Movies and short films are both visual storytelling formats in the medium of filmmaking. However, they have several distinct differences when it comes to length, budget, distribution, storytelling format, production scale, and more.
In this comprehensive guide, we will compare movies vs short films and break down the key differences between these two types of filmmaking. Whether you are an aspiring filmmaker looking to get started or just a film enthusiast wanting to learn more, read on to understand the unique aspects of movies and short films.
Introduction to Movies vs Short Films
First, let’s start with a quick definition of movies and short films.
Movies, also known as feature films, are typically at least 90 minutes long (an hour and a half). They tell a full-length story with developed characters, subplots, and multiple storyline arcs.
Major studio movies can have astronomical budgets upwards of $300 million in some cases. They rely on wide theatrical releases and mass marketing campaigns to distribute the films to the public.
Short films, on the other hand, are usually defined as any film under 40 minutes in length, with many shorts being 5-15 minutes long. They tell a simple story, usually focusing on one theme, character, or brief moment.
Shorts are made with very small budgets, sometimes just a few thousand dollars if not less. They have limited distribution channels, mainly film festivals and online platforms.
Now that we’ve defined these formats, let’s dive deeper into the key differences between movies and short films when it comes to length, budget, distribution, storytelling, production, genres, and more.
The most obvious difference between movies and short films is the length and runtime.
Movies typically run for 90 minutes or longer. The standard length for a mainstream feature film is approximately 90-120 minutes or 1.5-2 hours.
Epics can run much longer, with many historical dramas, sci-fi fantasies, and musical biopics running over two hours. Some examples include Titanic at 195 minutes, Avengers: Endgame at 181 minutes, and The Wolf of Wall Street at 180 minutes.
Short films, on the other hand, are defined by their brief runtime. By most definitions, a short film is anything less than 40 minutes long. Many short films are in the range of 5-15 minutes in length.
Some film festivals even have categories specifically for one-minute shorts. There are exceptions, but if a film runs 40-75 minutes it is usually considered a medium-length film, landing between a short and a feature film.
This major difference in length affects everything from storytelling conventions to distribution options when comparing movies and short films.
Longer movies have more time to develop complex plots, multiple character arcs, subplots, and detailed worlds. Short films need to tell a full story using less time and fewer elements. We’ll explore more about how length affects storytelling below.
The difference in length between movies and short films also correlates to a massive difference in budgets and production costs.
Mainstream feature films produced by major Hollywood studios now routinely have budgets above $100 million.
For example, the film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides had an estimated budget of $379 million. Avengers: Endgame cost around $356 million.
These massively high budgets fund everything from A-list actor salaries to huge crews, exotic filming locations, special effects, marketing campaigns, and more.
Short films are produced for much, much less money. While some grants and film funds exist, most short films are made for very small budgets. Some shorts are made for zero dollars, using borrowed equipment and actor friends donating time.
More ambitious shorts may have budgets in the range of a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. But it is very rare for a short film budget to exceed $100,000 even at the high end.
This huge difference in budget changes the scope of what movies and short films can achieve. Big-budget blockbusters create fantasy worlds and spectacular effects using money. Shorts use storytelling creativity and performance to make engaging films on a shoestring.
The way movies and short films are distributed out into the world also differs greatly. This is closely linked to their budgets and business models.
Major studio movies rely on wide theatrical releases to get their films in front of audiences and recoup costs. Films will start by premiering in cinemas, supported by massive advertising campaigns.
A typical studio film can open on thousands of screens across the country on the same weekend. After the theatrical run, movies go to streaming, Blu-ray/DVD, and pay TV windows to extend monetization.
Meanwhile, short films have a harder time finding distribution and have very limited access to mainstream channels. Some grant-funded shorts may get limited theatrical play, and festivals are hugely important.
But mostly short films rely on free online platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. There are also sites like Short of the Week and ShortsTV dedicated to shorts. Filmmakers sometimes sell DVDs directly via their website. Overall, short films have fewer ways to recoup costs or make money compared to feature films.
So while movies aim for box office success through theaters, shorts focus on building an audience online and garnering acclaim at film festivals.
Story and Structure
The most crucial difference between movies and short films is how they structure and tell stories on screen. The length difference leads to completely different conventions for story arcs, characters, and more.
In most cases, movies follow a traditional three-act structure with an introduction, conflict, and resolution. They have protagonists and antagonists, character arcs, backstories, subplots, and side characters.
In 120 minutes, a rich, detailed story world can be established. Films like Lord of the Rings can create epic fantasy worlds in their long runtime. There is time for multiple storylines, relationships, and evolutions.
Short films need to tell an entire story in a fraction of the time using compressed storytelling. They focus on one specific moment, theme, or character rather than expansive plots.
There is no time for lengthy introductions or lots of side stories. A 5-minute short might just focus on one poignant conversation between two characters.
Or it might follow one character through a pivotal emotional experience. Shorts often hone in on a specific concept, feeling, or moment rather than spanning years with many characters like movies.
Shorts also use experimental and unconventional storytelling styles. Linearity, plot logic, and traditional resolutions are less important. The format lends itself well to films that want to break the rules. For example, shorts often avoid exposition and just drop viewers into an intense scene.
So movies employ traditional three-act structure versus shorts that can embrace experimental styles enabled by the brief runtime.
The production process behind movies and short films also requires completely different resources, crews, and effort.
Major movies have enormous casts and crews numbering in the hundreds. A 2018 movie like Avengers: Infinity War had a cast of 76 actors in all those superhero roles.
The crew included 500 makeup artists, stunt performers, carpenters, and more who worked behind the scenes. Most movies film across multiple locations, sometimes continents, using elaborate production designs and sets. No effort or expense is spared.
Short films have much smaller, streamlined productions. While famous actors occasionally cameo, most shorts use unknown actors. Crews can be as small as 1-2 people doing multiple jobs like camerawork, lighting, and sound. Shoots usually last a few days in one or two locations max. Music and sound design are also more minimal. The scaled-down production is necessary to match the small budgets.
The difference in production scale means shorts must be highly efficient, often improvising with locations and shot setups. Movies construct entire worlds from scratch. Both formats ultimately aim to create an immersive experience for viewers, but the path to get there looks very different.
Genres and Content
Movie and short films also differ in the genres and content covered in each format. Since movies aim for mass appeal to recoup costs, they span every genre imaginable.
Comedies, dramas, action films, horror, romance, thrillers, and animation are all common genres for feature films. Family-friendly franchises like Marvel and animated movies also do very well. The goal is to appeal to the widest audience possible.
Short films tend to be concentrated in specific genres more aligned with artistry. Dramas and character studies are popular, with many shorts focused on dark or serious subject matter.
For example, shorts often tackle social issues or have provocative themes. There are also many experimental abstract shorts. Comedy shorts exist but are less common. Student and amateur films are essentially training grounds, so shorts skew more towards the dramatic and technical.
The short format lends itself well to simple concepts that provoke emotion or thought. Movies cast a wider net, while shorts go deeper into specific styles.
Film festival shorts programs are dominated by intense dramas, artistic films, and abstract animation. That said, any genre can theoretically be adapted into a short, from horror to musicals.
In summary, movies have blockbuster appeal across all genres while shorts focus on artistry and technical skill in selected genres. Both provide immense creative opportunities.
To recap, while movies and short films are both filmmaking formats, they diverge when it comes to:
- Length – Movies are 90+ minutes, shorts under 40 minutes.
- Budget – Movies have blockbuster budgets, shorts have micro-budgets.
- Distribution – Movies use wide theatrical releases, shorts use festivals and free online platforms.
- Story and structure – Movies have developed plots with subplots, shorts are compressed storytelling.
- Production scale – Movies have enormous casts/crews, shorts scale down.
- Genres – Movies span all genres, shorts concentrate in key genres.
Essentially, movies tell big stories designed to appeal widely using substantial resources. Shorts tell impactful miniature stories with experimental style on a small scale. They represent two ends of the filmmaking spectrum.
Both movies and short films have produced classics of cinema. While vastly different in many regards, they can both achieve amazing storytelling using the medium of film and video. Movies provide an immersive long-form experience. Shorts offer a quick snapshot into a moment, character or feeling.
For aspiring filmmakers, plunging into shorts is the best way to start learning the craft. The short format teaches how to tell visual stories and experiment with small budgets. Many famous directors like Denis Villeneuve, Damien Chazelle and Neill Blomkamp began with shorts. Making shorts can provide a path towards eventually directing feature films.
Whether you love watching big blockbusters or intimate indie shorts, both movies and short films offer wonderful ways to share and experience cinematic stories. They provide education for new filmmakers and entertainment for audiences. Both formats will hold an important place in filmmaking for years to come.
Frequently Asked Questions
What makes a film a short film?
A film is considered a short film if it has a runtime of less than 40 minutes. Short films tell a full story in a condensed format, usually focusing on a specific moment, character, or theme rather than an expansive plot.
Is a short film still a movie?
A short film is not typically referred to as a movie. Movies or feature films are at least 90 minutes long. Short films and movies use different storytelling formats and distribution channels, so shorts are considered a separate filmmaking category.
How many hours is considered a short film?
A short film is less than 40 minutes, so under 1 hour. Many shorts are between 5-15 minutes long. The Academy Awards define a short film as less than 40 minutes to qualify for the Short Film category.
What qualifies as a movie?
A movie, or feature film, is typically defined as being at least 90-120 minutes long (1.5-2 hours). To qualify for the Academy Award for Best Picture, a film must be over 40 minutes long. Major studio films are rarely under 90 minutes.
How many scenes in a short film?
A short film of 5-15 minutes may have between 5-15 scenes. Shorts use compressed storytelling, so may have fewer scenes or extended scenes compared to a full feature. Scenes should transition fluidly and build the story efficiently.
How long should a short film be?
Most short films are 5-15 minutes long. Film festivals often have categories for lengths like 1-5 minutes, 5-15 minutes, and 15-30 minutes. Aim for a length that fits your story. Very short 1-3 minute films can be effective too.
What is the longest movie ever?
The current record holder for the longest movie ever is Logistics (2012) which is 501 hours long. Some ultra long films like The Cure for Insomnia (1987) were originally over 24 hours, but have been edited down. Most feature films are around 90-180 minutes long.
What is the shortest film can be?
There is no defined minimum length for a film, but very short films under 1 minute are sometimes called nanomovies or microshorts. Some festivals have 1-minute short categories. Even a few seconds can potentially tell a story or make an impact.
Can a TV series be called a movie?
A TV series cannot accurately be called a movie, even though episodic storytelling has similarities. A movie is a standalone single production screened in one sitting. A TV series has multiple episodes with interconnected story arcs. However, some very long single episodes or serialized stories like miniseries may blur this line.