14 Short Films That Became Famous Feature-Length Movies

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Photo Source: “Emergency”: Quantrell Colbert/Amazon Content Services LLC

Filmmaking is expensive and time-consuming. Creating a film is generally a series of trial-and-error experiments—even for established directors who seemingly have every resource at their fingertips. This is why short films can be a good place to get started; the medium allows early career filmmakers to create a narrative proof of concept, hone their voice, and build professional relationships on a budget. They even have the potential to become feature films. But don’t take it from us—all the movies below began as short films with feature-length aspirations. 

1. “The Sitter” (1977) → “When a Stranger Calls” (1979) 

Writer-director Fred Walton and his co-writer Steve Feke shot their 22-minute horror short in three days. Two producers were so impressed after seeing it at a one-week showing in Los Angeles that they optioned it for a feature film adaptation. 

2. “Within the Woods” (1978) → “The Evil Dead” (1981) 

A 19-year-old Sam Raimi wrote, directed, and produced “Within the Woods” on a budget of only $1,600. He convinced a local theater to screen the film before “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” where it was so successful that he expanded it into “The Evil Dead,” kicking off the careers of both Raimi and the film’s star, Bruce Campbell.

Bruce Campbell in "Evil Dead II," Courtesy De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

3. “Diversion” (1979) “Fatal Attraction” (1987) 

Paramount commissioned writer-director James Dearden to make a feature after his short film “Diversion” made waves on British television. The result? “Fatal Attraction” went on to become 1987’s second-highest-grossing film at the global box office and received six Academy Award nominations.

4. “The Dirk Diggler Story” (1988) “Boogie Nights” (1997) 

When he was a senior at Montclair College Preparatory School, Paul Thomas Anderson raised money to make “The Dirk Diggler Story” by cleaning cages at a pet shop. He shot the film with a Betamax camera he received from his father. He would later expand the short into the Oscar-nominated “Boogie Nights,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore. 

5. “Bottle Rocket” (1994) “Bottle Rocket” (1996) 

Then a first-time filmmaker, the Oscar-nominated Wes Anderson shot this 13-minute short in 1992, which he co-wrote with star Owen Wilson. It received critical praise at the Sundance Film Festival, and two years later, Anderson turned it into a full-length feature with original actors Wilson and his brother Luke.

6. “Peluca” (2003) “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) 

Before deadpan teen Napoleon Dynamite, there was Seth (also played by Jon Heder), the lead character in this short film that was Jared Hess’ class project at Brigham Young University. After it played at the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival, a classmate convinced Hess to drop out of school and expand it into the cult favorite it is today. 

“Napoleon Dynamite” Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

7. “Saw” (2003) “Saw” (2004) 

James Wan and screenwriter-star Leigh Whannell filmed the original nine-minute “Saw” as a pitch to studios; they shot it in two days with almost no budget. They screened their film to executives at Lionsgate, who offered them $1.2 million to make the full-length version. The “Saw” franchise has now made more than $1 billion worldwide.

8. “9” (2005) → “9” (2009) 

Shane Acker created “9” as a student project for UCLA’s Animation Workshop. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated short film and caught the attention of Tim Burton, who then produced the feature adaptation.

9. “Alive in Joburg” (2005) “District 9” (2009) 

After seeing Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi mockumentary short “Alive in Joburg,” film legend Peter Jackson hired Blomkamp to direct a film adaptation of the “Halo” video game franchise. When that project fell through, Blomkamp and Jackson made “District 9” instead, an expansion of “Alive in Joburg” that received widespread acclaim and four Academy Award nominations, including for best picture.

"District 9" Courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing

10. “Mamá” (2008) → “Mama” (2013) 

In another example of an A-list auteur fostering a short to the big screen, Guillermo del Toro was so impressed with Argentine filmmaker Andy Muschietti’s short “Mamá” that he decided to produce a feature film version starring Jessica Chastain. “Mama” launched Muschietti’s directorial career, and he went on to direct “It” and “It Chapter Two.”

11. “Whiplash” (2013) “Whiplash” (2014) 

Damien Chazelle based his 18-minute short on his intense experience in his high school jazz band. After its 2013 debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Chazelle got him the backing to make the full film. The feature premiered at Sundance the next year, and won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize before taking home three Academy Awards in 2015.

12. “Madeline & Cooper” (2018) “Shithouse” (2020) 

Occidental College student Cooper Raiff spent his 2018 spring break on campus filming “Madeline & Cooper.” After catching the attention of filmmaker Jay Duplass on YouTube, the film became “Shithouse,” Raiff’s first full-length feature. The movie went on to win the Grand Jury Award at South by Southwest in 2020.

13. “Emergency” (2018) “Emergency” (2022) 

“Emergency” began as part of Film Independent’s Project Involve fellowship venture. The collaboration between director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Dávila won the Short Filmmaking Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and the Grand Jury Award at South by Southwest the same year. Williams and Dávila then expanded it into a feature, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year. 

14. “Mr. Malcolm’s List” (2019) “Mr. Malcolm’s List” (2022)

Three years ago, Suzanne Allain adapted her 2009 Regency romantic comedy novel into a short film directed by Emma Holly Jones. Gemma Chan and Freida Pinto starred. Now, after a Bleecker Street pickup, the feature-length expansion is set to hit theaters July 1. Pinto will be revisiting the lead role, with Zawe Ashton stepping in to play her best friend.

This story originally appeared in the Apr. 21 issue of Backstage Magazine.