might give us waivers (hint hint). Even with $2,000, I still feel like every dollar counts, considering it really is a numbers game.

If I contact other festivals, I suspect I would play up the fact that we’re in rural Maine using mostly local actors and crew, with limited opportunities for connecting with other filmmakers, so any help would be appreciated. (If there are other successful techniques to do this, please share!)

NICK: Festivals have been the biggest target of my efforts to grow my professional profile over the past three years, and so I have applied all my nerdy data-vacuuming habits to them and feel excellent about the results.

I have asked for waivers with some success, and I lurk FilmFreeway’s Deals page literally every day, but I don’t blanket-request festivals that I have no relationship with. If I become an alum, I’ll always ask once for future work, or if I’ve made a personal connection with a programmer. But sometimes it’s not in their model and I don’t begrudge them that. Sometimes if the festival is super-local for myself or a key artist, I’ll make an ask on that rationale.

Maybe I could have saved a bit more money by asking more relentlessly, but seeing it from the programmers’ perspective, I think they know that once they get a filmmaker on a discount, that filmmaker is never paying full price for that festival again. I’d rather they have some reason why they would feel particularly good about making that investment in me because, in my experience, the really good festivals want to have filmmakers that become beloved regulars — it’s great for their reputation and their audience.

One thing that I have made a habit, which has treated me very well and which it seems basically no one else is doing, is that I send a thank-you letter to every festival that rejects me. I’ve worked in programming, and I know that it is thankless and demanding and you wade through a lot of garbage; programmers are people who are volunteering many, many hours purely out of the love of film, and just about all they ever get from filmmakers is passive aggression or aggressive aggression. It’s not right! I’ve ended up in great conversations with programmers who rejected me just because they are so happy to hear from someone who genuinely appreciates their efforts. Sometimes it’s led to a free friendly critique, or a discount for next year, or some insider knowledge on how my movie was discussed and negotiated over by programmers and nearly made the cut. That’s a valuable return on a simple effort, and is the plain decent thing to do regardless!

The Festival Experience

What have you gotten out of film festivals?

JIM: My first short, This Time It’s Shopping, was selected by 17 festivals and won major awards (best short, etc.) at five of them. I made a number of important connections — such as you, Liz! — while going to these festivals, including folks from Sesame Street and even Carolyn Pfeiffer.

Jim Picariello’s “This Time It’s Shopping”

NICK: The connections I have made have been countless, as have been the lessons in filmmaking and how to represent your creative work. A couple of awards have happened, which feels like a sort of lucky roll of the dice, because inevitably there’s some excellent other work there and it all comes down to whether or not there’s a spark between your sensibility and the jury’s or audience’s.

Usually the thing that’s most impactful is when you see what you’ve been programmed alongside. I remember the first time that I saw a little short I shot in a park in a half-day screening in a lineup next to a short directed by an Oscar-nominated DP. That definitely sent me into a fugue state and I remember being a little useless at the Q&A out of pure shock.

Do you attend the festivals you get into?

JIM: With my last short, I tried to attend whatever took place in the northeast, which was local, and made an effort to get to the Lone Star Film Festival, since I was already in the neighborhood going to the Austin Film Festival screenwriters’ conference, which took place a day before.

I have learned, since my last festival go-around, and learning more about festivals since, that it is critical to go to as many festivals as it is feasible. You never know who you’re going to meet. We have budgeted between two and three major trips for this new short, which we have crowdfunded for. Any festival that we’re selected by and is remotely drivable, we’re just going to road-trip it and couch surf whenever possible. If it is an especially important and distant festival (Sundance, Cannes, etc.), we’ll find a way to get there.

NICK: I attend as often as my finances allow. When I’m making my festival map, I will pay a higher submission fee if I think there’s a chance I could attend. Maybe it’s within a road trip radius, or flight routing is relatively easy, or I have a lead on some lodging in the area and a chance to see some friends I haven’t seen in a while. There are enough quality festivals out there with hospitable reputations that I can give emphasis to ones that would theoretically suit my schedule and mobility and still feel like I’m spreading the short out nice and wide.

The travel adventure is not so much a professional benefit, but it is absolutely a life benefit; I’ve seen parts of the country I might never have otherwise visited and it’s outstanding.

I have to ask — could you please share some horror stories. I have one of my own that includes someone sending me a Wag The Dog DVD instead of responding to my multiple emails about whether my film screened or not.

JIM: When I went to the Lone Star Film Festival, after a week at the Austin Film Festival, I immediately came down with a fever, out of exhaustion. Fevered, and on my way to a Motel 6 I realized that my simple two-mile walk to downtown to save me a little money was through a number of neighborhoods which I later confirmed would have been sketchy (to say the least) for me to walk through at night. When I got off the bus (which shuts down before the festival nights would end), I passed an enormous abandoned hotel and another bombed-out building, and then upon entering the motel, I walked through flickering, murderous fluorescent-lit hallways, smeared with what literally looked like shit, and passed no fewer than three absolutely confirmable prostitutes. I won’t go into how gross the room was. I was on the next bus to a $30-more-per-night, two-star hotel located downtown, which felt like the Taj Mahal by comparison.

NICK: We left one festival instead of staying through to the end in order to get to another festival that was screening us the same weekend. We drove over four hours, got there with a half-hour to spare, only to find out that they didn’t have our print and didn’t intend to screen our short! The festival director seemed to be the only one working, and he claimed we’d been sent an upload link. When I showed him my email Inbox to say I’d received no such thing, he just shrugged and said there was nothing to be done. I ran to my car, pulled out my laptop, dropped the short onto a thumb drive, and demanded that he put it into the projector. Half the audience was people I had invited, so it would have been a pretty poor decision on his part not to show it.

Later I learned we had been nominated for best comedy at that festival, which I think was maybe a low-key troll since it was a drama about a divorced woman crumbling to tears on a blind date. Or maybe he just found that funny.

How did you decide which festivals to submit to — do you use a festival grid? Did you receive screening fees or lodging?

JIM: I am literarily learning about and putting that together right now. Having a festival plan is new to me, and I would love any wisdom anyone has to give me about it. But yes, I’ll be working off a grid this time around, to track deadlines, closing dates, festival dates, and level of priority, among other notes.

NICK: Oh man, mapping out festivals has become intense. Do you remember that insanely paranoid and convoluted briefing about the stolen bike in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure? Oh … you’re too young, never mind. It’s like, uh … when SpongeBob did a really complicated thing.

These days I start with the hope of having a big, impactful premiere. So I line up a handful of bigger-name festivals, some of which do value premiere status, and they have the first couple of months of my calendar to themselves. I submit almost exclusively during the early-bird phase, a) to save money, and b) having worked on the programming side now, I know that screener fatigue is a real thing, and I would rather my movie be watched when the people at the other end are still excited about watching movies.

I like for a festival to have at least three or four years under their belt; it’s such a crapshoot when they’re new, even with the nicest and best-intentioned people. Like I said before, knowing there’s an appeal and a logistical opening to travel is a big plus, though I don’t submit to more than two or three of that type of fest on the same weekend, because you’ve got a whole calendar ahead of you to spread through. I was actually in a situation where I had one short booked in four festivals on the same weekend, which is something I feel incredible pride about, but I couldn’t attend any of them because of prior commitments! That was some agony nested inside some ecstasy for sure.

I always check their prior programs. I want to see that a) they’re serious about programming a healthy number of shorts, and b) the quality and style of the work they gravitate towards would be a good fit for my work.

I sprinkle in a healthy proportion of Southern California festivals because I want my cast and crew to have that opportunity to see their work without having to dip into their pockets for a plane ticket, but there is that notorious premium where submission fees can be so much higher in and around LA without the festival itself necessarily corresponding in quality. Extra scrutiny required!

And I do gaze enviously upon the Academy qualifiers — not that I suspect I’ll be winning at one any time soon, but because their status makes them so much more competitive that it would send me an enormously positive message just to know I landed in the lineup at one. I don’t mind being the worst movie at the best festival if it means I’m making progress. I didn’t target them at all with my first two shorts, but now I always pepper a few in just to gauge how I’m doing.

I have a definite ceiling on how much I’ll spend — I will never drop more than $35 on submitting a short unless the festival checks every possible box of prestige, quality, professional opportunity, and chance to attend. I’ve never come up short on finding a comprehensive spread of quality festivals under that limitation, and I think the onus is on a festival to make a case for any higher fee than that. On average, my submissions work out to about $20 to $25 a pop.

Lastly, there are those all-star festivals that have provided me such great past experiences that they’re a must for as long as I’m making shorts. There are at least four on that list right now. Three of those, not coincidentally I think, have been able to offer some financial support in lodging as part of the package, which is so crucial. I have not yet received screening fees — but a boy can dream!

Production/Marketing

Do you create social accounts for shorts or do specific marketing efforts for festivals?

JIM: I have social accounts for shorts but only really used them for fundraising so far. I’ll make sure to keep them up to date with festival selections and any other news.

And as for marketing for festivals, I could hypothetically do cheap targeted ads through Facebook, targeting friends of page fans that are physically near the festivals, but I don’t know how effective that would be — but you never know.

NICK: So far the social media trail has always led back to my own website and accounts. This has largely been a cost-saving decision that ultimately the life of even a successful short is not likely to be long and that the real investment is in my own profile.

I’ll do posting and tagging and make posters and postcards, but this is definitely an area where I think the time is right to increase my effort and investment in this area, since these skills will matter when I make that transition to a feature and I can’t sleep on that.

How do you promote your work? Have you run newsletters or worked with publicists?

JIM: I mainly promote my work through social media, and I’ve had pretty good luck with friends sharing, but it’s hard to know what that has brought me in the end. I’ve never worked with a publicist — that sounds like it would be nice … (cue daydreamy music).

NICK: I just started a newsletter this year, honoring the advice of many talented and more successful filmmakers that I admire. It covers filmmaking, acting, writing, teaching, whatever I’m up to. You could be on the receiving end of mine — yes, you! http://eepurl.com/dbyOy5

It is definitely a more direct connection with the people you want to be reaching than the endless attempt to fight social media algorithms. The oxygen in social media is only going to keep decreasing as big money advertisers crowd into the space, so independents are going to have to return to this sort of direct outreach.

I’ve never worked with a publicist on a film. I’m still hoping to grow to a status where that makes sense — and I think I’m nearly there based on recent accomplishments. I did once work with a PR firm on a novel I co-authored, which was a fascinating exercise in appearing on random local talk radio shows to discuss current events while posing as an expert in various topics that appeared in the novel. In return for filling their airtime with factoids, I could mention my novel at the beginning and end of the conversation, which they called “sandwiching.” I had some comically awkward conversations — one host of an internet talk show ended our segment early when I had nothing to add to his assertions that Hitler had a time machine! I don’t know that it drove many sales, but I learned a lot about the sort of boiler room end of publicity booking. It was fascinating, and I hope I can make use of that knowledge with a film at some point.

Distribution

How do you release your work publicly? Have you monetized your shorts or been approached by distributors?

JIM: I have never monetized my shorts, but I realized that I could submit my short, This Time It’s Shopping, to film and entertainment sites on the off chance it gets some traction. I kept the film under wraps while it was in festivals, but it is now on YouTube and Vimeo. I don’t even know how to release it publicly in a significant way, I’m now realizing.

Nicholas Thurkettle’s “The Dinner Scene.” Credit: J. Van Auken

NICK: My first two shorts are free for all to view on my Vimeo channel (@NThurkettle). The third, The Dinner Scene, I just placed with Seed&Spark, and it will be there for subscribers to stream starting November 1. I made a cold query through their website after liking what they’re all about, and when I saw that a rep of theirs and I would be at the same festival, I reached out by email to see if we could get some face time. That meeting didn’t happen, but I think it prompted them to pull my movie off the pile and give it a friendly look — because only days later they made the offer!

Being part of the neverending chatter among filmmakers that is fostered by the festival world has definitely provided an education as I’ve watched friends and colleagues cut deals here and there. I went into making shorts on the assumption of it being a total financial loss — like they say about Vegas, only play with what you can afford to lose! So it’s heartening to know that not only are there ways to prevent that, but outlets for short film are actually a growth sector right now with everyone trying to crack that winning formula of content, platform, and revenue. Platforms need well-crafted stories in every form and of every length.

I have had conversations with a couple of other distributors — one which tracked me down by email after I won an award, and another I encountered while they were scouting work at a fest — and I think there are good odds of future business to be done with them both, which is quite exciting, and again, great training as I nudge closer to the feature realm.

Finally, how can people see your work today?

JIM: People can see my short film, This Time It’s Shopping, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kjo-creLVk

And contact me personally for a password-protected link for Passive Aggressive Dads: jimpicariello@gmail.com

NICK: I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, and Instagram as @NThurkettle. My website is www.nicholasthurkettle.com, and that will allow you to branch off into any of the wide, wide world of stuff I work on, whether it’s podcasting or voice acting or book publishing or popping up to do Shakespeare at random places. And did you know that you can name your own subscription fee for the amazing library of curated indie film at Seed&Spark? That would be good knowledge to have, for example, when The Dinner Scene debuts there. On November 1.

Filmmaker Bios

JIM PICARIELLO: Jim’s a screenwriter/filmmaker who lives with his wife and two teen daughters in rural, coastal Maine, in a home in the woods that he and his wife literally built almost by themselves. It was romantic. His feature screenplay, The Cult of Us, which is a dark romantic comedy about two people falling in love as they save each other from their respective cult, was a Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinalist. Jim’s short film, This Time It’s Shopping, won 5 of the 17 festivals it was selected by, and his short film about the number six premiered on HBO’s Sesame Street in the spring of 2018. He is currently submitting his newest short film, Passive Aggressive Dads, to festivals.

NICHOLAS THURKETTLE: Nicholas Thurkettle is a writer, actor, and filmmaker. Short films he has directed have played dozens of festivals worldwide — including Phoenix, Durango, Dam Short, Bare Bones, Rochester, North Hollywood, Cinema at the Edge, New Haven, and Boomtown — and they have won awards like People’s Choice Best Short Film at Borrego Springs and Best Comedy Short at the Albuquerque Film & Music Experience. His short The Dinner Scene will debut exclusively on the Seed&Spark streaming channel for independent film on November 1.

He sold his comedy screenplay Queen Lara to Room 9 Entertainment (Thank You for Smoking) and optioned the thrillers 7 Red and Snowblind to producers. The action/sci-fi anime pilot Children of Ether, whose teleplay he wrote for the Crunchyroll network, debuted on over 300 movie screens for Anime Movie Night, and he is co-producer on the upcoming horror feature A Ghost Waits.

Thurkettle is a member of the WGA and the Orange County Playwrights Alliance, an actor/manager with the Modjeska Shakespeare Players, a writer/performer with the award-winning audio drama podcast Earbud Theater, author of short story collection Stages of Sleep, and co-author of the sci-fi/thriller novels Seeing by Moonlight and A Sickness in Time. He regularly conducts guest lectures and workshops on screenwriting, storytelling, and voice acting.