How Short Films Helped Me Build My Career

How Short Films Helped Me Build My Career

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FILMMAKER: Michael Litwak
STORY: 8th Time’s the Charm - Building a Career through Short Films

There is a narrative fed to young filmmakers that the Key to Success (TM) is making a great short film—that one short film will be your golden ticket to open every door necessary to build a career in filmmaking.

This is half true. There is a door, but it’s a revolving one.

It’s built like the Wheel of Fortune, but with less winning slots. And once you get through the door, you realize that the other side is actually the ground floor of a coliseum where you must fight lions and tigers and 18-month contract negotiations (if you’re lucky).

I recently released my 8th Official short film ALPHA SQUADRON online.

I say “official” because there are at least 6-7 short films that are buried in the depths of the cloud and will never be shown to anyone.

They exist only in the memories of the small “crews” (friends) that were nice enough to work on them and not laugh in my face during the process.

The short film that “failed” but resulted in my big break

Back in 2014 when I made my 4th Official Short Film ‘CHAOS AND DANGER’, I poured everything I had into it.

I raised 10k on Kickstarter. I shoveled every free dollar I had from freelance editing jobs into getting it done. And I was really, really proud when I finished it, barely making the Sundance deadline.

I thought I had a decent shot at a major festival because I had gotten some feedback from my previous shorts and had met a programmer or two in the process.

Then... after months of anxiously waiting… (drumroll please!)… nothing happened.

We got rejected from Sundance and every other major festival. We were even getting rejected from smaller ones.

It was my first major dose of failure.

I commiserated with friends, licked my wounds, prepared to move on. This wouldn’t be my Golden Ticket.

Then something unexpected happened…

A friend from film school I hadn’t talked to in a couple years reached out. A mutual friend had sent him the short. Could he send it to “a couple industry friends?”

There were no fancy laurels on it to legitimize it, but I had nothing to lose. So I said sure.

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Overnight, the private Vimeo link went from 10 views to 150 —those two people had sent it to two more people, and they had sent it to two more, and within a week I had 5 agencies and 11 management companies chasing me.

Overnight, the private Vimeo link went from 10 views to 150 - those two people had sent it to two more people, and they had sent it to two more and within a week I had 5 agencies and 11 management companies chasing me.

Several of them kindly suggested that I should totally submit this short to Sundance! Ha!

I signed with a major agency and management company. I did my first water bottle tour and met with 40+ companies in the span of a couple weeks. I was finally living the Golden Ticket experience!

All thanks to a short film that was initially considered a failure.

But it wasn’t that simple.

Now before I continue I’d like to take a slight detour.

I remember I gave up on the show LOST after Season 3.

The whole point of the show was supposed to be “how are these people going to get off the island?!”

Yet at the end of that season they flash-forwarded (or sideways? IDFK) and revealed that they had gotten off the island! But the twist… NOW THEY HAD TO GO BACK. WTF MAN.

It felt like such a slap in the face to the audience.

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I share this because it feels like the perfect metaphor for my relationship with short films.

After the success of my fourth short, I felt like I had gotten off the island. I was given a handful of opportunities, and I really do think I took advantage of a lot of them.

I’ve been able to slowly transition out of freelance editing and have gotten a series of small writing deals and directing jobs. I can fully support myself as a writer/director because I keep my overhead low and I supplement my income with commercial jobs.

The stories of short-filmmaking unicorns (i.e. Whiplash/Thunder Road) clog up the airwaves and continue the simple narrative that a short will lead directly to a feature, which will lead to Sundance, which will lead to Marvel. The reality is more complicated - there are roadblocks, setbacks, wild goose-chases and dead-ends aplenty.

So then why the f*** have I gone back to the figurative island?

Why make four more shorts since the success of ‘Chaos and Danger’?

The simple answer is that it takes a really long time to make anything.

And while the gears on my bigger projects are slowly turning, I decided to keep making low-budget shorts, to build my skills, to build a portfolio, to build relationships with new cast and crew.

I am hesitant to say “do this” or “don’t do this” because frankly everyone’s situation is different.

But I have found over the years that the key to avoiding insanity (AKA an alt definition of success) in my case has been to be prolific, to make things and not constantly worry about where they fit into a Grand Master Plan or view them as a Golden Ticket.

Has this strategy worked 100% of the time? No! Have I learned something from every one of my projects? Yes.

The stories of short-filmmaking unicorns (i.e. Whiplash/Thunder Road) clog up the airwaves and continue the simple narrative that a short will lead directly to a feature, which will lead to Sundance, which will lead to Marvel.

The reality is more complicated - there are roadblocks, setbacks, wild goose-chases and dead-ends aplenty.

It’s been five years since I made ‘Chaos & Danger’ and we are STILL trying to turn it into a feature - and we’re actually making some good progress!

I’m cautiously optimistic, but I also don’t put all my eggs into one basket anymore, and have settled into the conclusion for every weird overnight success you have in your career, there will be 10x as many things that take a really long time.

Alpha Squadron (Short Film #8) did not play at festivals and was not given a Vimeo Staff Pick - but it did find its way (via my agent) to the eyes of a Very Big Director who is helping me turn it into a digital series.

The process is slow. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t. But I do feel like I’m getting better at spinning the Wheel of Fortune. Maybe there is SOME skill to it.

But regardless of what happens, Short Film #9 is almost done! It’s a weird one. I have no idea if it’ll go anywhere, and that’s okay.


Michael Lukk Litwak is a writer/director based in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. He has a weekly newsletter where he shares things he likes. You can sign up for it here: www.michaellitwak.com


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