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9 Tips for Brands on Commissioning Successful Short Films or Series

Redglass Pictures recently completed a four-part film series for HP called History of Memory. The series won the Tribeca X award for best episodic series and was featured in The Los Angeles Times and Adweek.

Sarah and Tom on set with actor Ken Jeong for The Story of Cancer series for PBS. Spring 2014. The video was selected as Vimeo Staff Pick, and the series won a duPont-Columbia Award.

You have a story to tell: your brand is doing meaningful work, you want to lead the conversation in your field, you have access to an amazing person. You want a series of films to move like lightening around social media, kill at live events, even find partnerships with editorial outlets and influencers. You love films, you watch films, and you gather your team together and start to brainstorm. And brainstorm. And brainstorm. And finally, you call us, a production company that specializes in high-profile short films and series. But by this point, you have been thinking about this for weeks.

Can we be totally honest here? We usually get off that first kick-off call thinking…“why didn’t they call us sooner?!” This article is our attempt to be in on those first brainstorming sessions…without actually being there. We hope that these 9 tips can help focus your thinking and make the process of commissioning a short film or series feel more clear from day one.

1: Focus your message

We’ve all heard of an “elevator pitch.” They’re annoying but exist for a reason — being forced to condense your ideas is the key to focusing in on the story you want to tell. For example: We want to make a three to five minute film on an economist who is changing the way we look at low-income housing in this country. OR We want to make a short film that explains how our brand helps inspire people to think more about where their food comes from. These ideas are focused and clear and give us a lot to work with.

2: Understand the takeaway

Okay, you’ve narrowed in on your message, now think about the three to four things that you absolutely need people to take away from the piece. These are the core ideas that we can build our work around. For example: It’s crucial people understand that this economist came from poverty himself, that he uses big-data to help solve these problems, and that our brand’s technology helps to support this work. This distilling process helps put the entire project into focus and gives us the tools to tell a great story.

3: Lead with the story

We all learned in elementary school that a story is a sequence of events that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s true, but in many of these projects it is hard to know where to start, where it should go, and what the end takeaway should be. Here are some of the things we think about when trying to convert an idea into a story for a client.

  • What is the major problem that this person, initiative, or program sets out to address?

  • How can we see this problem play out in the lives of real people?

  • What are the crucial steps taken to address the problem?

  • How is the problem solved (or why is it not solved)?

  • What is the impact of this?

  • Why is it important?

4: Casting is not just for feature films

Casting for a non-fiction piece simply means that you are actively picking the right people to tell the story. Sometimes this means pre-interviewing twenty couples and picking the best family to illustrate the larger point you want to make. It can also mean choosing someone who is enthusiastic and dynamic on camera as the main face of the story. Occasionally it means casting a narrator or actor to tell a story that the subjects can’t. These decisions matter more than any other decision you make in this process. We can’t explain how many times we’ve tried to salvage a piece that, by flawed design, leaned on a very stiff CEO, a shy scientist, or a low-energy subject to tell the story.

Filming “Secret Album” in New Orleans for our History of Memory series with HP, which won a Tribeca X Award for Best Episodic series. June 2018.

5: Make sure your story is something we can see

Film is a visual medium and to make one we need to see stuff happen. Here are a few things to think about:

  • What happens in your story and is it something we can film?

  • Do you have access to the location or event?

  • If portions of the story take place in the past, do you have photographs or archival footage of the relevant people and events?

If the answer to these questions is a resounding “NO,” don’t panic! Your piece may be a good candidate for animation, recreations, or even motion graphics. It’s best to think about visual storytelling early — the answer to these questions will inform our stylistic approach to the project.

6: Project budgets come in all shapes and sizes

So… how much does a film cost? We get this question all the time and we’ve learned that the better question to ask is, “how much do I want to spend”? That’s because there are dozens of factors that impact cost including but not limited to: length of piece, number of shoot days, travel, archival licensing, animation/motion graphics requirements, music, production timeline, and amount of revisions. Any one of these elements can drastically alter the cost of a project. So, it’s best to really think about your estimated budget, and what you hope to achieve with that number. A good production company will be honest about what they can and can’t do for that number, and then you can make decisions based on that feedback.

7: Greatness doesn’t happen overnight

Don’t paint yourself into a corner by starting late. This isn’t news, and a crafted, cinematic short film takes months to bring to fruition. Every project has its own timeline but here is a general scheduling cheat sheet for making a short film.

  • Initial discussions to signed contract — 2–4 weeks

  • Story development and approvals — 2–4 weeks

  • Treatments and pre-production — 2–4 weeks

  • Production — 2–4 weeks

  • Edit and Post production with 3 rounds of client review/approval — 6–8 weeks

8: Understand your audience

We always set out to tell amazing stories in authentic ways, but the intended audience can absolutely change the approach. For instance, if this is a project that will be expected to make a cultural splash and gain large-scale editorial coverage — you’ll need to think very early on about your strategy for this. What audience will this story resonate with? Why will people be drawn to it? Is there a high-profile person in the piece to boost interest? We want to know these things at kick-off to start understanding the best way to get your project noticed.

Bill Shapiro leads a panel discussion with Sarah, Tom, and the cast of HP’s History of Memory at it’s Tribeca Film Festival Premiere. May 2019.

9: Get it out there

Even if you’ve made an incredible film, people won’t just magically flock to watch it. Second to making the film, distribution is the absolute hardest nut to crack in the process. Now, sometimes this isn’t an issue… if you’re making this for an event or you have a huge social media following, that could be enough. But often times we work for months on incredible pieces for clients who have big dreams but no distribution plan.

It’s important to have realistic conversations about this early. It may mean thinking about partnering with an editorial outlet like The New York Times. It could mean creating a budget for influencers to get behind the series, or simply putting aside the money to boost outreach on the social media platforms you already use. We all want the work to be seen by as many people as possible, and a smart distribution plan is the key to making that happen.

There is nothing more exciting than turning an idea into a successful short film or series. We have dedicated the last 15 years of our lives to it. We also understand that the decisions that happen early in the process inform the success…or failure of the project. We hope that these few tips help make that process a little bit easier.


About Redglass Pictures

Reglass pictures is an award-winning production company specializing in short films. We are storytellers, problem solvers, and visual thinkers. Founded by @sarahkleinrg + @tomlbmason

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