Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Seven-Minute Itch

As we gear up for another year of film submissions, I want to take a minute to talk about the 7-Minute Itch. After 8 years of looking at hundreds of short films, films that started well but then sagged and died despite all the good work that went into them, I think many of the failures of comedy are in the structure of the overall script. In a short film, somewhere around 7 minutes, the story needs to take a turn. A big turn, to change the game entirely for the audience. It doesn't have to be a Hollywood change where the stakes for the main character suddenly escalate, thought it can. It could be any turn that wakes up the viewer lulled into "knowing" what the film was about and ready for it to be done. Curiosity is aroused. Instead of being ready for it to end, I want to see where it goes from there, at least for another 7 minutes. Then wrap it up. Or take yet another turn, a different turn, and then I'll be with you to the end of your half-hour. (Stories over a half-hour long need even more in terms of story, with almost as much depth as a feature, and they have a very hard time finding a home in film festivals.)

CAVEAT: When you hear 7 minutes, do not think of a stopwatch. Think of a cigarette. Cigarettes burn at different speeds depending on how much and how often you puff on them, but if a cigarette stays lit, it has a maximum span before it fizzles and goes out. If you want to keep smoking, you have to light another. A completely new cigarette. Likewise, your story after your 7-minute turn, should feel like a new movie. You can stretch it a bit if you are bringing your film to a bang-up finish. However, if you add another five minutes of interesting complications in the same vein as the rest, it causes a kind of despair: I'm tired of this. Let me go! You may love the charm of the moment, but if I feel the mental and emotional equivalent of an attack of claustrophobia, your charming scene becomes torture to me, no matter how well done.

 EXCEPTION: If you are making a film that is more experimental, an artistic deconstruction of comedy, or a recursive philosophical parody (we had a French film like that the first year that was 26 minutes) all bets are off. But a discussion of comedy and aesthetics has to be for another day.


  1. It's like sex too. After two or three or four minutes, you gotta change it up, or else, yawn.

  2. Wonderful advice. What if it's a 5 or 6 minute film? That's what I'm shooting for these days.

  3. Love the 5-6 minute films. Too many ten 7-10 minute films that I see should be tightened to that length. The question is whether it is a sketch, namely a situation that flips with a joke or other payoff at the end, or a true short film with a story to tell. Let us meet your character(s), get 'em in trouble, preferably with some kind of urgency or ticking clock, and then have 'em fix it or "die" trying.