The Short Film is to Film School what the Short Story is to Fiction School

The Short Film is to Film School what the Short Story is to Fiction School

After my essay came out in The Millions, I started wondering: does the problem of accommodating short vs. long forms extend into other disciplines and art forms? Do film schools, for example, use short films as their primary pedagogical tool just as creative writing programs use the short story?

I emailed Alexander Georgakis, a young filmmaker I know, and asked him this and other questions. In 2010, he adapted my short story, “The Lone Star Cowboy,”  into a short film, and I knew he’d recently graduated from film school.

In film school, do you focus on the short feature before embarking on the feature-length film?

Absolutely. Film school programs teach students how to make short films.

What analogies can you draw between the instructional models I talk about in the Millions essay and your own experience of being a film student? I mean: You do narrative, and so do creative writers. There are many similarities, it seems to me.

Most film schools have a class called “Writing the Feature Screenplay,” or some such equivalent. In the majority of these types of classes, students will outline their ideas for features they would like to write, receiving input from their classmates in a round-robin setting that seems fairly similar to that of your creative writing courses. The students will then embark on actually writing their screenplays, and at the end of the semester will turn in the first thirty pages of their scripts as the final assignment for this course. (Most full-length feature scripts come in at around 100-120 pages, averaging a page of text per minute of screen time, so this final assignment compromises about a quarter or more of a feature screenplay.)

Essentially, having film students complete thirty pages of a script in a class entitled “Writing the Feature Screenplay” is the same as having creative writing students write thirty pages of a story in a class called “Writing the Novel.” The course has ensured that students will know how to get a “big thing” started, but it leaves the students to finish these big things on their own. These types of classes seem most analogous to those you discuss in your essay.

On the other hand, many film schools have advanced level writing classes in which students revise feature-length screenplays they have already completed prior to the commencement of that semester. This may be one area in which film programs do differ from creative writing programs. Because it generally takes less time to write a feature screenplay than a novel, many film school students will be able to complete drafts of multiple feature screenplays before they graduate, whereas it does not seem common for creative writing students to draft numerous novels before receiving their degrees. In this way, teaching screenwriting may simply be a more manageable feat than teaching novel writing, even if learning how to write a good screenplay may not be any easier than learning how to write a good novel.

On the production side, film schools prepare students to make short films. Period. While there may be some exceptions, I have to imagine that most film schools would fairly strongly discourage (if not flat-out forbid) their students from attempting feature length projects in place of the short film assignments that make up their curricula. (In some of my classes, our short film assignments even had maximum time limits, and our grades would suffer if we let our projects run too long.) This perhaps parallels your scenario in which the Curriculum Committee refuses to allow stories to run longer than 15 pages, though I think film schools have very solid reasons ($$$$$$$$$$$$$$) for imposing these limitations on their students. (I’ll elaborate further on this subject in upcoming answers!)

Is there a difference between graduate and undergraduate film programs in terms of the size of projects you’re assigned? or is it uniformly “shorts” all the way through?

There is not much difference between graduate and undergraduate film programs–both focus uniformly on short filmmaking. I actually strongly considered returning to graduate school last fall, but I decided against it for a number of reasons. Many people who I admire and respect in the entertainment industry encouraged me not to return to school, suggesting that I had already had the film school experience, and that continuing to work in the industry would teach me more than essentially repeating my undergraduate education.

This strikes me as a major difference between your world and mine. It seems to me that creative writers are encouraged to study their craft academically as undergraduates, and then advised to continue those studies in graduate school. In the entertainment industry, I haven’t come across too many people who would recommend that young filmmakers obtain multiple film school degrees. I’ve had numerous bosses who did not even attend college at all, much less film school.

What did you learn from adapting a short story (mine!) into a short film? How did this prepare you for feature-length?

What I learned most from this project was how to make a film outside of school. I learned a ton about fundraising and budgeting, as I had never before made a film on this level budget. I learned a great deal about location agreements and permits, because I had never had to secure private locations for a film shoot. I learned about insurance, which I had never much thought about before, because film schools all have their own insurance. I learned how to negotiate prices on equipment rentals, which I had not done before, because film school had always provided me with equipment. And I learned about Screen Actors Guild contracts and agreements, because I became a SAG signatory producer on this film so that I could hire union actors.

Admittedly, I made some mistakes while learning about these aspects of filmmaking, and there are certain situations (both creative and logistical) that I would handle differently if I had the opportunity to go back and experience them again. And yet, I am glad I made certain mistakes while making this short, because I know I will definitely not repeat these errors when I ultimately make a feature.

In terms of what I learned specifically from adapting a short story, I would say that my admiration for screenwriters who adapt previously existing material grew exponentially. Many people think that turning a literary source into a film essentially amounts to moving the bones from one graveyard to another. But making a film based on a published source is a lot closer to making a film based on an original script than many would like to think. I loved your short story, The Lone Star Cowboy, but I knew that in order for it to work as a film, I would have to lose a lot of things I loved about it. And that was challenging. But it was also exciting to have the opportunity to put my personal stamp on a story I had greatly enjoyed. This film was my first adaptation, and I think I learned a lot about what professional screenwriters go through when they undertake the complex task of transforming a novel into a feature screenplay.

IF COST WAS NO FACTOR WHATSOEVER (because I know that it is, but pretend it isn’t for a second) would you have embarked on a feature length project? is this your dream? (It doesn’t “cost” a fiction writer more to write a novel than a short story–not in dollars anyway. Just the time.)

If cost were no factor whatsoever, I would make a feature as soon as possible. (I still would have made a short film of your story, simply because I was inspired to make that film.) On the wall in my office, I have a list of goals that I would like to accomplish at some point in my life, and “Direct a feature” is one of them.

But, of course, cost is a factor, and short films are usually less expensive than features, making them lower-risk options for young filmmakers wanting to gain experience and create a body of work while keeping their bank accounts intact.

Next time: are young writers and young filmmakers ready for “big things,” or should they learn from short forms first?



  1. JakeK says:

    I love how this discussion has now extended to other areas of writing as well, particularly screenplays. In screenwriting workshops I have been involved with (great, very helpful ones) students were asked to submit either a complete short script or the first act, roughly 25-30 pages or so, of a feature. It seemed to me, as Cathy writes in her essay featured in The Millions, the normal workshop setting made it difficult to really speak about the feature, probably because it wasn’t yet completed. There were almost always questions the group would have about where a certain project was going or where it could go. Whereas the short scripts often had very specfic, targeted responses since we were all looking at them as, to a very rough extent, finished.

    I think one area where the two mediums really do differ, the novel and the screenplay, is that I think it would be pretty feasible, depending on class size, to workshop feature screenplays. I read fast (maybe too fast) and the average 100 pg script takes me about an hour and a half to read. That, to me, doesn’t seem like an unreasonable amount of reading to place upon a motivated student.

    However, I do think that there is something to learning to fail in a more contained, safe way. I have “completed” two feature length screenplays, and I really don’t think I could’ve done that without learning the craft on a smaller, more controlled scale. At least in my experience, short works were essential to be able to reach the place where I had the writing maturity and discipline to actually finish a “big thing”.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thank you, Jake. It’s good to hear that you’ve embarked on big projects. There is lots more to come on this subject of the small thing vs. The big thing.

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