Making and distributing a short film is relatively less expensive than making a feature film, and sometimes it’s a director’s ticket to stardom in Hollywood. Here are 19 short films that were expanded into full-length features.
1. Short: Bottle Rocket / Feature: Bottle Rocket
In 1992, after meeting in a playwright class at the University of Texas in Austin, Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson collaborated on a short film called Bottle Rocket, which followed the exploits of three clueless would-be criminals, played by Robert Musgrave, Owen Wilson, and his brother Luke. During the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, Bottle Rocket received little attention from film critics and festival attendees, but it managed to catch the eye of film producer James L. Brooks, who funded the duo’s debut feature based on the short.
The feature film version of Bottle Rocket was released in 1996 and gained cult status among film critics and cinephiles. The difference between the 13-minute short and the 92-minute feature film are mostly cosmetic; the narrative was expanded, and color photography was used. The feature also ditched the short's jazzy soundtrack for a new score from composer and former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh. Director Martin Scorsese named Bottle Rocket one of his 10 favorite movies of the decade, and it launched Anderson and the Wilson brothers’ careers.
2. Short: Jay & Seth vs. The Apocalypse / Feature: This Is The End
In 2007, actors Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogen starred in a 10-minute short film featuring two friends named Jay and Seth arguing while trapped in their apartment during a cataclysmic doomsday event. While the short film was only intended to play the film festival circuit, its premise was expanded into the feature film This Is The End in 2013.
The feature film now took place at a Hollywood party and centered on a group of celebrities going through the Biblical Rapture. The comedy starred James Franco, Rogen, Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride playing exaggerated versions of their on-screen personas.
3. Short: Frankenweenie / Feature: Frankenweenie
In 2007, Disney signed Tim Burton to direct two films using Disney Digital 3D, the Mouse House’s own 3D technology system: Alice In Wonderland and the stop-motion animated remake of Burton’s own 1984 short film Frankenweenie. The original short film is live-action with Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, and Barret Oliver as the Frankenstein family.
After the short was completed, Disney fired Burton because the film didn’t meet the movie studio’s expectations as a family film. Frankenweenie was originally going to screen before the 1984 re-release of Pinocchio, but instead Disney decided to shelve it. After Burton found success with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the original Batman film series, Disney released the short film on home video in 1992.
The full-length feature film version of Frankenweenie was released in 2012 and received nominations for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.
4. Short: Le Jetée / Feature: 12 Monkeys
Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi classic time travel film 12 Monkeys was a box office hit in 1995. Brad Pitt’s performance as the mentally disturbed Jeffery Goines earned the actor his first Academy Award nomination, and the movie won the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film. Little do many people know, 12 Monkeys was based on French New Wave filmmaker Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée.
The French short film is told with still images and text, and follows a man who is a prisoner living underground of a post-apocalyptic Paris in the aftermath of the Third World War. Scientists develop time travel and send the man to the past because he is one of the few test subjects that can withstand the painful journey back in time.
Gilliam’s version of the source material retained the themes of broken memories and time, but introduced the film’s deadly virus and the terrorist organization the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.
5. Short: Alive in Joburg / Feature: District 9
In 2005, director Neill Blomkamp created a vision of dystopian South Africa with the short film Alive In Joburg. The film followed a group of extraterrestrial refugees living in Johannesburg and looked at how the human population treated the new alien race. Blomkamp’s film was documentary-style and explored themes of South African apartheid; the director had conceived the short as a proof-of-concept to showcase advanced special effects with a low budget.
Alive in Joburg caught the eye of director Peter Jackson, who planned to produce a live-action version of the video game Halo with Blomkamp in the director’s chair. While the Halo creators ultimately backed out of the film adaptation, Jackson gave Blomkamp $30 million to do whatever he wanted to do instead. The result was the feature District 9, a box office hit that went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2009. Blomkamp introduced a new character named Wikus van de Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley, a well-mannered government official who slowly turns into an alien. Copley was also Alive in Joburg’s producer.
6. Short: The Dirk Diggler Story / Feature: Boogie Nights
In 1987, at age 17, director Paul Thomas Anderson made a mockumentary short film about the rise and fall of a fictional porn star named Dirk Diggler. Anderson shot The Dirk Diggler Story with a video camera and edited the 32-minute short using a VCR-to-VCR editing system. Anderson’s short was based on the chaotic life of '70s porn star John Holmes and his part in the drug-deal-gone-wrong Wonderland Murders in 1981. The short was also influenced by Rob Reiner’s faux-documentary This Is Spinal Tap.
Almost a decade later, in 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson re-visited The Dirk Diggler Story with his second feature film Boogie Nights. The film would go on to launch Anderson’s career as an emerging auteur filmmaker, as it was nominated for three Academy Awards.
7. Short: Within The Woods / Feature: The Evil Dead
Armed with a Super 8 film camera, a remote cabin in the woods, and longtime friend Bruce Campbell, director Sam Raimi made a 30-minute short film called Within The Woods in 1978. The short sits firmly in the horror genre and was made to gain interest from investors to one day make a full-length feature film. Within The Woods cost Raimi and Campbell only $1600, and the short was remade into the feature film The Evil Dead in 1981. Today, Within The Woods is seen as a prequel to Raimi’s highly successful Evil Dead film franchise.
8. Short: Peluca / Feature: Napoleon Dynamite
Before Jon Heder played the titular character in 2004’s breakout indie hit Napoleon Dynamite, the actor starred as the same character (only going by the name of Seth) in director Jared Hess’ student short film Peluca, which was made in 2002. The short was made for only $500 on black-and-white 16mm film stock in Hess’ hometown of Preston, Idaho over the course of two days. After being shown during the Slamdance Film Festival in 2003, Peluca was adapted into Napoleon Dynamite the following year.
Although Napoleon Dynamite was a sleeper hit in 2004, the film’s production still kept its indie sensibility with a small budget of $400,000 (Heder was only paid $1000 to reprise the leading role). It was selected for the Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight acquired the film’s distribution rights and the indie film became an instant cult hit.
9. Short: Milton / Feature: Office Space
In the 1990s, writer/director Mike Judge created a series of animated short films that followed the daily belittling of a meek office worker named Milton. The animated shorts were frequently aired during broadcasts of MTV’s Liquid Television and later on Saturday Night Live. For his second feature film, Mike Judge expanded Milton’s office setting into the film Office Space in 1999. Although the character of Milton and his passive aggressive boss Bill Lumbergh were reduced to secondary characters, Office Space’s personality drew from Judge’s characters and actor Stephen Root’s performance as Milton, the office punching bag.
10. Short: Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade / Feature: Sling Blade
Before Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade won the Academy Award For Best Adapted Screenplay, Thornton wrote the short film Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade in 1994. George Hickenlooper directed the 29-minute short film, while Molly Ringwald and J.T. Walsh co-starred with Billy Bob Thornton as the mentally challenged Karl Childers. While both films deal with the return of Childers into society after being convicted of killing his mother and her lover, the feature film trades in the short's black-and-white photography for full color, an expanded story, and more French fried potaters.
11. Short: Cashback / Feature: Cashback
In 2004, British writer and director Sean Ellis created a short film called Cashback, about an art student who takes a job at a late-night supermarket after he gets insomnia. The short won several awards at international film festivals and was nominated for an Academy Award For Best Live-Action Short Film in 2006. Although the short was a critical darling, when it was expanded into a feature film, it received mixed to tepid reviews. The feature version retained some of the short’s cast, including Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, and Michael Dixon.
12. Short: The Customer Is Always Right / Feature: Sin City
After working on the RoboCop sequels, comic book writer Frank Miller was disillusioned with Hollywood—and he swore that he would never sell the movie rights to any of his graphic novels. So when director Robert Rodriguez wanted to create a film version of Miller's Sin City, he made a three-minute proof-of-concept short called The Customer Is Always Right with actors John Hartnett and Marley Shelton. After watching the short, Miller was happy with how faithful Rodriguez kept to the original source material and signed off on the film adaptation. The short film served as the opening sequence in the final version of Sin City.
13. Short: Gowanus, Brooklyn / Feature: Half Nelson
In 2004, director and co-writer Ryan Fleck and screenwriter Anna Boden made a 19-minute short film called Gowanus, Brooklyn, which followed a middle school teacher who was addicted to cocaine. The short won the Short Filmmaking Award at the Sundance Film Festival and grew into the feature film Half Nelson two years later. The feature film still kept the short’s handheld, minimalistic style, but added actor Ryan Gosling in the leading role. Gosling was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor later in the year, but lost to Forest Whitaker for his chilling performance as dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.
14. Short: 9 / Feature: 9
in 2005, film student Shane Acker created the short film 9 as his thesis film at the UCLA Animation Workshop. The 11-minute short, which follows a group of ragdolls that try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, caught the eye of director Tim Burton, who wanted Acker to make a feature film based on the short. In 2009, 9 was released on September 9 with a refined look and an all-star voice cast including Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, and John C. Reilly. Although the short film was showered with awards, the feature film version of 9 failed to resonate with critics and general audiences alike.
15. Short: Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB / Feature: THX-1138
Before George Lucas raced into superstardom with the release of American Graffiti and Star Wars in the '70s, he made a student film called Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB while he was still a film student at the University of Southern California in 1967. The short film followed a group of people living in an underground dystopia, as one of its citizens hopes for something more to his simple and mundane life.
The short was made into a feature when Lucas’ friend and fellow USC film student Francis Ford Coppola founded his production company American Zoetrope in 1971. A feature film version of Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB, now simply titled THX-1138, was the first film under the new banner.
Coppola struck a distribution deal with Warner Bros, but studio executives hated THX-1138 and demanded that Coppola and Lucas repay the $300,000 the movie studio loaned the pair to make the film. THX-1138 almost bankrupted American Zoetrope, but the film company was saved when Coppola made The Godfather in 1972.
In 2010, Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ U.S. National Film Registry for being a film that is culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
16. Short: Saw / Feature: Saw
In 2003, screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan failed to attract producers for their new script, so the Australian filmmakers moved to Los Angeles with the hopes of finding investors to make the horror movie Saw. With the goal of getting a feature made, the pair shot a short film that featured a gruesome torture scene.
Once in Los Angeles, Whannell and Wan met film producer Gregg Hoffman, who watched the seven-minute short and was left in awe of its blood and gore. After he gave the Saw short film and script to his partners Mark Burg and Oren Koules of Evolution Entertainment, Hoffman decided to fund a feature version of Saw for $1.2 million. The production company made a deal with Whannell and Wan that allowed the Australians creative control and 25 percent of the film’s net profits.
Ten years later, the short film has spawned seven films, two video games, a toy line, and three theme park attractions. The Saw film franchise also coined a new subgenre in horror called “Torture Porn.” Lionsgate, the movie studio that distributes the Saw movies, has also expressed interest in rebooting the very popular film series.
17. Short: Mama / Feature: Mama
When Argentinian director Andrés Muschietti and his sister and co-writer Bárbara Muschietti released the short film Mama in 2008, it quickly caught the eye of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who agreed to produce and finance a feature version. Both films followed two very young sisters named Victoria and Lilly who were abandoned in a cabin in the woods.
Although they were thought of as missing or dead, the sisters were found five years later, as it was revealed a mysterious ghost—which they affectionately called “Mama”—was raising the pair. The feature version expanded Victoria and Lilly’s backstory and psychosis, while it also added new characters, including the sisters’ uncle, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who adopts the girls once they’re found, and his girlfriend, played by Jessica Chastain, who becomes close with Victoria and Lilly.
18. Short: The Hard Case / Feature: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Before British director Guy Ritchie invaded American movie theaters in the late '90s, the then-27-year-old filmmaker created the short film The Hard Case in 1995. The 20-minute short grabbed the attention of the rock star Sting when his wife Trudie Styler made him watch it; Sting then met with Ritchie and agreed to invest in the director’s feature, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which was based on The Hard Case. The crime film was released in the United States in 1999 and launched the careers of Ritchie, Jason Statham, and Vinnie Jones.
19. Short: Machete / Feature: Machete
In 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino teamed up to deliver the trashy, schlocky exploitation double feature Grindhouse. Rodriguez created the science-fiction-zombie-mad-scientist-horror flick Planet Terror, while Tarantino delivered the talky-muscle-car-slasher Death Proof. Fake trailers played between the features, including one that centered on one of Rodriguez’s reoccurring film characters, Isador “Machete” Cortez. Three years later, the Mexican-American director turned the fake trailer into a real full-length film called Machete.
Primary image courtesy of IMPA Awards.