Short film is a technical description originally coined in the North American film industry in the early period of cinema. The description is now used almost interchangeably with short subject. Either term is often abbreviated to short (as a noun, e.g., "a short"). A trailer for a feature length film is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a "short" for the complete film.
Although the North American definition generally refers to films between 20 and 40 minutes, the definition refers to much shorter films in Europe, Latin America and Australasia. In New Zealand, for instance, the description can be used to describe any film that has a duration longer than one minute and shorter than 15 minutes. The North American definition also tends to focus much more on character whereas the European and Australasian forms tend to depend much more on visual drama and plot twists. In this way, the North American form can be understood to be a derivation of the feature film form, usually acting as a platform for aspirant Hollywood directors. Elsewhere, short films tend to work as showcases for cinematographers and commercial directors.
The term came to be applied in North America in the 1910s, when the majority of feature films began to be made in much longer-running editions. A typical film program came to be expected to include a feature preceded by one or more short subjects. Short subjects could be live action or animated. Comedy was particularly utilized, and well-known comedians such as Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and others are known for their short films as well as their features.
Animated cartoons likewise came principally as short subjects, as did newsreels. Less frequently, short subjects might be in the form of travelogues, human interest films or concert films. The form was so popular that virtually all major film production companies had fully-staffed special units assigned to develop and produce them, and many companies, especially in the silent and very early sound era, produced short subjects exclusively (e.g. Keystone Studios, Atlas Educational Film Co., E. W. Hammons's Educational Pictures).
The death of the two-reel short as a commercially successful product for independent studios put producers such as Mack Sennett out of business. Hal Roach moved Laurel and Hardy full-time into feature films after 1935, and halved his popular Our Gang films to one reel at the request of distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Roach, who could no longer afford to produce shorts after 1938, sold Our Gang to MGM at that time and exclusively produced features (and later, television shows) from then on.
After the 1930s, fewer shorts were made for theatrical release, most of which were one-reel long, like George O'Hanlon's Joe McDoakes shorts, and the animated shorts of studios like Leon Schlesinger Productions/Warner Bros. Cartoons, Walter Lantz and Fleischer/Famous Studios. These shorts and others were produced in-house by, or financed by, motion picture companies that either owned their own theater chains (for example, Loews Theatres) or forced theaters to take their shorts by selling them in the same unalterable package as their big-name features. This practice, called block booking, was declared illegal in 1948 by the US Supreme Court case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., a case that also forced the theater chains to sell off their movie studios. By 1955, thanks to double features, the ban on block booking and the rise of television, the commercial live-action short was virtually dead, and the cartoon short was fading. Since the 1960s, short films have been largely reserved for independent filmmakers and special major-studio projects.
The Three Stooges shorts were the only major series of two-reelers to survive the double-feature system because they were issued by Columbia Pictures using block booking. They continued into the late-1950s, largely by reusing footage from previous series entries to reduce costs.
In the 1950s, television programming, including the telecasting of older short subjects, eclipsed the value of all but cartoons featuring well-loved characters. By the end of the 1960s, the cost of manufacturing outweighed the return, and short subjects effectively disappeared.
Since the 1980s, the term "short subject" has come to be used interchangeably with "short film," an international, academic term used to mean a contemporary non-commercial motion picture that is substantially shorter than the average commercial feature film. There is no clear definition of the maximum length of a short film, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences classify it as 40 minutes, while the Internet Movie Database refer to any film lasting less than 45 minutes as a short subject. The short-film form is to the full-length film what the short story is to a full-fledged novel.
Short films often focus on difficult topics which longer, more commercial films usually avoid. Filmmakers benefit from larger freedoms and can take higher risks, but they must rely on festival and art house exhibition to achieve public display. Most short films are better known outside the United States than within, due to less rigidity of audience expectation as to program content, arrangement and length outside the U.S. However, film shorts are often a popular extra feature on a film's DVD. For instance, Pixar's DVD releases of its feature films typically includes not only a short that was distributed with the feature film in its initial theatrical release but also an original creation featuring the characters from the feature itself. Likewise, Warner Brothers often includes selected animated shorts from its considerable archives on DVD releases of its family-oriented films that have a thematic relationship.
Films such as S. Luciani's Dolls show how professional actors and crews still choose to create short films as alternative form of expression. Short films are often popular as first steps into the cinematic art among young filmmakers. They are cheaper and easier to make, usually don't take very long to produce, and their brevity makes shorts more likely to be watched by financial backers and others who want some demonstration of a filmmaker's ability (or, conversely, the format allows for more experimentation since most of them are unlikely to be seen by a wide audience).
Short filmmaking is also growing in popularity among amateurs and enthusiasts, who are taking advantage of affordable equipment. "Prosumer" or semi-professional cameras now cost under USD$3,000, and free or low-cost software is widely available that is capable of video editing, post-production work and DVD authoring.
Very short films are sometimes considered as a category of their own. They are the film equivalent of microfiction, like the 60 Word Story. The International Festival of Very Shorts is a festival based in Paris which shows only films less than three minutes long.
Shorts International and Magnolia Pictures distribute the annual release of The Academy Award Nominated Short Films (Live-Action and Animation) in theaters across the US, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom throughout February/March.
Such films can also be easily distributed via the Internet; Across the Hall, for example, was solely distributed on the Internet. Certain websites which encourage the submission of user-created short films, such as YouTube, BritFilms and Newgrounds have attracted large communities of artists and viewers, whereas sites such as BBC Film Network focus on showcasing curated British shorts.
Shorts International is the exclusive, independent aggregator of short film content on iTunes in the USA, Canada, UK and Germany. The Short Film section of the Movie Store is updated once a month and includes the annual release of The Academy Award Nominated Short Films.
Shorts are occasionally broadcast as filler when a scheduled film's length cannot be conventionally fit in the standard broadcast schedule and the short is intended to fill in the remaining time of the timeslot. By contrast, Movieola is a Canadian cable channel devoted exclusively to shorts up to 40 minutes long. Another television station in Canada called Bite TV is trying to become the world's first user-generated television station, trying to get viewers to send in their videos.
ShortsTV is the first television channel dedicated to short films. It broadcasts an SDTV feed in the UK (BSkyB Channel 342), France, Belgium, Luxembourg (Numericable 134 & 52) and Turkey (Ttnet). An HDTV version of the channel, ShortsHD, is available on AT&T U-verse channel 1789.
The format has various sub-categories:
Short films can be classified based on storyline. There may be single, duo, triple or multi-version modes in picturizing a short film. Short films can be made to test new technologies and techniques.