I’m a screenwriting student at The University of Texas. Several classmates of mine have obtained representation, and gone on to sell scripts, by writing shorts that other classmates made and showed at festivals and special alumni screenings. I’ve written and made one of my own, but it includes a total of twenty seconds of copyrighted footage taken from three major motion pictures. I don’t have permission to use any of the footage, but I don’t want to cut it unless I have absolutely no other choice. If I have no intention to sell my short, or win money at festivals, and only intend it to get someone to look at my other work, do I have to cut the 20 seconds?
First off, I’m a big believer in copyright, without which the American film industry could never exist. Copyright law allows companies to feel secure investing millions of dollars in movies, knowing that if someone tries to steal the finished product, the U.S. and other governments will step in.
That said, just do it. Especially with a short film, the consequences for trampling someone else’s copyright are not that dire. Since you’re a student, and probably broke, it’s not like 20th Century Fox is going to sue you for your life’s savings.
A friend of mine wrote the short film ERNEST AND BERTRAM, which was a very funny version of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, featuring Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street. Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the makers of Sesame Street, went ballistic, largely because it portrayed Ernie and Bert as closeted gay lovers.
Long story short, the film played at a bunch of film festivals, and got good notice for the filmmakers, who eventually had to sign something with CTW that promised the movie would never be publicly exhibited again. Which is a shame, because it’s very good. But everyone knew going in that there was a risk, and it was definitely worth it.
Copyright-wise, that’s pretty much the worst-case scenario for a short film. So I say try it. Just make the best short you can.