Skip to content

Feature Film vs Short Film

feature vs short

Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which can provide compensation to us at no cost to you. You can read our full affiliate disclosure in our privacy policy.

For most people, when they think about what a movie is, they imagine a feature-length film. These are the movies that play in theaters and generally have budgets in the tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars. You’ve likely seen hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of feature films in your life. That said, they are not the only format available to the filmmaker, and it’s worth understanding the differences between each and considering the short film as a viable option, especially for the first-time filmmaker.

The Short Film

A short film (as defined by Academy Awards) is any movie that has a runtime under 40 minutes, although in practice, a 40-minute run time is considered a rather long short film. In general, most shorts range from 5 to 15 minutes.

They usually have smaller crews and lower budgets than features, but that’s not always the case. A complex and well-funded short film can be just as expensive to produce as a low-budget feature film, it all depends on the story being told and the resources available.

What about music videos?

A music video is essentially a short film that integrates a song with imagery and is produced for promotional or artistic purposes. Music videos are generally between three and five minutes long but can be up to ten minutes or even longer.

They usually have smaller crews than features or narrative shorts, but the budget can be quite high if the artist is well-known or if there are extensive visual effects involved.

The Feature Film

A feature film is a bit more difficult to define, as there isn’t one universally agreed-upon minimum runtime. According to the Motion Picture Academy, any movie that has a runtime of 40 minutes or more qualifies, but most film festivals and other authorities prefer a minimum runtime of 75-80 minutes.

According to Stephen Follows the average runtime of a feature film between 1999 and 2018 was between 93 and 98 minutes.

Features generally have larger crews and higher budgets than shorts, but again, this all depends on the story being told and the resources available.

Which format should I choose?

Because most of us have spent a lifetime watching feature films that is the option that most will gravitate to naturally. However, if this is your first foray into filmmaking the short film is definitely worth considering.

Here are a few reasons to consider making a short film:

  • cost – you can make a short film for virtually nothing
  • time – it’s possible to film a complete short film over a weekend
  • education – learn from your mistakes before taking on a larger project

Conversely, here are a few limitations of the short film:

  • profit – you should never expect to make money on a short film
  • challenging – the short story format can be hard to grasp, it truly is its own storytelling format and not just a shortened version of a feature film
  • prestige – features are generally given more respect than shorts

In general, making a short film is a great idea as long as you approach it clear-eyed with an understanding that it is mostly an exercise in building and refining your skills as a filmmaker. Short films that turn a profit are virtually unheard of and likewise, (with a few exceptions) the days when a short film could lead to a job directing for a studio are mostly over as well.

If you treat a short film appropriately, as a personal project and a force multiplier for building your experience and skills, then you’ll likely have a positive and rewarding experience, but if you approach it as a way to jump-start your career you’ll likely be let down.

Additionally, a hybrid approach is also possible. Many aspiring feature filmmakers will extract a scene or collection of scenes from a feature script and make a short film of that extracted story.

Generally, these do not produce the most compelling content as the characters and scenes are presented without the proper context and we as an audience have no connection with them.

That said, simply taken as a filmmaking exercise this type of short film is extremely valuable and would be recommended for every filmmaker before embarking on a feature film. You can think of it as a sort of dress rehearsal in fact.

Both features and short films can be narratives or documentaries. Next we’ll take a look at the differences between those two formats.

What about Television?

There are many formats for television including episodic TV shows, movies of the week, limited series (miniseries), and more. For the purpose of this guide, we’re going to stick to feature films as our point of reference, but keep in mind that all of these other formats will share many of the same production stages and elements as a feature film. The primary difference will be that stages can be shortened or prolonged depending on the type of production and its requirements.

Share this post on social