Short But Not Slight; The Evolving Landscape for Short Films
by Lily Oei
Short films were once the exclusive domain of film school students; the Internet boom of the late 1990s ricocheted shorts into the American consciousness. Although business has slowed in the ensuing years, the short format faithful insist that business still there — with fewer dollars, but more focus. (Not surprisingly, no one ever enters the field in search of riches.) Larry Meistrich, founder of DVD and theatrical distribution company Film Movement and a steady buyer of shorts, believes the buzz of five years ago was mistakenly interpreted. “It was not that shorts were popular, but it was the hype around the Internet and people using technology in a new way,” says Meistrich.
While there are still dreamy plans to get shorts onto cell phones or in elevators, these days most advances in technology have furthered creativity rather than distribution. New digital technology has made it more possible than ever to shoot, produce, edit, and burn on DVD. So where will this new influx of content end up? While the American market lacks the vitality of Europe, luckily for those not yet ready to be tapped by BMW, an industry still does exist around short form films.
Kim Adelman, author of recently published “The Ultimate Filmmakers Guide to Short Films” and former short film producer for Fox Movie Channel, has witnessed the boom to bust — but still thinks there’s still a steady buzz around the business. “It’s a world of difference,” says Adelman about the most recent SXSW Film Festival, comparing it to the gold rush mentality of yesteryear. “There’s a lack of buyers now, but programmers still love short films.”
This has proven true at festivals exclusively dedicated to shorts as well as larger events. Toronto’s Worldwide Short Film Festival plays hosts to more than 200 titles, culled from 2000+ submissions. Festival director Shane Smith reports that this year’s attendance at the mid-May event rose by 15 percent, to almost 14,000 audience members. Of those, the audience is composed both of newcomers as well as those familiar with the short film format, including a large number of filmmakers, buyers, and distributors.
Further south, Florida Film Festival programmer director Matthew Curtis says that the short films programs at his festival continue to be a hot ticket. What began as a trial run has developed into one of the fest’s most popular offerings. Additionally, with video now an accepted format, shorts submissions jumped 25 percent this year. “The midnight shorts and animated programs consistently sell out, and are established as the highlights of the fest,” he says. Why the appeal? Curtis believes his audience knows that they are getting a shot to see something that won’t be available at a theater near them. “The feedback is incredible,” he says. “People get to experience all these shorts in one compact program. If they don’t like one, they’ll love the next.”
Outside of the festival world, the landscape has changed during recent years. Atom and Shockwave have merged into one. HBO and SciFi have gotten out of the game, but there’s still a steady roster of potential buyers of short product. Film Movement always includes a short alongside a feature on its monthly DVD sent to subscribers. These shorts have included the award-winning “More” and Sofia Coppola‘s “Lick the Star.” Meistrich has even acquired short film submitted by a Film Movement subscriber. “On a consumer level, the feedback we’re getting is that people aren’t going to pay a premium for it, but they love the feature,” says Meistrich. Still, Meistrich doesn’t believe a short collection presented by Film Movement would sell. “I don’t see consumers buying shorts as a one off.”
Adelman saw this while at Fox — given a choice, a customer would rather buy a DVD of “Titanic” than a compilation of short films. “It’s the same thing between picking indie rock or a major level release,” says Adelman. “It’s not going to appeal if you have no familiarity with it. But the people, who do, love them and want more — it’s an acquired taste.” Even without the promise of revenue, there’s still the hope of discovery. It’s no surprise then that short films continue to be a director’s medium. Billy Bob Thornton (“Sling Blade”) and Peter Sollett (“Raising Victor Vargas”) are two who turned short projects into full-length films. Short programmer Smith says that about 70 percent of shorts he sees are meant to further the director into a feature career. “We can spot a calling card a mile away,” he says.
“From a producer’s stand point, for me, it’s really about the experience,” says L.A.-based Kara Weber who has now overseen three shorts (“Little Red Light,” “Bananas,” and “Barbara Jean”) and made the festival rounds. “It’s the director who becomes the darling and has a breakout, in a way that a producer won’t.”
Kelly DeVine, who acquires films for IFC, one of the few TV outlets along with Sundance Channel that consistently buy and air shorts, says, “The short demonstrates to gun-shy and conservative financier that the filmmaker pitching a project can bring together and manage a creative team, tackle the logistics and mechanics of filmmaking and deliver an entertaining film. That’s something a script cannot guarantee.” IFC’s pick ups include “Cornelius” from Nicole Kassell and “Book of Kings” by Chris Terrio. Both directors have moved on to feature films, “The Woodsman” and “Heights,” respectively.
Although shorts fill an obvious gap in programming, DeVine says IFC is committed to what it can bring for new talent and seen the results, having fielded calls from interested industry execs, and grateful filmmakers, who are finally getting their calls returned by said execs. Says DeVine, “Just as people in the industry have wrestled with the changing function of film festivals within the economics of film distribution, shorts figure into the margins of film development.”