FESTIVALS: 4th Shorts International, Art Verses Product as Films Vie For Academy Recognition
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/11.22.00) --"Works of art are not by their nature products," argued actor/filmmaker Tom Gilroy last week at the 4th annual Shorts International Film Festival (Nov. 11-15) -- a comment that cuts to the quick of the short films on display and their increasingly commercial viability in the entertainment arena. Whether filmmakers like it or not, the short film medium has transformed into a lucrative industry, with dotcoms and cable channels scouring for "content," and studios and ad agencies looking for the next "George Lucas in Love" or "Whassup?!" campaign.
"It is a priority for us to look at short films to find new, up and coming writer/directors," comments Michelle Sy, a Director of Development at Miramax, who was also on the SIFF's selection committee. "We were sending assistants to cover the festival throughout the week," she added. Or for further short film hype, just listen to AtomFilms' Megan O' Neill: "People are not going to watch two-hour feature films on their cellphones, but they very well may watch a 5-minute hilarious short or animation. There's a future there."
Screening 81 works from 13 different countries, the festival kicked off with a screening of the past, in last year's Academy Award winners -- Barbara Schock's "My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York" (live action), William Whiteford's "King Gimp" (documentary) and Alexandre Petrov's "The Old Man in the Sea" (animation). Apropos of the fest's newly crowned accreditation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last Spring, which allows all SIFF shorts to be eligible for the Oscars, this opening showcase was like catching a glimpse of mainstream cinema's Holy Grail. Would the films in the program live up to the standards set by these Oscar winners? Would one of SIFF's discoveries go on to win big come Academy Awards night?
We won't know until next March, of course, but suffice it to say, that this year's selection included some stiff competition. One of the big contenders is sure to be Jeff Lester, who took home the prize for Best Comedy Short for "The Last Real Cowboys," which stars Billy Bob Thornton as an embittered cowboy tempted by a tough companion's query, "How come we don't skip?" With Billy Bob delivering a performance as committed and intense as his feature roles, as well as a sepia-toned print, and poignant conclusion, "The Last Real Cowboys" was one of the best calling card films on display. Just days after the fest, AtomFilms announced exclusive online and offline distribution rights for "Cowboys." After premiering at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, and gaining dotcom interest after South by Southwest, the film drew interest from Miramax, according to Lester, only after the Shorts International New York screening. "At Sundance, you don't necessarily hear about the shorts," he said. "Here, it's a shorts festival, so it obviously allows the shorts to stand out."
The other high profile U.S. entries did now show the same promise. Films like "The Transformation" by "Married to the Mob" writer Barry Sturgatz, or "A Whole New Day," starring James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos," or the Hi-Def DV comedy "Damned If You Do," with David Allen Grier as the devil, remained slight and mediocre television mini-movies.
Better domestic films were to be found in two absurdist romps, Molly O'Brien's well-directed "Sixth Sense" influenced "Some Common Things That Happen to Corpses," and Greg Durbin's "Boundaries," about a Mexican woman stalked by a man who hits her head with a trombone. Similarly, U.S. entries like Colin Campbell's "Seraglio," Tricia Nolan's "Rattler" and Charlie Call's well-traveled "Peep Show" were all amusing, but didn't exactly showcase visual or storytelling stylists -- though they were all directed proficiently with high production values.
The winner of the Best Drama prize, Doug Scott's "Homeland," was a bit rougher on the edges, but this story of a young gang member deported to El Salvador was at best, from the heart, but more over, amateurish and didactic.
The award for Best Documentary went to Phil Bertelsen's "The Sunshine," a well-shot, but ultimately unfinished portrait of the denizens of a Bowery flophouse. Other award-winners included Aditya Assarat's disturbing and elegant fable "Motorcycle" (Thailand) for Best Student Film, Steffen Schaffler's haunting "The Periwig-Maker" (Germany) for Best Animation, and Per Fronth's cute, but hardly experimental world premiere "Godiva!" for Best Experimental. All winners received $2,000 in cash, a Tourneau watch valued at $1,000, and inclusion in a national tour with stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Toronto, Boston and Washington.
If you were looking for new dramatic talents, you'd best look overseas. New Zealand, in particular, appears to be a hotbed of creative short filmmaking, with Felicity Morgan-Rhind's promising and perturbing "Donuts for Breakfast" reappearing after its premiere at the New York Film Festival, and ambitious debuts from the serious-minded Belinda Schmidt ("The Painted Lady") and the predictable, though skilled talents of Jesse Warn ("Little Samurai") and Jason Stutter ("Fizz").
Swiss director Yves Pouliquen unveiled the U.S. premiere of "La Baie des Trespasses." Beautifully photographed, delicately directed and cleverly written, the story follows one man who ventures out onto a cliff edge, and the conversations he has with a local who tries to convince him not to jump. As well, the U.S. premiere of Norwegian director Matias Armand Jordal's "To Fly" showed strength and maturity in the story of a young boy and his alcoholic mother. German filmmakers also showcased engaging new works: the world premiere of Su Turhan's "Gone Underground" was one of the few films using digital tools to create a unique visual universe, while Oliver Dieckmann's traditionally-lensed drama "Ordinary Love" almost reached poignancy in only 10 minutes.
One of the setbacks at this year's SIFF was attendance, due to a poor choice of venue. The Cineplex Odeon Worldwide, New York's only discount theater (all shows $4.00), may have worked for other New York fests like Gen Art and Urbanworld, but left the Shorts fest poorly trafficked. "I am sure we did not do nearly the numbers we did in the first three years," co-fest founder Lisa Walborsky told indieWIRE. "It was 100% the location; it was a lesson," she added. "We chose to put short films in the most commercial place possible," Walborsky further explained, hoping to fulfill the fest's mandate to raise awareness for short films. But unlike the wealthy Upper West Side audience that frequented last year's Sony Lincoln Square venue, Walborsky said the Odeon had "no walk-in traffic." For the fifth edition in 2001, Walborsky maintains committed to finding a new venue for the festival.
While attendance may have been down, Walborsky says that industry attention remains high, citing a high rate of filmmakers getting phone calls post-screenings. "The industry is definitely paying attention," she said. Miramax's Michelle Sy concurred, "It's given us the opportunity to meet with filmmakers face to face after seeing their films."
The industry focus on shorts films was a hot topic of discussion at two panels during the festival, moderated by indieWIRE's own Eugene Hernandez. Tensions ran high at "Borders and Boundaries; Filmmaking as Product," where filmmakers like Tom Gilroy, Jim McKay and Maya Churi stuck to their moral guns, when pitted against ad and industry types like Dave Westreich of Oglivy, Josh Braun of Submarine, and Jon Kamen of Radical Media. In the middle was Esther Robinson, of non-profit funder Creative Capital who cut through the debate. "When you make a movie right now, you are ripe for being exploited. You're probably in debt, you probably have little negotiating power with whom ever you're making a deal with, be it a distributor or website or your parents. And you have to be incredibly savvy about what you want and what you're willing to give up to get that [distribution]."
During "Fear, Fate and the Internet," topics ranged from the recent demise of iCAST, the popping of Pop.com, Internet companies verses Cable Television, contracts, and the prospects for shorts films on the Web, where suspicion balanced with hope. Said Shortbuzz co-founder Robert Algeri, "We'd encourage filmmakers to seriously take very close look at the contracts you sign and agree to, because you really don't know what's going to happen in the future." AtomFilms's Megan O' Neill countered, "I certainly feel confident that there is a business licensing short films. I've seen it grow tremendously," she continued, citing the company's litany of licensees: "22 airlines, 7 television channels, 25 broadband online partners -- who are actually paying for content -- films -- that they barely knew existed 18 months ago."
As far as the profitability -- in cash and career -- going to the filmmakers who toil and sweat to make shorts film, it was perhaps Maya Churi (director of web-based film, "Letters From Homeroom") who summed up the current status of the shorts filmmaker: "They say, 'Here's 2,500 dollars and we'll own your film for five years, but 2,500 dollars isn't really going to matter. It's not going to pay my crew, it's not going to pay my producer, it's not going to pay my web designers, and it's not going to pay me." She added, "But I don't know any independent filmmakers who are making money."