Thursday, January 17, 2019

Two Problems with "Proof of Concept" Short Films

Hollywood calls them "proof of concept" (POC) films. Short films that are a sample of an (as yet) unproduced feature film to potential investors. A POC short film aims to "prove" that its story will look great expanded into a feature.

Some POC films also showcase the intended feature films's cast. But sometimes a different cast is used in the actual feature, for artistic or financial reasons. For example, Grace, whose POC I saw in 2007 at a film festival.

It's common for filmmakers to submit POC films to festivals, hoping to win awards and thereby entice investors. But while POC films might occasionally interest investors, they generally fail as short films. This is because, like a short story, a pleasing short film should be self-contained. It should have a beginning, a middle, an end. And engaging, well-defined characters. A dilemma facing those characters. And a final resolution. Closure.

Too often, POC films lack closure. They leave viewers hanging. We get the sense that the real story begins after the film ends.

Roger Sampson's Visitor (2017) is such a film. It opens with Dr. Price (Ashley Felkner) examining a pregnant woman, while explaining her new experimental drug. Dr. Price says, "It will help women, who couldn't be mommies before, to have children." We later see Dr. Price at her home, talking to her voice recorder, repeating the wonders of her new drug. She is pleased that the FDA is expected to approve it soon.

We then cut to what appears to be an alien spaceship descending to earth. We intercut shots of the alien craft's decent with shots of Dr. Price at home, strangely affected. She falls into a zombie like trance, eats glass, and exist the house. The End.

Huh? What did I just see? This ten minute film was mostly just exposition about Dr. Price's new wonder drug. Then the alien ship is introduced and Dr. Price leaves home. What was that about?

This is clearly a POC film. Want to know what happens to Dr. Price? How the aliens are connected to her new drug (if at all)? You'll have to watch the (as yet nonexistent) feature film.

POC films can usually be spotted through this lack of closure. There is exposition. Characters are set up and introduced. A great conflict or problem (often upcoming and always unresolved) is broached. Then ... The End.

Becca Flinn-White's The Candlelight Witch (2018) suffers this same problem. In this six minute film, two children and a babysitter are alone on a dark night. The babysitter relates an urban legend about a witch. The witch appears and kidnaps the babysitter.

Whereupon one child asks, "So what do we do?"

The other replies, "Get her back."

The End.


Once again, I sensed that now begins the real story: the struggle to regain the babysitter from the witch. But you'll have to wait for the (as yet unproduced) feature film to see it.

I have confirmation that Visitor and The Candlelight Witch's are POC films. But I can usually spot them just from this lack of closure, which leave me emotionally dissatisfied. Seeing Visitor or The Candlelight Witch, I feel as if I've left the theater ten minutes after the film began.

A satisfying film need not resolve every problem. Many fine horror films end with an implication that the threat lives on. But a self-contained cycle of dramatic events should be resolved. Halloween (1978) had closure even though Michael Myers was still alive and would return, because Laurie Strode's night of horror had ended. Tomorrow was another day. Nothing in Halloween mandated that Myers continue to terrorize Strode in Halloween 2.

But a well made POC short film needn't lack closure. Some are not merely advertisements for planned feature films, but stand on their own artistically.

Becki Pantling's Off Duty (2018) is a seven minute film about a psychic police officer. Its story is self-contained. The officer arrives at an investigation and resolves the problem. I didn't know it was a POC film until I'd read it marketing materials.

Perhaps one reason that Off Duty works as a short is because it promotes an intended TV series rather than a feature. So really, Off Duty is an episode from an intended series. TV series usually offers some closure with each episode, even if some dilemmas are left unresolved until the following episode.

This does not mean that a POC short for an intended feature film must lack closure.

Another problem with some POC films is that they start well into the story. Yes, it's generally a good idea not to have too much exposition; to begin a film with the drama already in progress. But some POC films take this too far.

Ozlem Altingoz's Birth (2018) feels like the later scenes of a feature. Maybe she choose to film these scenes for her intended feature because they're especially effects laden. (See, investors, how cool this will look when it's finished?) But as a viewer, I felt as if I'd arrived very late to the film. That I should know what was going on, but didn't.

I was annoyed by this lack of back story. Some mystery is good, but Birth inundated me with too many unexplained details. A possessed wife, an expectant baby on the way, a son's vague accusations against his parents ... how did these all connect? Who are these people? What brought about this situation? What are they talking about?

The ending failed to answer any of my questions. It only raised more questions. Which, I assume, would be explained in the upcoming feature.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a "proof of concept" short film. But do tell a self-contained story. Explain what needs to be explained. And give us closure.


For more about structure in horror films, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.