The Economy of the Shorter Screenplay
After reading a very enlightening post from the guys at $1000 Film called "Short Films Suck", I've got new motivation to make a feature. I'm not as militant about avoiding the short form (hey, I have made a few), but do admit that if the goal is make features, then that is what you should be doing. On the financial side, there is no money in short films, where features can open a lot of doors, and even a few wallets. I'm even starting to believe the $1000 Film ethic, which could really maximize profits in the long run.
The first step toward creating a film of this budgetary ilk, is crafting an appropriate screenplay. When I say "appropriate", I'm not speaking of content as much as doable material. If you really allot yourself a meager sum as a budget (and refuse to go over it), you need to think ahead. Planning will be your greatest ally, and the first step of your plan is the simplest.
Time is money, and if you only have a little money, give yourself little time. The minimum length of a feature generally falls within the 75-80 minute range, so that should be your target. I don't care what it's about, but don't write more than 80 pages. If you do, removes scenes, combine several characters into one, change whatever you have to, but stick to 80 pages. More pages will just make everything about your production longer and more expensive, which you don't need.
After learning that the recent horror-thriller Vacancy timed in at a scant 80 minutes, it made me reflect on other "big" films that succeed given the short running time. Less seems to be more, and we can all learn from the big boys. The following are some examples I can think of. They all run over 80 minutes, but cut off the credits and you get a script with 80 or fewer pages.
Red Eye (2005) 85 minutes
This cool little thriller had a tense script that focused on two characters sitting on a plane next to each other. Rachel McAdams is threatened by killer Cillian Murphy that unless she puts a government official in a specific room of a hotel she runs, her dad will be offed. The first act is all character setup as the two banter on the plane. When the plot fully engages, we care a lot about McAdams, and despise Murphy. Seasoned director Wes Craven does a lot with this material for a great ride.
Low-Budget Friendly: Small cast, last scene takes place in a house.
Low-Budget Unfriendly: Airports and the inside of an airliner (including lavatory) and fancy hotel are prominent locations.
Run Lola Run (1998) 81 minutes
This gem from German director Tom Tykwer is one of my favorite films. It centers around red-maned Lola (Franke Potente) and her dumb boyfriend, Manni. He's lost a bunch of money he's supposed to deliver to the mob, and will be killed unless Lola helps him somehow. Lola gets three chances to make things right, as the story spins back on itself giving her multiple chances to change fate. A very fun film with a charismatic star and wonderful techno soundtrack.
Low-Budget Friendly: Small cast, same-story loop allows reuse of footage.
Low-Budget Unfriendly: Lola runs all over Berlin, a casino and bank full of extras are used, firearms featured.
El Mariachi (1992) 84 minutes
Robert Rodriguez' first feature is still his best. Shot for a mere $7000 on 16mm film then bought by Columbia, El Mariachi is full of low-budget goodness. The story involves our hero being mistaken for a killer with a guitar case full of weapons. A wealth of info can be learned from the DVD commentary, as well as the "10 minute film school" (which Rodriguez includes on all of his DVDs). Also read the associated production journal Rebel without a Crew for even more inside stuff.
Low-Budget Friendly: Small cast, only one take allowed per shot.
Low-Budget Unfriendly: Stuntwork, firearms, blood.
I'm just touching on each of these films, but you get the idea. Learn from what has gone before, and don't repeat someone else's mistakes. They will just cost you more money, anyway. If you can think of any more mainstream releases with short running times, please post them (and what you learned) in the comment area for all to see. Thanks!