In this era where most short films are seen online rather than in festivals, Justin Nowell is a short filmmaker with a unique perspective. Not only has he directed two shorts that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 (“Sick Sex”) and 2009 (“Acting for the Camera”), his films were among the select few chosen to be part of the festival’s online component each year. Did allowing his work to be seen on the Internet hinder future festival acceptance? Did giving the shorts away for free, albeit for a limited time, cripple future iTunes and Amazon VOD sales? And does online success attract Hollywood’s attention? Justin Nowell shares his experience with indieWIRE.
Nowell’s 2008 short, “Sick Sex,” is a 12-minute HDCam sex comedy best described by its pithy synopsis: “Amanda has a fever. Ken is horny.” Nowell’s current short, “Acting for the Camera,” runs 2 minutes longer than its predecessor. It centers on acting class in which a student performs the infamous orgasm scene from “When Harry Met Sally.” Both films were made with the same core production team, which includes brother/writer Thomas Nowell and cinematographer/producer Grant Greenberg. Cinetic Rights Management is currently repping the shorts in digital formats available on broadband.
iW: Did you have any hesitation about putting your films online for free during the Sundance Film Festival when they were just starting their festival run?
JN: Both of these films were made with just the things that we had – friends with cameras, actors we knew, very limited budgets. So the expectations for these films were never that big. In a way, we shot them as exercises to keep working with actors, keep making films. Since there isn’t a big initial outlay and with so little invested, anything we can get – whether it’s festival exposure or online exposure – is all a plus.
iW: Do you think you got more attention, in terms of press or industry, because anyone could see the film immediately while it was at Sundance?
JN: It’s hard to say if the attention was because the films were online or just because they were at Sundance.
iW: So you don’t have a story about Hollywood agents wanting to sign you because they saw your short online.
JN: Sadly, no. That would have been a good story, though.
iW: After the 2008 festival wrapped, your film “Sick Sex” and many other shorts that screened at Sundance were available for sale on iTunes. The fact that it was previously available for free didn’t seem to hurt iTunes sales since your film was the number one downloaded short on iTunes for six months. Do you think you have different audiences watching your film online versus in a festival situation?
JN: Festival audiences have been fun, very positive. When shorts are online, it’s a little bit different. The title of my short – when people do searches, the keywords -“Sick Sex” might have been mistakenly purchased by people who thought they were going to be purchasing porn on iTunes. I got a lot of comments from people who really liked it, but then also people were like, “I want my money back! 12 minutes and no tit!” So slightly different expectations of what people are looking for on the net….
iW: So you didn’t name it “Sick Sex” thinking sex sells?
JN: When we applied for Sundance originally, we had no idea that Sundance was putting together this online initiative. My brother Tommy, who was my co-writer, and I thought the concept was pretty hilarious – a super-uncomfortable little comedy that we could shoot. But then once it went up online, we realized it had this whole other life.
iW: Has putting your films online immediately after Sundance hurt your chances at other festivals? I’m assuming the answer is no, since “Acting for the Camera” seems to be enjoying a healthy festival run, playing Gen Art, Atlanta, AFI Dallas, and it recently won a prize at CineVegas.
JN: The way we look at it, if we can get into Sundance, anything after that is gravy. Also, I think my shorts are not exactly Academy material. But I think most festivals are pragmatic. They’re seeing the changing landscape the same way that filmmakers are. Some festivals won’t play your film if it’s been online or played other festivals. But Sundance has played stuff that has been on YouTube previously, so they’re cool about it. And I think that other festivals are realizing this is just the way it is.
iW: Both of your films are now available on Amazon VOD for $1.99 each. Do you know any sales statistics?
JN: Not yet. I’m interested to see what happens.
iW: Have you gotten any offers to exhibit your work in other formats, or has the fact that the films are available online put others off?
JN: The people at Wholphin are putting “Acting on the Camera” on their new DVD.
iW: And what about TV? TV tends to be where the money is for short films.
JN: TV tends to be flat fees and a one-time thing. In a way, TV’s less attractive than the Internet option, where things can continue on as long as people want to watch the films. That is the exciting thing about online distribution.
iW: So should we expect to see another free online short from you at Sundance next year?
JN: We’re writing something now – a feature. We had those two shorts at Sundance so