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The Essentials

Tips for producing and funding a short film, and how to apply to short film festivals

by Justin McDonald

Creating your own work is an important part of finding your way in the industry today. With the UK film and television industry now one of the fastest growing industries in the UK, and recent statistics showing that high-end TV and film production is worth over £6 billion a year to the UK economy, screen work has never been more relevant to a performer.

How can you tap into this omnipresent yet often elusive club? The simple answer: through short film.

A short film is defined as “an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits” by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Having been involved with many short films as a producer, writer and actor myself, I often get asked for advice about making shorts. I co-founded my production company as we had several feature films and long form series on our slate, but we wanted to build our credibility within the industry by producing high-quality short films as a showcase and steppingstone to larger scale projects.

There are various ways you can make a short film, but here’s what I’ve learned so far…

Make a short film for a reason

Short films can be important practice for a filmmaker – whether you’re an actor, writer, director, producer, editor, makeup artist, composer or any member of the crew. It’s a way to grow your art, develop your craft, style, or idea, and expand your contact pool.

Be clear about why you’re making your short film. Is it a vehicle to a bigger story? An opportunity for you to act? A proof of concept for a feature or a series? It doesn’t have to be any of these things, or it could be all of them at once. It could even be a story that you are compelled to tell, that’s simply best suited to the short form.

Ask yourself:

  • What am I trying to say as a filmmaker?
  • Why am I making this now?
  • What’s in it for everyone else: the audience, my crew, the political landscape, etc.?

A lot of love, sweat, tears, time and money go into making a short film, so make sure you’re clear on the why.

Finding cast and crew

Like other aspects of the industry, filmmaking is about relationships. Once you’re clear on why you want to make the film, you need to convince others to come and join you in creating it.


If you want to create a compelling character or scene for a showreel, why not go further and develop the idea into a short film script? Your character is more likely to be more developed – and you’ll also gain a credit for your CV. There will also be more opportunity to collaborate with other filmmakers, submit your project to film festivals and share your work with a wider audience. Actors are storytellers who can develop a character arc or storyline, but you can also team up with writers.


Coming up with a conceptual, narrative arc or hook is essential for the short form. Telling a complete story within a limited amount of time and gripping the audience is one of the main challenges. Consider how the narrative might play out on screen, in cinemas, laptops, televisions and even on mobile phones.

While it’s not really the job of a writer to concern themselves with budgets, it’s useful in this instance to consider the logistical elements of delivering a short film. Try to keep the idea simple and make use of locations that can be easily achieved. Be prepared to develop your screenplay further with your director and producer and allow it to evolve.

Read more about writing for screen and how to create your own screenwork.


Create materials to help deliver your vision; mood boards, storyboards, and audio-visual samples of what direction you want to take the film in. They’ll help with the clarity of the project and add value to what you and the team are building. You have a tight schedule on a short film, so the more prepared you are the better. These materials will also assist with pitching and raising finance. Your writer is your spirit guide, and your producer is your main support, facilitator and voice of reason.


How are you going to pitch the project to financiers? How will you convince cast and crew to come on board? The screenplay needs to be sensational for a start – this is your blueprint which you’ll need to spend time developing with the writer and director – but what other nuggets can you decipher from the project to help package and sell it?

Are there any unique and beautiful filming locations that can attract an established cinematographer? Are there moving and thought-provoking themes with rich dialogue scenes?

If you can attach a lead actor that other cast and crew would be excited to work with and who might help finance the film, that’s a real coup and can really help move things forwards. For crew, it’s often about catching people at the right time – can you offer a step up in their role? Consider offering a Head of Department role and a chance to gain leading production roles on their CVs.

Useful resources for finding local crew are the regional film offices which have crew databases as well as databases like Staff Me Up, etc. There are also crew agencies such as Suz Cruz North.

How to fund your short film

There are various ways to finance your short film. Here are some of the useful funding methods to look into:

  • Crowdfunding is the way a lot of first-time filmmakers get their short films made. You can offer incentivised ‘perks’ to people in exchange for investment in your film. Like the short film itself, you’ll need to be clear on the sell and have a unique, fun, accessible and attractive campaign for the crowdfund.

If you’re unsure how to apply for funding, take a look at these tips for tackling your first funding application.

Submitting your film to short film festivals

You can make money from short films – or at least some return on what you spend making them. Certain festivals have prize money available for winners of various categories and the prestige of a good festival run and awards can also lead to sales and distribution. There are film distributors specific to the short film market and digital platforms that you can sell your short films to.

To take advantage of this, have a planned strategy for your festival approach. Have an ideal plan of which festivals you’d really like your film to screen and favour those first for your world, international, national and regional premieres.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is there a specific genre strand of festival that your film might appeal to?
  • Are you hoping to get into festivals that support and develop writers or directors?
  • Are you hoping to qualify for BAFTAs or BIFAs? If so, make sure you know which festivals are qualifying.

There are also festival strategy consultancy companies that you can pay to assist you such as Festival Formula.

The cost of festivals

Festival submissions can be expensive, so make sure you have a clear plan of what you’re hoping to achieve. Try to be organised so you can submit to festivals early as most have a sliding scale of cost depending on how near the festival the submission is – this can save you a lot of money. There are also less expensive routes to consider in getting your film to an audience such as going for Vimeo Staff Picks or Short of the Week.

Self-submitting for festivals

If you want to self-submit to festivals, you can do so via Filmfreeway or Shortfilmdepot. Some higher profile festivals require you to upload films and submission information directly to their own sites, so read their application process guides properly.

Beware of scam festivals

Be warned that not all film festivals are real. Some are set up to attract money, so do your research to confirm they’re legitimate.

Networking through festivals

Filmmakers often connect at film festivals and forge lasting relationships. They’re a great way to network and experience the work of others – while also sharing your own.

It’s also invaluable to gain first hand feedback from a screening of your film. Being in the room when people laugh, clap, gasp or cry gives you an immediate sense of what works well in your film and what doesn’t land as intended. It all contributes to your development as a filmmaker.

By demystifying the short filmmaking process, having clarity on your own motives, and collaborating with other filmmakers who can be inspired by the project, you have every chance of making something that works.

If you manage to pull off a short film successfully, then why shouldn’t you be able to do a feature or a series? Many of the challenges are the same, just on a bigger scale. It’s no surprise that many of the industry’s leading filmmakers cut their teeth on short films. And who knows? You might just find yourself on the red carpet next to them at the next awards season!

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Justin is an award-winning actor, writer and producer. He has produced four short films with his production company, Elevator Productions – three of which were funded by the BFI Network short film fund.

Headshot credit: Kate McDonald

Image credit: Esteban Benites / Unsplash