Why Strike Season Is a Great Time to Make a Short Film (Guest Blog)

On July 15th, the independent film community’s rowdy, activist uncle, Mark Ruffalo, tweeted a call to action: “How about we all jump into indies now? Content creators create a film & TV-making system alongside the studio & streaming networks? So there is actual competition. Then we just do what we always do — create great content & they can buy it, or we take it out ourselves & WE share in those sales.”

I say, “Hell yeah, Uncle Mark!” From where I stand, strike season is the perfect time to answer his call by making a short film. For those of you asking, “am I really allowed to make a short film under strike rules?” or “what about standing in solidarity with my SAG-AFTRA and WGA friends?” Both organizations have very clear parameters on what is and is not allowed but for now yes, you can and you should make short films right now.

For SAG-AFTRA, the lowest budget level agreements are not struck and are OK to go, including, Short Project Agreements for films with a budget less than $50k; runtime of less than 40 minutes; live action, scripted; 30 days or less of principle photography; shot entirely in the US. There’s also Micro Budget Agreements for films with a budget less than $20k per film or episode; Live action, scripted or unscripted; shot entirely in the US.

Student Film Agreements with a budget less than $35k; runtime of less than 35 minutes; Student film to satisfy course requirements; 30 days or less of principle photography; shot entirely in the US are also allowed, as well as Independent New Media Agreements. Suffice to say, do your due diligence to make sure everything is good with your union and anyone on your team before you proceed.

For those of you asking, “a short film? Really?” Here are some reasons to make your short film right now as punctuated by iconic quotes from the ‘90s classic tale about resisting corporate oppression: “Empire Records.”

Low Cost: “What’s [the money] doing in Atlantic City?” “Recirculating.”

When it comes to creating independently financed work, the biggest barrier is often money. That said, raising enough to execute a successful short film is a lot easier than longer form efforts.

Let’s take a moment to remember what happened the last time there was a strike in Hollywood – which also happened to be right around when a major economic recession hit. Back in 2007-2008, while television studios coped with the strike by pivoting to unscripted programming, resulting in a major rise and mass innovation in reality TV, entrepreneurs and creators, reeling from the financial crisis, also pivoted their method of raising money. Thus, the digital evolution of early-stage capital raising was born!

They called it rewards-based crowdfunding, and it took off like a rocket in 2009 when trailblazers at Kickstarter and IndieGoGo made it super easy for folks to invest in their favorite companies and snag some sweet perks in return.

For filmmakers it’s a good time to crowdfund for a short film or episodic project. Unlike 2008, there are now many platforms and avenues to go about this. Seed&Spark allows creators to ask for in-kind donations or rentals in addition to cash contributions – with no platform fees – which could mean you have even less cash to raise.

For executive producers/financiers, you should support artists creating self-generated work. Take this opportunity to put your money where your #OscarsSoWhite mouth is and set an hour per week on your calendars to support crowdfunding projects from underrepresented creators.

Or join Mark Duplass, Jason Reitman, Emily V. Gordon, Abigail Disney, Jeff Yang, and Jess Jacobs by becoming a member of Seed&Spark’s Patrons Circle, making a commitment to innovative creators telling stories that drive narrative change for racial/gender/social/climate/technology justice. Or make a donation to Film Independent’s Project Involve, which has been supporting and fostering underrepresented creators for 30 years. Or focus on projects that have fiscal sponsors so you can get the tax write-off. Just do it.

Creative Control: “I don’t feel that I need to explain my art to you, Warren.”

There’s a general understanding that goes something like, “the higher the budget, the more cooks in the kitchen, the less creative control you have.” The freedom that comes with the absence of expectation that you’ll make your money back is unmatched. Short films are where risks are made, limits are stretched, and innovation happens.

As a long time programmer of short films, I am oftentimes more blown away by the never-before-seen creative mastery in a 10-minute, $5k short than I am in by a multimillion dollar studio film. It is that kind of innovative storytelling that eventually gets filmmakers hired on a multi-million dollar studio films (i.e. Chloé Zhao, Destin Daniel Cretton, Ryan Coogler, etc.) and the platform to continue making their own creative work. But that would never happen without first having the freedom they had when making their short(s).

New Collaborations: “My dad always said that there’s 24 usable hours in every day.”

Whether it’s meeting folks on the picket line or at the beach, we are meeting potential creative collaborators all the time. With so many entertainment industry folks not working right now, one thing is true: people are available.

People are motivated by momentum. Get that train out of the station and people will be more willing to jump on. Call up those buddies you made at that random film festival; see what they’re up to. And don’t be afraid to reach out to people you’ve never met and have no connection to but whose work you admire.

Anyone with an IMDbPro account can find out who someone is represented by. (If you don’t have one, consider getting one and sharing the cost with your new collaborators.) Then reach out to those reps and make your case why their client would be the perfect addition to your short film. Maybe even ask Uncle Mark to be in your short? And – this part is important – make sure to explain why doing so is not in violation of any strike rules.

Personal & Career Advancement: “I am guided by a force much greater than luck.”

For those of you reading who are members of SAG-AFTRA and/or the WGA or have representation, you might be thinking this article is not for you. You’re wrong and here’s why: All of us have that idea that we just can’t sell or get any traction on. All of us have a concept we haven’t fully cracked yet. All of us have had moments when we feel stagnant and want something to push us beyond our limits.

I don’t care if you’ve been staffed in three writers rooms or been cast as a series regular on the new buzzy Netflix show – short films offer an opportunity for you to grow your craft, showcase what makes you unique, and advance your career. Short films can lead to signing with representation, cash prizes, acceptance into fellowships and labs, pitch meetings with executives, first look deals, financing for features, commercial work, and – my personal favorite – attending incredible film festivals around the world where people are celebrating your work, where you are meeting other filmmakers and future collaborators, and where you can be inspired by the works of other groundbreaking filmmakers.

Impact Opportunity: “What’s with today, today?”

I know I’m not the only one who sees how much screwed-up stuff is happening in the world right now. I pursued a career in film because, when I was growing up, I saw how effective movies were at making change. They made me feel seen and validated, that I wasn’t alone in my identity or experience. They also opened my eyes to areas I had bias or lacked knowledge in. Telling stories is a vital component of driving desperately needed change in this bonkers world we live in.

Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., author and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, found in his research, “As social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next.” He continues, “Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.”

In today’s world of short attention spans, content saturation and decision fatigue, shorts are especially effective tools for making change. When Film Forward screened Asher Jelinsky’s short film “Miller & Son” for a large Northwest company’s workforce, it resulted in identifying a major flaw in the company’s – and the state of Washington’s – healthcare system. It paved the way for a state-wide conversation around making healthcare more accessible to trans and non-binary people. That is impact.

And I’m not necessarily advocating for shorts that are dramatic, hard-hitting, documentary or didactic in their messages (though those can be effective, too). Comedic shorts like Sarmad Masud’s “Two Dosas” or Louis Delva’s “Le Nom De Fils” are just as effective at placing the viewer in someone else’s shoes, asking them to change their perspective, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.

If you are interested in pursuing impact filmmaking/distribution but are not sure where to start, check out Doc Society’s Impact Field Guide & Toolkit, Think-Film, Impact Partners and Exposure Labs.

Many of you may still be unconvinced that making a short film right now (or ever) is the right move. I’ve worked in Hollywood long enough to know that for every seven reasons I give you to make a short film, you’ll give me dozens of (way more creative) reasons not to. I cannot help if you feel that way. But I can say I’d rather you tell me those reasons in the form of a short film.

As the beloved, idealistic, goofy, record store Mark says, “We mustn’t dwell… no, not today. We can’t. Not on Rex Manning Day!”

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