Although the North American definition generally refers to films between 20 and 40 minutes, the definition refers to much shorter films in Europe, Latin America and Australasia. In New Zealand, for instance, the description can be used to describe any film that has a duration longer than one minute and shorter than 15 minutes. The North American definition also tends to focus much more on character whereas the European and Australasian forms tend to depend much more on visual drama and plot twists. In this way, the North American form can be understood to be a derivation of the feature film form, usually acting as a platform for aspirant Hollywood directors. Elsewhere, short films tend to work as showcases for cinematographers and commercial directors.
Animated cartoons likewise came principally as short subjects, as did newsreels. Less frequently, short subjects might be in the form of travelogues, human interest films or concert films. The form was so popular that virtually all major film production companies had fully-staffed special units assigned to develop and produce them, and many companies, especially in the silent and very early sound era, produced short subjects exclusively (e.g. Keystone Studios, Atlas Educational Film Co., E. W. Hammons's Educational Pictures).
After the 1930s, fewer shorts were made for theatrical release, most of which were one-reel long, like George O'Hanlon's Joe McDoakes shorts, and the animated shorts of studios like Leon Schlesinger Productions/Warner Bros. Cartoons, Walter Lantz and Fleischer/Famous Studios. These shorts and others were produced in-house by, or financed by, motion picture companies that either owned their own theater chains (for example, Loews Theatres) or forced theaters to take their shorts by selling them in the same unalterable package as their big-name features. This practice, called block booking, was declared illegal by the US Supreme Court, who also forced the theater chains to sell off their movie studios. By 1955, thanks to double features, the ban on block booking and the rise of television, the commercial live-action short was virtually dead, and the cartoon short was fading. Since the 1960s, short films have been largely reserved for independent filmmakers and special major-studio projects.
The Three Stooges shorts were the only major series of two-reelers to survive the double-feature system because they were issued by Columbia Pictures using block booking. They continued into the late-1950s, largely by reusing footage from previous series entries to reduce costs.
In the 1950s, television programming, including the telecasting of older short subjects, eclipsed the value of all but cartoons featuring well-loved characters. By the end of the 1960s, the cost of manufacturing outweighed the return, and short subjects effectively disappeared.
Short films often focus on difficult topics which longer, more commercial films usually avoid. Filmmakers benefit from larger freedoms and can take higher risks, but they must rely on festival and art house exhibition to achieve public display. Most short films are better known outside the United States than within, due to less rigidity of audience expectation as to program content, arrangement and length outside the U.S. However, film shorts are often a popular extra feature on a film's DVD. For instance, Pixar's DVD releases of its feature films typically includes not only a short that was distributed with the feature film in its initial theatrical release but also an original creation featuring the characters from the feature itself. Likewise, Warner Brothers often includes selected animated shorts from its considerable archives on DVD releases of its family-oriented films that have a thematic relationship.
Films such as S. Luciani's Dolls show how professional actors and crews still choose to create short films as alternative form of expression. Short films are often popular as first steps into the cinematic art among young filmmakers. They are cheaper and easier to make, usually don't take very long to produce, and their brevity makes shorts more likely to be watched by financial backers and others who want some demonstration of a filmmaker's ability (or, conversely, the format allows for more experimentation since most of them are unlikely to be seen by a wide audience).
Short filmmaking is also growing in popularity among amateurs and enthusiasts, who are taking advantage of affordable equipment. "Prosumer" or semi-professional cameras now cost under USD$3,000, and free or low-cost software is widely available that is capable of video editing, post-production work and DVD authoring.
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