The one reel rule

If you ask us the price of producing a one minute film, sorry, you can’t multiply that by 100 to make a hundred minute film.  As the project gets bigger, things get more complicated.  It’s like comparing a shed and a skyscraper.

You have to take into account the one reel rule.

So, what is this one reel rule?

A reel of 35mm film could record 11 minutes.  Some larger reels were used to play back film in the cinema, and they could hold up to half an hour of footage.  The exact length of a reel depends on a few things, but the rule still applies.

(Andy Warhol’s quote “15 minutes of fame” might be related to the length of one of the reels he used.)

For the first reel, you don’t have to follow all the rules of feature filmmaking.  A one reel picture, like a YouTube video, doesn’t have to have a great ending.  It doesn’t need an intricate plot with a character arc.  It can just be a short instructional video on how to do pushups.

Now, imagine watching instructions on how to pushups for two hours in a cinema.  Imagine a two hour PowerPoint presentation.  Imagine sitting through two hours of someone popping her eyes out with a shaky camera.  When things get longer, your want more.

Longer productions are actually more expensive per minute that shorter ones.  The audience expects more, so the acting has to be better, the writing has to be better, the editing has to be tighter, and the photography and sound have to be better.

There’s a lot that you don’t have to do in a short film, even in a short film that can win awards, that will be sorely missed in a feature.
Each production is unique, but you generally need to have more variety of some kind (plot, character, location, effect, or something else) to hold the audience’s attention for longer than one reel.

Clients often have specific requests, certain tricks.  If you are doing a short film, you can do one trick, and that can be the entire film.  But, if you have to co-ordinate a lot of tricks, and blend them into a coherent whole, that’s easier than it sounds.

I came up with the name “one reel rule”,  but the theory is based on animation rather than live action.

I’ve seen lots of short films win festivals that are nothing more than two camera shots. I’ve also seen these on YouTube.  And, I have noticed that feature films have many, shorter shots (and yes, I am the type of person who actually counts and times shots when I watch movies.)

Before making these observations, I read a book about the animation techniques used at Disney.  The book claimed that for seven minutes, audiences can handle hokey animation. They don’t need expensive techniques like squash and stretch.

The old cheap cartoons from Hanna Barbera are almost cardboard cut outs, the kind parodied in South Park. The plots of short animations are simple, a cat chasing a mouse, and they don’t need a word of dialogue.  However, this only works for a short time (perhaps longer than seven minutes, depending on the audience.)

With longer animations, things get more complicated.

The same goes for longer films. Successful full length documentaries, romantic comedies, or action films are more expensive per minute than short ones.

There’s also a jump from two reels to three reels, but that goes into other territories as well, such as the medium.

That’s the one reel rule, in a nutshell.