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10 short films whose stories made their way into major theatrical releases

This is what ‘Bottle Rocket,’ ‘District 9,’ and ‘The Evil Dead’ looked like before the big screen.

Getting a feature film made isn’t easy. You might work your way up the Hollywood ladder for decades before somehow meeting the right person to give you the right job to find yourself directing a film.

Other aspiring filmmakers say “fuck that,” direct a short film, and a studio likes it so much that they fork over to make a full-length version of it.

Sometimes this results in amazing films. Other times, those films may have been better left as shorts, but the studio exec mantra is “I like it—throw a pile of money at it,” and they’re made into feature films anyway. Below is a list of short films that you can currently find on YouTube that eventually ended up funded into full-length movies, and making their way into our hearts and personal top 10 lists (well, some of them, anyway). 

1) Mama (2008)

Speaking of films that may have been better off remaining shorts: This is a creepy-as-hell two and a half minutes, but when you start adding in origin storylines, it suffers from the same fate as the Star Wars prequels and Matrix sequels: Once fully fleshed out, a brilliant idea became stupid.

Still, you can’t blame Guillermo Del Toro for seeing this thing and wanting to get a full story on the big screen. It begs to be explained. Who is Mama? Why’s she all spooky? Who do those kids live with (it’s a nice house; surely somebody’s taking care of them)? But the answers we got in the 2013 feature film dulled the scariness of the questions left us with.

2) Bottle Rocket (1994)

Legend has it that Wes Anderson had originally intended to shoot a feature when he set out to make this short, but third Wilson brother Andrew (the baseball coach in Rushmore and Future Man in Bottle Rocket) ran low on the free film stock that he’d secured at work, so a short film was born. 

Anderson had originally intended to use established actors for the project, but those proved expensive, and Luke Wilson and fellow co-writer and University of Texas at Austin alum Owen Wilson were game for playing the leads, and their onscreen chemistry worked so well that they reprised their roles in the feature film. 

The short was submitted to Sundance, where it wasn’t in competition, but its screenings went over well enough to generate some buzz around the budding filmmakers. They’d eventually send the film and script to producers Polly Platt and James L. Brooks, who got the ball rolling on shooting the feature, and eventually saw it become a full-fledged studio production with a $5 million budget (a touch over the short’s cost of $3,500). You can find a lot more great info on the film’s production in this 1996 Austin Chronicle interview.

3) Pixels (2010)

Pixels was a massive hit when it landed on YouTube, catching the attention of several studios. Creator/writer/director of the short Patrick Jean ultimately teamed up with Happy Madison Productions—partly because he thought Adam Sandler would make a great lead for the film and (perhaps mostly) because he felt that it was the studio that would actually make the film, rather that just buy the rights to it and then shelve the concept for years (or maybe forever, as often happens with film properties). 

The script has gone through a lot of changes, with writers hopping on and off the project over the past few years, but Jean’s goal of getting the thing made has come true: The summer blockbuster iteration of Pixels will be hitting screens on July 24.

Although he wasn’t able to retain his desired position as the film’s director—as the effects and budget grew, the studio handed the directing reins to Chris Columbus—he still had a major hand in things as an executive producer. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters director, Seth Gordon, also joined as an executive producer, so even with all the ill-will toward Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison Productions over the last decade, this thing has enough interesting talent behind it to be a surprisingly good film when it’s released. (In fact, we’ll buy tickets to the thing just for featuring Peter Dinklage.)

4) Within the Woods (1978)

As Sam Raimi has told it, when Within the Woods originally screened at a local theater, the theater owner told them that they needed more blood, saying something along the the lines of “it needs to cover the screen!” So in the resulting feature film The Evil Dead, blood literally covers the camera lens in the climax, and there’s stuff like this (NSFW) all throughout.

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Within the Woods was made for a mere $1,600, which made its extensive special effects a major pain to pull off, but getting more money didn’t really help things in that regard for the feature. With $1 million (still a pittance for a feature film), Raimi still pushed his budget to the limits, bringing the same makeup artist he’d tortured with budgetary constraints with the short, Tom Sullivan, to work on the feature, and doing all sorts of fun things with his cameras to get more production bang for his buck. (For example, he was friends with the Coen Brothers—Joel is credited as an Assistant Editor on the film—and both parties were big fans of putting their cameras on wood planks and running around with them.) 

The sequel would lose Sullivan, and the makeup department would see early work from names like Greg Nicotero (currently producing The Walking Dead and masterminding its famously amazing gore) and Robert Kurtzman (the film would be only his second credited feature work, and he’d go on to be involved in basically every film with a cool effect in it). 

5) Saw (2003)

Colleagues James Wan and Leigh Whannell had already penned the script for the feature version of Saw when they made what is now referred to as Saw .5, a short from a scene picked from the script to convince a studio to give them the budget needed to shoot their movie. (That studio ended up being Lionsgate, and the budget $1.2 million; what was supposed to be a direct-to-DVD film ended being a smash hit, making over 80 times its budget back.)

The film was shot on a shoestring, and the infamous “reverse bear trap” (NSFW) was, according to Whannell (who wrote and acted in both the short and the feature but played a different role in the latter), fully functional and covered in actual rust. Why a fully functional version of that thing ever existed is unknown to us, but go ahead and let that fact haunt your dreams.The film was also the first appearance of the film’s famous theme, “Hello Zepp,” which composer Charlie Clouser (who, aside from composing many other great themes, was a member of Nine Inch Nails for six years) wrote for free, knowing the duo was working with a next-to-nothing budget. The theme would continue as a musical motif throughout the rest of the seven installments of the series.

6) Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967)

George Lucas had wanted to make a film like Electronic Labyrinth for a long time, saying that he was very interested in something “based on the concept that we live in the future and that you could make a futuristic film using existing stuff,” an interest that very surely carried over to Star Wars.

This is one of only two films on this list that qualifies as a student film, as Lucas made the short—which wouldn’t become a feature for another four years—while he was a student at USC.

Lucas was able to finance the film after a professor suggested that he teach a class of U.S. Navy students; the school and the Navy had an agreement that Navy filmmakers could take a filmmaking class at USC, and in turn, the Navy would pay for all the color film and processing used for the class.

Nobody ever wanted to teach the class, as the students tended to be rowdy, but Lucas took the job because he saw an opportunity in this: The crew for the film was made up of Navy servicemen attending the class, with some even acting in it, and the cost of all the expensive film stock used was all paid for by the government. The Navy teaching gig also allowed him to film in places that he wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. Lucas also had a day job editing films for the United States Information Agency, and he used the editing bay for that gig to cut the film together. 

You can say what you want about Lucas and the terrible Star Wars prequel trilogy, but the man knew how to get things done. The Lucasfilm empire certainly didn’t just fall into his lap. 

7) Frankenweenie (1984)

Frankenweenie differs from other films on this list by actually being commissioned by a big studio: Disney wanted the film to play before Pinocchio when it re-released the film in 1984, but it wasn’t happy with the finished project. Disney execs felt the film was inappropriate for a young audience, and that director Tim Burton had gone rogue and blown money on something unusable, and so they fired him. 

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The film finally saw a home release in 1992, after Disney saw Burton go off and make boatloads of cash for Warner Brothers, and the studio decided to buddy up with the director again. It was then later released as an extra on every iteration of The Nightmare Before Christmas’s home video releases. 

Obviously, Burton and Disney eventually became quite good friends: Besides making him the executive producer on Nightmare, which was based on a poem he wrote while working for Disney’s animation department in 1982, he also went on to make stuff like Alice in Wonderland, which netted bajillions of worldwide dollars for the studio. Disney evidently forgot how much it hated Frankenweenie in the first place and let Burton make a feature-length, black and white, stop-motion version of the film (it takes some major clout for a studio to allow you to make a black and white stop-motion film), which was released in 2012.

8) Alive in Joburg (2006)

People like to give director Neill Blomkamp guff over his tendency to include Sharlto Copley in every project he helms, but just look at the thumbnail below; the guy’s been there since the very beginning for Blomkamp (who met him while the two were in high school). He not only played a short role in Alive in Joburg, but he also acted as a producer on the short, which would eventually go on to become the surprise smash hit District 9, which was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture).

District 9 wasn’t actually supposed to happen. After horror master–turned–Lord of the Rings guru Peter Jackson saw Blomkamp’s four short films, which he’d created in his off time while working as a 3D effects artist, Jackson wanted Blomkamp to direct the live-action Halo film that he was executive producing at the time. It was only after the Halo film fell apart that Jackson looked back at Alive at Joburg and said (and we’re paraphrasing generally here): “Fuck it, let’s just make a feature out of this idea.”

District 9’s first act is basically a fleshed out Joburg: It sets up the situation of aliens stuck in a foreign land, and the tension created by inadequate resources to support both them and locals. But whereas the short simply introduces the situation (and the allegory), 9 picks up where it leaves off and sticks a (great) story in there.

It’s obvious from Joburg that Blomkamp had a knack for computer effects. Although there is a scene that features a fight between a bio-suited alien and some cops that looks like complete shit, the aliens themselves look as if you could visit them on the set, and that’s quite a feat for a short film created in somebody’s spare time. While District 9 would establish the director as one of the most exciting up-and-comers in the industry, his followups would… well, see the next entry.

9) Tetra Vaal (2004)

Neill Blomkamp loves his robots, and after his followup to District 9Elysium, was received with general disappointment from audiences and critics alike, he went back to his well of previous shorts for Chappie. Tetra Vaal made quite an impact when it was released in 2004, with viewers basically saying “holy shit, how did he make those robots?” The robots in Vaal were an embarrassment for Hollywood artists; some guy in Johannesburg was making CGI in his garage that was leagues ahead of their own (paid) work.

The formula used for adapting Joburg, by fleshing out the concept of the original short, didn’t work as well for Chappie as it did for District 9. In the end, they’re actually very similar films, with themes both revolving around the definition of humanity (slight spoiler: Our main protagonist ends up in a similar fashion to that of District 9’s). But the movie’s main problem is probably that it has too many themes, with the most important one—the concept of nature vs. nurture in Chappie’s upbringing—being completely missed by most critics. The fact that Blomkamp essentially made an R-rated ’90s Disney film didn’t help the film’s reception (there’s a lot of clashing in tone here).

That said: It’s underrated, and it’s worth seeing just for the fact that Blomkamp’s robots look so amazingly real (and also for Hugh Jackman’s hair).

10) Peluca (2003)

This is the other film on the list that qualifies as a student film: Jered Hess made Peluca (Spanish for “wig”) while attending Brigham Young University. It played at Slamdance in 2003, which is really impressive for a film that was shot in two days for a budget of about $500.

Peluca is 100 percent Napoleon Dynamite, if Napoleon’s name were Seth and Giel and Pedro were combined in the feature version into just being Pedro. This opinion does not necessarily reflect that of the Daily Dot, but: I prefer Peluca to Dynamite. Personally, I feel that it stuffs more heart and emotion into its nine minutes than the latter did in 96. Moments that existed solely for being goofy in Dynamite have real emotional payoff in Peluca (a considered fanny pack purchase coaxed an eye-roll out of this cynical writer, but the following sacrifice made by Seth—or Napoleon—hit me right in the heart).

According to Wikipedia, all of the locations seen in this short were also used in the feature film, although a scene shot in the convenience store (seen in the video’s thumbnail above) was ultimately cut from the film. 

Screengrabs via YouTube 

Joey Keeton

Joey Keeton

Joey Keeton is an entertainment writer who reviewed streaming movies, comedies, and TV series for the Daily Dot. He's also written about podcasts, bizarre web culture, and politics.