NOTE: The following blog originally ran in January of this year. Clarissa Jacobson’s Lunch Ladies is now streaming on Kanopy.
While Dodger Stadium troubadour and current Marriage Story composer Randy Newman may have a famously professed (and problematic) antipathy for short people, our love of short films here at Film Independent is just as proportionally vociferous. Shorts—whether narrative, nonfiction, dramatic, comedic or somewhere in-between—are after all an important part of the larger film ecosystem. Short films serve many purposes: to help newer creators hone their artistic signatures, to act as proof-of-concepts for nascent-stage feature projects to and give established filmmakers a venue to experiment and express some of their wilder directorial impulses.
One thing that’s not always clear, however, is just what a new filmmaker is supposed to do with a short film once they’ve completed it. The quick answer, it depends what your goals are. But for a deeper dive into the strategy behind bolstering the life of your short and the leveraging of its long-tail impact, we reached out to the woman who literally wrote the book on the subject: Clarissa Jacobson, author of the recently released I’ve Made a Short Film, Now WTF Do I Do With It: A Guide to Film Festivals, Promotion and Surviving the Ride.
Jacobson—whose quirky comedy-horror-musical Lunch Ladies has played at over 120 film festivals worldwide—joined Film Independent Associate Director of Film Education Paul Cowling on January 7 to discuss short film tips, tricks and best practices. Watch the full panel on demand and read the highlights below.
SHORT FILM STRATEGY
Establish your goals. As with many shorts, the Sweeney Todd spoof Lunch Ladies (which Jacobson wrote and produced) began as a proof-of-concept for a dreamed-of feature project. But “I knew zero” about promotion, she says. The film festival circuit quickly presented itself as an option, but Jacobson knew she needed to be strategic. “You must have a really strong goal, and whatever your goal is will drive your strategy,” she said. Her goals? To get the film seen at as many festivals as possible—particularly Oscar qualifying festivals and European festivals, wanting to prove that American comedy plays overseas.
Budget from the beginning. Shelling out $30 or $40 here and there for festival applications may not seem like a lot in the moment, but those fees can add up quickly. “I always recommend budgeting [for film festival applications]” from the beginning of production, says Jacobson—who recommends setting at least $2,000 aside for application fees while also cautioning filmmakers to be prepared to be rejected 90% of the time. “But that’s normal,” she said. “Often people get a few rejections and quit or think it’s over.” But the trick, she says, is to not give up.
Be prepared to do it yourself. “Nobody cares about your film as much as you do,” says Jacobson, noting that at one point late in Lunch Ladies’ festival run and suffering from burnout, she’d hired a PR rep to help with promotion. They were great, she said, but “they weren’t anywhere near what I could do myself.” And if, indeed, the film—your art—is in your voice, it only makes sense that the “voice” of your short film’s promotional material match.
Understanding effective social media. “Learn to love it,” said Jacobson, admitting that Twitter had previously stressed her out. “I had to see a therapist about it!” she laughed. The key to maintaining an effective social media presence, she says, is understanding that each major platform—Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest—has its own audience, who may respond more passionately to different aspects of your film. She also encourages re-tweets and shout-outs. “If people feel like they’re part of your projects, they’ll do incredible things for you,” she says. Also: make sure your handle is the same across platforms whenever possible.
Being extremely online. Your online presence should extend beyond social media, too. Jacobson recommends getting and IMDb page set up for your film as soon as possible, getting credits up for everyone who worked on your film (ask your crew to provide their page URLs, so that you’re linking to the correct individuals.) Also: create a website. Having an “official” webpage will lend your film more credibility, and provide a handy repository for trailers, teasers, cast and crew bios, reviews, festival laurels and—most importantly—a schedule of upcoming screenings. Jacobson recommends the Wix publishing platform that was used for the Lunch Ladies website.
Festival nitty-gritty. Jacobson warned that film festivals will take (and keep!) your application money no matter what, so be sure to double-check the fine print on each festival’s website to confirm that your project is eligible based on format and premiere status. You should also be entering film festivals all over the world, she says. Don’t let the fact that you won’t actually be able to go to every single one of them stop you. You can always send postcards and swag, or even another emissary like an important cast or crew member.
Get organized. For her part, Jacobson tracks all of her various Lunch Ladies traffic via spreadsheet outlining key festival dates, location, application costs and other important details like premiere status requirements and Oscar qualifying. She also recommends making sure your film is properly uploaded to all of the major festival submissions platforms—like FilmFreeway, Short Film Depot, Festhome, I AM A Film and more—and ready to go. A couple of thriftiness pointers: always be aware of early bird deadlines, and check out Scott’s Cheap Flights for, well, cheap flights.
What makes you stand out? Jacobson encouraged filmmakers to think about what makes their film stand out, whether it’s some sort of unique genre element (like a musical-comedy-horror) or interesting behind-the-scenes aspect that can be incorporated as part of your project’s marketing narrative. Jacobson, for example, asked each member of her Lunch Ladies crew where they were from—info that has proved useful in cover letters to appropriate regional festivals.
So! Whether your short film is a socially conscious doc or outrageous genre piece, stick to Jacobson’s advice and you’re sure to go far—quite possibly literally.
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