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There is no strict definition of an independent short film, despite it being an established form of art. In the broadest sense, an independent short film is a production that is less than 80 minutes in length and is produced outside the larger, mainstream movie houses. In reality, independent short films encompass a wide range of genres and lengths. Some short animated films can be as little as two minutes in length, while dramatic productions can be up to an hour or more.
An independent film, regardless of its running time, is defined as a film that receives little to no funding from large motion picture production companies. These movies are often very stylized, expressing the unique perspective of the director. The limited funding for some independent films means creating a short film is often advantageous because of the limited resources. The production time for most independent short films also is considerably less than that of feature pictures.
Short films have a strict definition in the United States, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has set the length as between 40 and 80 minutes. When combined with independent film limitations, short films often become very focused on a single event, character or moment in time. This has given rise to short films that tell a story in a way that appears to leave an abrupt punch line at the end because of the time constraints.
Independent short films have a popularity and culture that is specific to the genre. There are movie circuits that only show or judge these types of films. There also are a number of awards given out every year. One reason for this is the lack of large distribution networks for independently funded films.
The unfunded release of independent short films means they rarely get shown in many theaters. Other forms of distribution have arisen, including posting films directly to the Internet or attempting to sell the films directly to DVD, skipping a theatrical release. The commercial success of an independent short film is reliant on spreading knowledge of the film to the general public. Methods such as word of mouth and Internet advertising are both popular and have led to alternative advertising such as guerilla marketing that seeks to promote the movie through methods that do not immediately seem related to the film.
The commercial success of some independent short films has led many of the major motion picture companies to begin productions of their own. This has caused the distinction between a grassroots-funded independent short film and a professionally funded one to become less obvious. This also has led directors and actors who usually work on mainstream movies to invest in their own independent short films.
My young neighbor made one of those independent science fiction films in his backyard one summer. He had a "world premier showing" at the local movie theater. It wasn't actually that bad. He found some really good local talent and his dad built some very convincing sets. He couldn't find a distributor willing to get the movie released elsewhere, but he did enter it into some regional film festivals. I think he sells the DVDs through online sales channels. It will probably never make any real money, but it did encourage him to apply for film school.
I was involved in the making of one independent short film years ago, and I was surprised to see how many hoops the director and producer had to jump through in order to get it finished. The director happened to be related to a professional actor, and the actor agreed to play the lead role in the film for a much smaller salary than usual.
The problem was that he was a member of SAG, the actors union, so he and the producer had to sign a stack of legal papers that waived the union scale salary requirements. The actor could only work for a set amount of days, too. He had been previously hired to work on a studio film. We had to shoot all of his scenes out of sequence in four days. It was a lot of fun to make our own independent movie, but it was also a lot of work.
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