BIZ EDITORIAL: How's Your Dotcom Treating You, Part 9: An Open Letter to Film Executives Everywhere
by Alan and Smithee
[Two filmmakers, in the midst of the current dotcom frenzy, have been sharing their email correspondences on the subject with indieWIRE in a continuing segment called "How's Your Dotcom Treating You?" To protect their privacy, the filmmakers (one with a deal at AtomFilms, the other who has finally sealed a spot at Pop.com) have decided to remain anonymous as they tread the muddy waters of the new e-business, trying to find the best place for their shorts, the most money and the widest exposure.
Today, they offer an editorial lobbying Hollywood to once again show short films before theatrical movies.]
Congratulations! You've got THX in the multiplexes! Air-conditioning at full blast! Bucket seats! And we, the people, your bored audiences, are watching a bunch of loud ads and a generic movie, trying to explain to our friends why we're paying to sit at a multiplex instead of waiting for the DVD.
We tell our friends: Films should be seen in public. A film on the best big TV with Surround Sound is not the same as the theater. Why? Because of the excitement and adventure that used to be what "going to the movies" was about. It's the laughter or cries of strangers in the dark, the thrill of the unexpected. It's the full and shared EXPERIENCE.
But you know what? You've forgotten the experience. And the result is, exhibitors have spent a lot of money building multiplexes, but attendance isn't always high enough to cover their costs. Box-office cash is breaking records, but more people went to the movies each week in 1977! Something's missing.
Try this on for size: Put your audience in a pumped-up mood before your star-driven, opening-weekend film starts. Let us feel hip and cool. Give us the sense we're discovering something new, and we'll be able to talk our friends into coming out to the movies.
How? Show short films before your features. Like you used to do.
Audiences love shorts, and the "Internet" (a cool new technology that's sort of like CB radio with aftershave) is beating you to the punch. Some of you are even sponsoring these companies. But why stop with the Internet? In years past, in your own country, and currently in Europe and Canada, audiences have watched short films before features and loved them. But in this proud nation, if you ask people about theatrical shorts, they assume that they were an ancient pleasure, clearly impossible in today's cynical marketplace.
We disagree. People are hungry, not cynical. Once, a few choice cities hosted film festivals -- and now every city block has one. They all program short films to capacity crowds. Thousands of festivals and one Internet have successfully renewed MASS audience awareness and interest in shorts. Hell, don't take our word for it -- we subscribe to "Premiere" magazine, and even they have started covering and reviewing short films!
Here's our bet to you all: Once someone starts showing shorts in theaters again, other studios will slap themselves and wonder why they didn't do it first.
At Sundance last year, the Denver Post wrote: "Theatrical shorts are poised for a comeback." In the same article, Gary Meyer, co-founder of Landmark Theaters, suggested that playing shorts before features in the multiplex "will pay off in terms of building an audience."
He writes, "The right short before the right feature sets the audience up for an incredible experience. It's bringing back something that was for many years part of the movie-going experience, and gives [audiences] a chance to see new filmmakers. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg started by making short films, and just about everybody else you can name started with shorts."
Now, as some of you invest in short films on the Web, we ask, why aren't you showing shorts in the theaters?
Because you're pussies?
Have you forgotten what it means to "go to the movies"? We're not talking about sitting through a terrifying test screening or a fabulous premiere. We're talking about working all week as a waitress at Red Lobster or a clerk at Home Depot, and when Friday night comes, saying, "I want to go to the movies." Meaning: "I want to be taken away somewhere, given surprise and adventure. . . and I better get my money's worth."
We have met high school students in small towns who say the only reason they attend the local film festivals is because of the shorts. THEY PAY TO SEE A FEATURE A SECOND TIME BECAUSE THEY DUG THE SHORT FILM THAT SHOWED WITH IT.
These were not film students, but regular kids. Short films appeal to people because shorts are little surprises; they're not long enough to be boring, and they make people feel like they got something for free. Shorts may even inspire them to say, "That was awesome! I could do that!"
So what scares you?
"A short will confuse the audience. They won't know what movie they're watching."
People are much smarter than you think. They're smart enough to tell the difference between commercials, previews, PSAs, and the feature. If necessary, you can put a logo before the short that says "WB Shorts" or "Dreamworks Shorts." After paying nine bucks to see a movie, audiences will be HAPPY (not confused) if you give them something for free that's not an ad.
The smiles and cheers that go after a damn good short will translate into a greater enjoyment of the feature -- their eyes will be glued to the screen, pumped up and ready to go. In the end, this will mean even better word-of-mouth.
"The exhibitors will complain because shorts cut into their ad space."
If you attach a 2-minute short to a print of an 87-minute feature, and tell them, "This 89-minute show is my product, take it or leave it," then exhibitors can't complain, any more than they can complain if the feature itself is 89 minutes. The same goes for a five or six-minute short film: With a short-short, you wouldn't change your number of screenings per day. And judging from the success of films like "Titanic" and many other recent two hours-plus movies, overall program length does not necessarily determine box office revenue. Here's the secret: Make the short film part of the feature movie reel.
"What's in it for us?"
If you want, your shorts can point audiences to your pet-project websites, or be your talent-incubator testing grounds for new filmmakers. But the real point is this: A happy audience spreads the word and buys more tickets.
Who are your heroes in nearly 100 years of Hollywood? Did they make or exhibit short films? (Probably.) Did they take risks? (Definitely.) Well, the risks here are negligible --slightly increased print costs, a few discussions, and you're done. The benefit is happy, grateful audiences who are in a good mood because you give them a little treat they weren't expecting. A short film comes out of nowhere and whets their appetite for the feature. Audiences will pay to come back, because with a short film, going to the movies will feel like a full experience again.
And within a year, every studio in town will wonder why they didn't think of it first. And they will fire a few people just to feel better about it.
And they might even fire you, too, for ignoring this.
Alan and Smithee