I was recently asked if short format work could lead to big picture deals. Instead of laughing off the incredibly unlikelihood, I looked at the data.
If you exclude filmmakers who just make a killer short film and subsequently get notoriety thanks to their name or affiliation (e.g. Disney’s “Paperman” by John Kahrs, who is now directing the feature “Shedd”), as well as commercially/celebrity-driven projects (e.g. “Dr. Horrible” by Neil Patrick-Harris), here’s a breakdown of the rare instances where independently-made short films and long-term web series garnered enough festival attention and/or fans to lead to feature film and broadcast deals, respectively.
- Watch the short on YouTube. “Within The Woods” (1978) by Sam Raimi was the short made over three days for $1,600, which led to the feature film “The Evil Dead” in 1981.
- “Frankenweenie” (1984) by Tim Burton became a feature by the same name in 2012. Watch the short on YouTube.
- “The Dirk Diggler Story” (1988) by Paul Thomas Anderson was the precursor to “Boogie Nights.” Watch the short on YouTube.
- “Milton” (1991) by Mike Judge was a series of animated shorts that led the way to “Office Space.” Watch the short on YouTube.
- Watch the short on YouTube. Anderson also did a short called “Hotel Chevalier” (1997), although it was more so a supplement than a building block for some of his other feature films with the same cast and production aesthetic. “Bottle Rocket” (1992) by Wes Anderson was a short film that went to Sundance before getting the opportunity to become a feature film with the same name in 1996.
- “Joe’s Apt.” (1992) by John Payson was originally a short before becoming an MTV-produced feature film (1996). Watch the short on YouTube.
- Watch the short on YouTube. Anderson also made a short in 2003 called “Couch” which starred Adam Sandler was somewhat related to his later feature, “Punch-Drunk Love.” “Cigarettes and Coffee” (1993) is 24-minute short from Paul Thomas Anderson (who we mention above) which led to the feature film “Hard Eight” in 1996, which was his directorial debut.
- “Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade” (1994) by George Hickenlooper was the precursor to “Sling Blade” (1996). Watch the short on YouTube.
- “The Hard Case” (1995) by Guy Ritchie was the 20-minute short that helped make “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998), which then led to a single-season TV series called Lock, Stock… in 2000. Watch the trailer for the short on YouTube.
- “The World of Tomorrow” (1998) by Kerry Conran was the 6-minute short film that was the 2005 feature film, “Sky Captain: The World of Tomorrow.” Watch the short on YouTube.
- “Five Feet High and Rising” (2000) by Peter Sollett was a successful 30-minute short film that — after winning at Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, and more — eventually led to “Raising Victor Vargas” (2002). Watch the short on YouTube.
- Watch the short on YouTube. “Peluca” (2002) by Jared Hess was the short before “Napoleon Dynamite” in 2004. There was even an animated television series in 2012 on Fox, who eventually cancelled it mid-season after six episodes.
- “Saw” (2003) by James Wan was originally a short film before it became one of many feature films by the same name. Watch the short on YouTube.
- “Cashback” (2004) by Sean Ellis became a feature by the same name in 2006. Watch the short on DailyMotion.
- Watch the short on YouTube. “Two Cars, One Night” (2004) by Taika Waititi was an Oscar-nominated short film before it was a baseline for the 2010 feature, “Boy.”
- “Gowanus, Brooklyn” (2004) was the 19-minute short that led to “Half Nelson” (2006) from both Ryan Fleck (co-writer and director) and Anna Boden (screenwriter). Watch the short on YouTube.
- Watch the short on YouTube. “Alive in Joburg” (2005) by Neill Blomkamp was the short film whose story loosely became that of “District 9” in 2009.
- “The Customer Is Always Right” (2005) by Robert Rodriguez was the 3-minute short made both as a proof-of-concept (to get Frank Miller interested) and as a promotional piece, using a single scene as leverage before production started on the whole film, “Sin City” in the same year. Watch the short on YouTube.
- Watch the short on the director’s Vimeo. “9” (2005) by Shane Acker led to a feature by the same name in 2009.
- “Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan” (2006) by Mike Flanagan led to the 2013 feature film, “Oculus.” Watch the trailer for the short on the director’s YouTube.
- “The Replacement Child” (2007) by Justin Lerner was a 25-minute film so well received at film festivals, it led to the character portrayed by Evan Sneider being expanded in the feature film “Girlfriend” (2012), which received theatrical and also DVD/VOD distribution. Read our interview with the director or watch the short on the director’s Vimeo.
- “Machete” (2007) was a fake trailer by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, which Rodriguez turned into the 2010 feature by the same name. Watch the trailer on YouTube.
- “Jay and Seth versus The Apocalypse” (2007) by Jason Stone was a nine-minute short that led to the feature film “This Is The End” (2013). Watch the short on YouTube.
- Watch the short on YouTube. [Link updated 6/5.] “Mama” (2008) by Andrés Muschietti became a feature film in 2013 by the same name.
- “Excision” (2008) by Richard Bates Jr. helped pave the way for the 2012 feature-length horror film by the same name. Watch the short on the production’s YouTube.
- “Panic Attack!” aka “Ataque de Panico” (2009) by Fede Alvarez was a showcase piece of his VFX work. The YouTube upload that garnered so much interest in his work that he was given the studio feature film “Evil Dead” in 2013.
- Watch the short on the director’s Vimeo. “Short Term 12” (2009) by Destin Daniel Cretton began as a short film before becoming a 2013 feature-length film.
- “Mary Last Seen” (2010) by Sean Durkin was a prequel to the feature film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” made in 2011. Watch the trailer on Vimeo.
- “Hobo with a Shotgun” (2010) by Jason Eisener was made as a fake trailer for a contest, yet it led to the 2011 feature by the same name. Watch the trailer on the director’s YouTube.
- “Fishing Without Nets” (2012) by Cutter Hodierne led to the feature by the same name in 2014. Purchase the short video-on-demand (VOD) at Vimeo.
- “The Annoying Orange” (2009-Present) by Dane Boedigheimer was a weekly web series before becoming a TV show (2012). Visit the YouTube channel or read an interview with Boedigheimer on FastCoCreate.
- “Broad City” (2009-2011) by Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson spent two years as a web series before becoming a Comedy Central show in 2014. Visit the YouTube channel or read an interview with Glazer and Jacobson on FastCoCreate.
- Visit the production company’s YouTube. “Video Game High School” (2012-Present) began as a web series via YouTube superstar “FreddieW” (Freddie Wong), which led to three heavily sponsor- and crowd-funded seasons of shows. The show has since been included on Netflix — which is on TV and wins Emmys, so perhaps you can call it a network nowadays.
- “Burning Love” (2012-Present) by Ken Marino and Erica Oyama was a web series on Yahoo before becoming an E! show (2013-Present). Visit the Yahoo channel or read an article about Marino and Oyama on FastCoCreate.
As you’ll see, it’s very rare to make this work, and not as common a model anymore as it was 10 years ago. Today, if not just to do short-format work for the merits of the work itself, there’s now more than ever the opportunity to sell a short film download online, as a VOD business model. Or consider the commercial / branded content route, such as “Touching Stories” for the iPad in 2010. Either way, it’s super rare to walk away completely profitable from either approach.
Food for thought when making something to get somewhere else.