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4 Top Tips For Entering Short Film Contests

A great post from Rob at Eastleigh Film Festival today, reminding us there are plenty of traps your short films can fall into and how to avoid them … As a script reader, I read A LOT of short film screenplays for both contests and individuals and can relate to every single one of the points he raises! SERIOUSLY. So don’t drop these clangers in your next short script writers and makers – also, make sure you check out EFF’s Industry Day, happening Sept 25th (you don’t have to live in Eastleigh to go, I’m told!). Over to you, Rob … Enjoy!

eastleigh-film-festival-logo-v1-1-When the Powers-That-Be are passing judgement on short film competition entries, often wading through hundreds of entries, the tiniest turn-off can be the difference between ending up in the ‘deleted’ folder instead of the shortlist.

Dodgy dialogue, shambolic cinematography and poor plotting are amongst the common flaws shoddy short films share, but here’s a quick list of avoidable mistakes…

1) Read the rules

This one probably sounds like plain old common sense… “Doesn’t everyone read the rules?” I hear you cry – Well, surprisingly, no. From this guest-writer’s experience, a huge chunk of entrants neglect to even skim-read the basic stipulations of the competition they’re entering.

In our case, we were looking specifically for sub-six-minute shorts from the UK and France, making it very clear on the main online call-out that submissions from other nations, or longer than the allotted running time, were not eligible this time around.

However, that didn’t stop all manner of international filmmakers having a pop. A fair few of them entered films which lasted well over six minutes, too.

While using online services that mass-apply to festivals for you is a handy short-cut, filmmakers who take the time to personally read call-outs, and tailor their applications as such, are bound to have a better success rate.

Make sure to check the Terms & Conditions too, lest you accidentally sign your film away. While dodgy Ts & Cs are very rare, it’s always wise to check. MORE: 6 Things You Need To Know As A Screenwriter If You Want Your Films Made

2) Don’t overindulge on credits and logos

Now, the next hurdle you have to avoiding stumbling at is your film’s opening. One of the most instantly disappointing filmmaking decisions we encountered in our recent shortlisting meetings was aspiring filmmakers who had clearly put lots of effort into designing an elaborate animated production company logo, and less effort on the opening shot of the film itself.

Likewise, in sub-six-minute movies, opening titles which last over a minute (we received many of these) often seem self-indulgent and can distract away from the film that follows. Generally, judges want to see your filmmaking talent, not how well you or a friend can design a logo or title sequence.

In our case, which admittedly might not be the only school of thought on the matter, we found a striking opening image far more effective than any logo or title. Establishing the scene and the tone, as well as possibly a character or a key plot point, is arguably a far more effective an opening gambit than a lavish logo.

An opening shot can tell you so much about a film. Think about the opening to Star Wars: A New A Hope, which established a whole galaxy-sprawling narrative without even showing a single character. By showing a dog fight between a huge mperial Star Destroyer and a tiny rebel cruiser, and having them crawl into view smallest-ship-first, George Lucas told us the score immediately.

While we’re not expecting you to make Star Wars in six minutes, the example shows how much you can convey in a single shot. This is even more imperative in a short film, where you only have a few minutes to make an impression. Don’t over-indulge on credits and logos – get straight to the point.

What are your film’s themes? Who are your characters? What’s so important about the setting you’ve chosen? You can show us any of these things in one shot – heck, you could show us all of them in one shot if you’re really talented – so don’t miss the opportunity. MORE: 7 Steps To Better Shorts by Christine Morrow

Shooting short film

3) Be very careful with dialogue

So, you’ve opened your film in a neat way – great stuff. What next? Dialogue is probably the next most likely filmmaking element to land you in the ‘no’ pile. This is understandable, seeing as the films we’re all used to seeing at the cinema and on TV are almost always written by experts with years of experience – yet you’re expected to write engaging dialogue straight off the bat.

Unfortunately, the judging process is never very forgiving. No matter how difficult we all know scripting is, bad dialogue is still a major warning sign for judges. Drafting and redrafting is important, but above all it seems like it’s most important to be confident in the characters you’ve created and what they would really say.

This links up to casting too. If the only actors you have to work with are likeable university types, like many of the films we received, don’t try to force them into gritty or evil characters through over-the-top hammy dialogue. We won’t believe your charming best mate as an on-screen drug dealer just because a script forces him to talk like Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg. Casting against type often works in feature films, where characters have 90 minutes or more to grow and develop, but it’s harder in six minutes.

Think about who you could ask to help with your script, too. If you’re at school, college or university and hanging around in the Media Department a lot, chances are you can find some Drama types to turn to for script support – tightening up jokes, adding some realism where need and spotting duff sentences will be the type of thing local drama companies have practiced for years. Failing that, reading through your script with friends will help you spot missteps. MORE: Why you should leave dialogue ’til LAST in the drafting process! (Really)

4) Have fun in your chosen genre, don’t forget a unique story!

This is the most difficult section to put into words. However, it is probably the most vital short film top tip on this list – finding a balance between important genre touchstones and your own unique voice and story.

Each genre comes with its own rules, and it’s important to stick to them to a degree. If you’re aiming to revitalise the zombie genre (as many are), don’t forget the importance of building tension. Other examples of important touchstones include the action movie chase scene, the final fight in a martial arts movie, the big emotional gesture in the rom-com. The list of vital genre-defining moments could stretch on indefinitely.

It’s important to remember to include some recognisable tropes in your films. It shows your knowledge of your chosen genre and displays an understanding of how the filmmaking world works. However, your personal touch is what will make the film really fly, so don’t be afraid of it.

Put simply: genre touchstones will help a judge relate to and understand your film, and your subversion or elaboration on these familiar plot-points will be what makes your movie stand out.

Don’t make a horror film if you loathe scary movies – use a genre you’re familiar with, respect it’s tropes and shake up the formula in your own unique way. The films we liked best were subversions of familiar themes, styles and ideas which found the perfect balance between cinematic knowledge and creative invention. MORE: 7 Ways Of Showcasing Your Writer’s Voice

Good luck!


BIO: Rob Leane is a member of the press team for Eastleigh Film Festival, and was part of the committee who decided the shortlist for their national short film competition. Eastleigh Film Festival’s Industry Day on 25 September is an ideal opportunity to learn more about the film industry, with workshops in concept development, film directing and more.

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2 thoughts on “4 Top Tips For Entering Short Film Contests”

  1. My biggest problem as a film maker in applying for film festivals is that I don’t. By the time the film is finished I’ve little or no money (lets not forget that entering many festivals costs money), energy, time or enthusiasm left to administrate film festival applications.

    I need to find a solution to this. To make festivals part of the filmmaking process so that its in mind… so that budget is raised for it and kept aside and that applications are prepped. I spoke to John McPhail about this a couple of months ago and that was his advice. I cant disagree.

    I’ve had a modicum of success with my films but could have done better I’m sure if I’d been able to get my head space clear. Partly the problem is that although making the films is, to an extent, artistic and interesting, I find myself bogged down during the production by the producers duties which I have to do alongside my directing tasks. As producer I just cant cherry pick the fun bits, so I’ve got to do all those tasks that others avoid. I’m talking of course about contracts, releases, extended communications, updates, planning, money raising etc. By the time the films finished I’m tired out.

    Anyway the article is good and considering the basics, not least of which is READING THE FESTIVAL RULES is a must for any filmmaker.

    Thanks for the post


    1. Can totally relate, Carter – “headspace” is SO needed, but it’s soooo hard to achieve by the time the film is in the can! Thanks for the tip from John McPhail and best of luck with your projects 🙂

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