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Writing the Smart Short Film

By Michael Schilf · June 24, 2010

In 1999, I won USC’s School of Cinematic Arts Peter Stark Producing Program’s “Short Film Special Project” by writing a 12 page short, with a director and producer attached, and it was the quality of my script that snagged a $20,000 grant and a Columbia TriStar relationship. Unfortunately, due to creative conflicts with the director, the project died.

But the script was always fresh and original, and years later I decided to direct it myself. However, after we completed the 11-page budget report – a staggering $114,468 – it was impossible to deny my fatal mistake was in the script itself: 35 scenes, 12 locations, 20 characters, plus extras, and one real live frog.

I had written a great script, but never once had I thought about production costs. I had scenes in a bus, inside a mall, even at a lakefront Victorian mansion, and you can’t just show up and shoot. Locations involve rentals, permits, security… And then there is the issue of feeding everybody, not to mention art direction, set design, hair & makeup, lighting/electrical, camera, sound, transportation, film & lab, post production, legal & accounting, insurance, and sometimes even an animal wrangler: damn frog!

When writing a smart short film you must write an inexpensive one: limit your locations, and write in ones you know you can get for free, limit your characters, but write a complex character driven script – no aerial shots, no exploding cars – so great actors will deliver your best work. When you write with production costs in mind, you’re saving yourself thousands of hours and dollars on the back end. And please, leave the frogs out of it. They’re divas anyway.