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Exploring the Case for Shorts Only Film Festivals at Aspen Shortsfest

Exploring the Case for Shorts Only Film Festivals at Aspen Shortsfest

Last month at the Bermuda International Film Festival, we
asked producers, filmmakers and critics about the purpose of making short
films
. This month at Aspen Film’s Shortsfest, we took the question even further
and examined the benefits of hosting film festivals that only screen shorts.

Aspen Film’s Shortsfest and Palm Springs International
Shortfest are rare breeds. They are both a product of film organizations that
hold both a feature film festival and a fest wholly devoted to the art of short
filmmaking. Shorts had always been an element of Aspen Filmfest since its
incarnation 35 years ago. Twelve years after beginning, Aspen’s Shortsfest,
which is also an Academy Award qualifying festival, was spun off of the
organization’s main slate as a result of the ongoing increase in short film
submissions. The founding organizers felt that not only would the amount of
entries continually increase, but also that the interest from Aspen’s year-round
and seasonal citizenry was large enough that they could branch off and create a
separate, community based festival. The resulting event has grown to the point
where many Aspen citizens consider Shortsfest to be Aspen Film’s “main
festival.” 

“Shorts really are their own unique art form,”
said Aspen Film Co-Director George Eldred. “And they can be overshadowed
in the sense that the bulk of public interest is paid to the feature world. Sundance
and Tribeca, they all have really excellently curated shorts programs and they
do take as much care with the selection and the presentation process, but again
it’s not the focus of the festivals themselves.”

“Dallas Buyers Club” screenwriter Craig Borten,
who served on Aspen Shortsfest’s jury, agreed that the shift in focus is a good
thing. “I think the Shortsfest is an incredible
way to capture new and emerging talent without it being overshadowed by the
long form,” he said. 

Co-Director Laura Thielen added that Aspen Shortsfest’s
audience actually skews younger than their feature festival held in the fall. “Younger
people are more used to channel surfing,” Thielen said. “They’re used
to quick adjustments.” She added that the younger skew is typical of
Aspen, where their diverse age and economic range has coined the stereotype
that, “In Aspen, you either have three homes or three jobs.”

Palm Springs spun off its short film festival in 1995 for
similar reasons. Their goal, said Executive Director
and Lead Programmer Darryl Macdonald, was to “provide a springboard for emerging
filmmaking talents and to gain more attention for them than they were getting
by being simply a side dish in the menu of feature film festivals of the
day.”

The
unfortunate feeling that shorts are often simply considered a lesser
accompaniment to a feature film is one shared by many short filmmakers. “At
a feature film festival you do tend to feel like the shorts are the hors
d’oeuvres to the entree,” said Australian filmmaker Romi Trower who
presented her short “No One Is Listening Anymore!” at Aspen
Shortsfest. “You need to work harder to promote not only your film but the
concept of checking out a shorts program. So you come to something like Aspen
Shortsfest and its exciting because you feel like you’ve skipped from primary
school all the way through to high school and everybody is here to see shorts
and loves shorts.”

Greek filmmaker Harry Lagoussis premiered his short film “Massai” at Aspen
Shortsfest. He recently attended a larger festival in Europe as a screenwriter
for another project. “There it was just a huge thing that
just got lost,” he said. “This is so much more intimate and cozy and
warm and human.”

The kind of intimacy at festivals like Aspen and Palm
Springs definitely help create an exciting environment in which to build new
professional relationships. “The unbridled enthusiasm, talent, relative
incense and sheer love of the art form provides a ‘high’ for everyone
involved,” said Palm Springs’ Macdonald.

That high leads to
the filmmakers embracing their natural instincts. “You spend a lot of time
with people from all over the world who are making films in different cultures
and under different conditions and in economic environments and here you’re all
equal,” said Katrina Mathers, whose animated piece “The Gallant
Captain” won Aspen’s Best Short Short (under eight minutes). “It’s
kind of like a camp, you get to know one another very quickly and you go out
and party with each other every night and you’re already on day three talking
about a co-production. Lovely inspiration comes out of having an environment
that is not so competitive.”

That kind of spontaneous, creative collaboration seems to be
the norm. At Aspen Shortsfest, not only did most of the filmmakers stay for the
entire week long run, but some of them actually began working together that
very weekend. Oscar Sharp, whose short film “The Karman Line” won
Aspen’s Best Comedy, was fully engaged in a 48-Hour film competition on closing
night, luring other filmmakers into his project and setting out on a frantic
quest to rent a snow cat for the next day’s shoot.

That’s not to say that larger, combination festivals don’t
have anything to offer a budding filmmaker. Greg Ash, whose short “Mr.
Invisible” starring Julian Glover received a Special Jury Recognition,
loves the environment offered at a shorts only fest, but also appreciates the
educational elements that larger festivals have to offer. Of his recent
attendance at the Austin Film Festival, he said, “I felt more like a
student there, which was great because the panels had established people and I
could be there to learn really. Maybe the pressure’s off a little bit because
you’re not the focus.”

Derek Horne, Director of Programming for the Santa Fe
Independent Film Festival, also noted another benefit of screening at a feature
fest: more eyes on your film. “Festivals
exclusively devoted to short films can be more rewarding for those filmmakers
because the spotlight is on them,” he said. “But I think ultimately
it helps shorts more to be included in a festival with features because they
can end up reaching a wider audience. An audience that typically goes to a
short film program has a more specialized, niche audience, whereas a feature attracts
a broader audience. So a short film preceding the feature will gain exposure to
that new audience.”

So while both types of festival have their own advantages, filmmakers
and attendees do agree on one thing: there really is no down side to holding a
shorts only film festival.

“It can be really hard to get people to imagine what it
is until they’ve experienced it,” said Eldred. “And then they like it
and come back.”

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Comments

Ben

Great article. Thanks

bob hawk

Is this even a question? With the proliferating number of shorts being made and submitted to festivals, it's SO important that there be shorts-only festivals, capable of showing more films than "regular" film fests. And some festivals will take harder-to-program films that go over the 30-minute mark but are less than feature length. Shorts are an art unto themselves (albeit, some are obviously calling card films for would-be feature filmmakers). There are some great short film festivals around the world, including Clermont-Ferrand (about 40 miles north of Paris), Flickerfest in Sydney, and the Oberhausen Festival in Germany (heading for its 60th anniversary this year). Oberhausen was the birthplace of Wim Wenders, who grew up attending the festival, which inspired him to make so many shorts before his first feature. (Trivia: I was on the jury there in the Spring of 1989, before the Berlin Wall came down. It was the last jury that had to have a representative from both East and West Germany.)

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