The 7 best films that started out as shorts

October 26, 2021

There are so many reasons we’re passionate about short films, but something that’s particularly nifty about them is their potential. Films made in one room, on handheld cameras or by a group of hometown friends can be the most fertile seeds that grow into feature-length showpieces watched by adoring (or at least paying) audiences all over the world.

This selection of household films all started their lives as shorts, ranging from university film projects to a 17-year-old’s idea for a mockumentary. While the list doesn’t stop here, these seven show the great things that can come from putting your all into a properly spectacular short.


Source: IMDB

Saw

Undoubtedly the short with the biggest snowball effect, the 9-minute film SAW has grown to a 9-movie-strong franchise. The original 2003 Australian gore scene was used by its creators, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, as a pitch of their concept to studios.

The short was shot on virtually no budget, and shows one of the most iconic life-or-death kidnappings that features in the full 2004 movie: The “reverse bear trap conundrum”. Can David retrieve the key from his dead cell mate’s stomach and unlock the bear trap before it - ahem - rips his jaw open?

Lionsgate Studios loved the film, and immediately granted the creators a $1.2 million budget to make their script into a full feature, which premiered at the 2004  Sundance Festival to a great reception. Rather unexpectedly, this pain-fest of a film grossed $103 million worldwide, with a revenue of almost $100 million. It’s no surprise the series is still going strong 17-years later, with it’s latest addition, Spiral, having been released in 2021.




The cast of 'Boogie Nights' stand together on set, including Mark Wallberg and Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Photo via NEW LINE CINEMA

Boogie Nights

The Dirk Diggler Story

Ah, the film that brought Mark Walberg onto our screens and away from the stage as the frontman of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.

Boogie Nights is a film inspired by a short, which was inspired by a documentary. The feature films director, Paul Thomas Anderson, took the idea from a 1981 documentary called Exhausted: John C. Holmes, The Real Story, which followed adult film star John Holmes.  His mockumentary, The Dirk Diggler Story, follows a fictional adult film star based on Holmes. This all happened during Anderson’s high school days, and he wrote the film at just 17 years old.

Remarkably, Anderson raised money for the film by cleaning cages in a pet shop. The film was shot using a video camera and steadicam provided by Anderson's father Ernie, who also narrated the film. Anderson pulled favours from friends to make up the cast.

Boogie Nights made a worldwide box office revenue of over $40 million and has a score of 93% on rotten tomatoes, so it seems the dirty work was worth it. Woof.

A still from the film 'Napoleon Dynamite'. Napoleon dances awkwardly at the prom with his date
Photo via The Atlantic

Napoleon Dynamite  

Peluca

Napoleon Dynamite is an awkward teen cult classic that confuses boomers and Gen Z alike. Birthed in the mind of director Jared Hess, and adapted from his short film Peluca (Spanish for wig), the film was made for a film class during his time as a student at Brigham Young University.

Much like the feature, Jon Heder plays the protagonist. Could anyone else?

Peluca was shot on black and white 16mm film, and the vintage look is a clear inspiration for Napoleon Dynamite, which, although shot in colour, is a carefully crafted collage of pine browns and 80s primaries.

As well as the box office revenue of over $44 million, the film made a killing in merchandise. In the mid-noughties, it was hard to ignore the ‘vote for pedro’ that decorated fridge magnets and t-shirts of teenagers from the Midwest to Middlesbrough.


A still from 'The Babadook'. Amelia and Samuel searching for something under the bed
Photo via IFC Films/Courtesy

The Babadook

Monster

The Babadook is one of the most adored horror films of the 2010s, praised for its horror relying on genuine human experiences and struggles, in this case depression in a single mother, rather than jump scares. The characters have depth and are loveable, which isn’t a trope often associated with the genre.

Jennifer Kent’s short film Monster is this concept in a shot glass, often referred to by her as ‘Baby Babadook’. It was Kent’s ferocious will, rather than the help of a studio or world-class director, which got her film from short to feature.

She went ahead and wrote her feature screenplay, redrafting it five times, and pulled together her own team from links she had made in the industry volunteering and shadowing TV directors.

It wasn’t an easy road, and the budget was continuously made smaller than Kent had hoped, but The Babadook was one of the best reviewed films of 2014. It holds an approval rating of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Today, the film's worldwide box office takings are $10.3 million -  a pretty unprecedented achievement for a horror director debut.




Photograph by Daniel McFadden

Whiplash


Whiplash is an example of somebody who needed a break from writing, so did some different writing and ended up writing something that went on to win three Academy Awards.

Damien Chazelle is the mind behind La La Land, and wrote Whiplash “out of frustration” while struggling to get the musical off the ground. Putting the film away for a while (which of course went on to win 6 Oscars of its own), he decided to write something about his experience being a jazz drummer. Never intending for it to be seen, he then stashed it away in a drawer, feeling that it was too personal.

Whiplash premiered at the 2013 Sundance Festival, where it won the Short Film Jury Prize and was picked up by investors to make a complete version of the film. Now a beloved classic, the feature made a worldwide total of $49 million against a budget of $3.3 million.



The cast of 'This is the End', including Jonah Hill, James Franco and Seth Rogen
Photo via Columbia Pictures

This is the End

Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse

When we picture early 2010s stoner comedies like This is the End, it’s hard not to envisage Seth Rogen and James Fracno on the front of the Blu-Ray box. It’s unsurprising that Rogen played the same role (Of course, named Seth) in the original short by Jason Stone, titled Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse. Rogen co-wrote the short, which follows Jay (played by Jay Baruchel) and Seth as they argue in one room as the world ends outside their window.  

This is the End takes this simple but effective concept and makes it bigger. James Franco joins the group of main characters and stars like Rihanna, Channing Tatum and Paul Rudd are added to the mix. But to squeeze in this many stars, you need to change some fundamentals; the plot was switched up so that Franco’s character is hosting a raucous party when beams of blue light begin to suck people into the sky.

Fans of the short were disappointed that the story didn’t stick too closely to the original short, which was posted on YouTube and got 50,000 views in the first ten days. It has since been removed.  

Regardless, the 2013 feature grossed $101.5 million in the United States alone and, as usual, performances from Rogen, Frano, Baruchel and Jonah Hill were widely considered to be the best thing about it.  


Mama

2013 horror film ‘Mama’ started it’s life as a short of the same name. A short which has been named by Guillermo del Toro as, “One of the scariest little scenes I’ve ever seen”, and drew him to wanting to work with it’s creators Andy and Barbara Muschietti.

If you’re brave enough to watch this film, which can be found on YouTube, check out the comments. The overwhelming response is that the short is far scarier and well executed than the feature it gave life to. It’s considered to be a masterclass in how short films use their limited time to pack a real punch.

Despite mixed reception for the feature, it grossed $146 million against a $15 million budget. The short itself serves a great example of how filmmakers can use shorts to demonstrate the potential velocity of their idea to attract industry giants.





We see first hand just how many ripely weird and wonderful short films are cropping up every day and, thanks to the internet, there’s more potential than ever to put them in front of audiences. Turning your small-budget passion project in to a blockbuster is NOT an impossible dream, although, in some cases, it seems some of its magic may lie in its current simplicity.