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Examine Your Shorts, Part I: Not All Fests Are Created Equal

Examine Your Shorts, Part I: Not All Fests Are Created Equal

Examine Your Shorts, Part I: Not All Fests Are Created

by Amy Veltman

Film festivals are proliferating at a rate that seems to take its cue
from a Starbucks business plan. Looking at this growth, the simple
question arises, “Why?” For festivals highlighting features, there are
some more obvious supply and demand issues at work, mandated by the gory
economics of feature filmmaking. These festivals provide a venue for the
increasing numbers of features to garner buzz, pedigree, and industry
exposure, all leading up to the Holy Grail of distribution. In the case
of film festivals dedicated primarily to showing short films, however,
the answer is not so clear.

Recently, New York has played host to a number of festivals dedicated
solely to shorts, including the Shorts International Film Festival and
the NY Expo. In addition to these, the area’s film schools also hold
annual showcases of student shorts. Domestically, there are a number of
other film festivals whose focus is the short film, including Aspen
Shortsfest and Seattle’s One Reel. What is the difference between these
festivals, and whom are they intended to serve? What makes a shorts
fest a success? Over the last few years, I’ve attended a fair cross
section of these film festivals in a fair cross section of guises: as a
filmmaker, as a fan/friend of other filmmakers, and/or as press. By
comparing my experiences and those of my colleagues, here are some
thoughts on the matter.

In the words of Deborah Solomon, whose short animated film, “Everybody’s
Pregnant,” has won awards at a number of different festivals this year,
“Not all festivals are created equal.” Because entry fees, shipping
fees, plane tickets, print fees, and costs for publicity materials can
easily tag hundreds or even thousands onto a short film’s budget, she
advises filmmakers to do as much research as they can about a film
festival before entering. She tells the story of crossing the Atlantic
for a festival screening of her film to find that, in spite of the
organizers’ good intentions, there were only eleven people in the
theater to see her movie. By getting in touch with a filmmaker who’s
attended in the past or obtaining a copy of the previous year’s program,
you might save yourself great expense and inconvenience by learning if a
festival is right for both you and your film.

If, for example, your short is a light romp, and you learn that your
intended festival is strongly biased towards the darkest sci-fi, won’t
put you up, facilitates no opportunities to meet other filmmakers or
industry professionals, has a reputation for paltry audiences,
film-eating projectors and is held in a locale you have absolutely no
interest in visiting, you might consider focusing your energies
somewhere more appropriate to your ambitions.

The 2nd annual Shorts International Film Festival, held at Sony Theatres
Lincoln Square in New York over four weekdays in mid-November is a good
example of a shorts fest poised between becoming an important event on
the short film landscape and, well, not. The film’s closing night
awards ceremony, with its $30 price tag, was a star-speckled affair,
featuring presentations by Mili Avatal, Mia Farrow and Rosie Perez who
had also served as jury members. Buses were waiting after the ceremony
to transport attendees to the swanky after-party at Henri Bendel’s
department store. CNN was on hand to cover the event and stalwarts of
New York’s indie and short film worlds were present, including the
ubiquitous Gill Holland of CineBlast! and his party posse, as well as
reps from Miramax and October. Profits from the evening’s take were
donated to Lifebeat, an organization for musicians working with those
with AIDS. Festival Director Lisa Walborsky’s enthusiasm and ability to
corral impressive venues and celebs bodes well for the future of the
fest. However, this year’s glitz may have been wasted because of one
factor that seemed slightly neglected in the planning of this event —
the filmmaker.

Filmmakers were free to attend the festival at their own expense, and
many did, some even coming from abroad. Because the bulk of the
screenings were held during the daytime in space the theater donated to
the festival, most films seemed sparsely populated. Joel Hopkins, whose
“Jorge” has attended many more festivals than Hopkins himself, was
disappointed to find an audience of five at his afternoon screening,
noting that in spite of the energy and money devoted to the party and
ceremony, “It just seems pointless [if people aren’t going to get to see
the movies.]”

Hopkins noted that, in contrast, his most rewarding screening was held
in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a Sunday night at a screening series called
Ocularis, where “Jorge” played with six other provocatively programmed
shorts. “The place was absolutely packed and there was a buzz,” he
notes. The SIFF should aspire to that feeling by having screenings at a
time when working people can attend with greater ease, even if it means
sacrificing a donated space and relying on ticket sales for revenue.
Though there was a brunch for filmmakers the morning prior to the
event’s beginning, the festival was in need of a central place for
filmmakers to gather during the festival, to mingle and be found by
press and curious audience members. This would help shift the focus
even more sharply onto the filmmakers and their work.

On the bright side of this event, however, was the reputation of the
festival; filmmaker Amy Talkington, whose “Second Skin” continues to
enjoy success and is heading to Sundance, noted that as a result of her
screening at SIFF, a number of members of the industry sent her faxes
expressing interest in her work.

[Amy Veltman is a filmmaker whose short film “Daisy Feldman’s New York” was a
finalist at the 1997 Austin Heart of Film Festival and played at the 1997
New York Comedy Film Festival.]

[Tomorrow, indieWIRE will publish Part II of Examine Your Shorts with a
look at Aspen, student film festivals, the NY Expo and advice for

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