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Exploring the Case for Shorts Only Film Festivals at Aspen Shortsfest

Photo of Casey Cipriani By Casey Cipriani | Indiewire April 21, 2014 at 10:20AM

The case for holding a shorts only film festival.
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"The Gallant Captain"
"The Gallant Captain"

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."

Romi Trower in "No One Is Listening Anymore!"
Romi Trower in "No One Is Listening Anymore!"

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.

Julian Glover in "Mr. Invisible"
Julian Glover in "Mr. Invisible"

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."

This article is related to: Festivals, Aspen Shortsfest, Filmmaker Toolkit: Shorts, Shorts, Short Film