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How Short Films Travel from Film Festivals to Oscar Nominations

ShortsTV founder Carter Pilcher helped discover some of Hollywood's biggest directors, but he sees shorts as more than a stepping stone to feature filmmaking.

DUMPLING BOY -- In Disney•Pixar’s all-new short “Bao,” a dumpling springs to life as a lively, giggly, dumpling boy, giving an aging Chinese mom another chance at motherhood. When Dumpling starts growing up fast, however, Mom must come to the realization that nothing stays cute and small forever. Directed by Domee Shi, “Bao” opens in theaters on June 15, 2018, in front of “Incredibles 2.” ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

“Bao”

Pixar

For all the buzz around Oscar-nominated films each season, shorts tend to receive far less attention, even though the ceremony devotes three categories to celebrate the best of the year. The Oscars have honored shorts since the 1930s, and over the decades, the short categories for Best Live Action, Best Documentary, and Best Animated have been crucial to honoring an array of memorable cinematic achievements.

In recent years, the short film categories have helped launch the careers of filmmakers who went to become celebrated auteurs, including Andrea Arnold (“Wasp”) and Martin McDonagh (“Six Shooter”). Last year, Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim actor to win the short film Oscar for “The Long Goodbye,” which he co-wrote, produced, and starred in. Short film Oscars have gone to rising stars across the industry, from documentarian Roger Ross Williams (“Dear Prudence”) to “Turning Red” director Domee Shi (“Bao,” above).

Yet even as the shorts categories play an invaluable role in expanding the awards conversation, they aren’t so easy to get out there. Short films can qualify for Oscars throughout the year by winning awards at official Oscar-qualifying film festivals or by receiving awards-qualifying runs, but that doesn’t guarantee them audiences. For years, even Oscar-winning shorts weren’t so easy to see in theaters.

That’s where Carter Pilcher saw an opportunity. The founder and CEO of Shorts International and ShortsTV has devoted his life to developing, producing, promoting, and distributing short films. If you’ve ever gone to see the Oscar-nominated short film at a movie theater, you probably have him to thank.

The longtime short film enthusiast was sick of seeing Oscar-nominated work in the short categories being neglected year after year. So he came up with the idea of curating a cinematic experience that allowed people outside of the film festival circuit to watch the work of short filmmakers. The idea proved to be a massive hit with Oscar ballot completists, and he has been producing the annual theatrical events showcasing the nominees since 2006.

Since then, his company has expanded far beyond the Oscars. He runs several television networks around the globe that exclusively show short films. His American channel, ShortsTV, is available on DirecTV, and he operates similar networks in Italy, Latin America, and Italy. To fuel the beast, he has a global acquisition staff that tracks short films from around the world from their inception to festival runs to (potential) awards season glory.

“There are two types of filmmakers making shorts these days,” Pilcher said in an interview with IndieWire. “The first kind of filmmaker that comes into shorts is someone that’s cutting their teeth and learning how to tell a story. We’re also seeing talent coming into shorts that already know how to tell a story.”

As for the newcomers, finding and developing those filmmakers is often thought of as the main job of short film festival programmers. Film history is full of stories of young directors who launched their careers by making a short and finding the support to turn it into a feature. Pilcher has helped plenty of those filmmakers over the years, tracking them from their earliest shorts to the heights of Hollywood.

But while he relishes those success stories, Pilcher disputes the idea that short filmmaking is inherently a stepping stone to bigger things. He’s equally interested in working with established filmmakers who choose to make shorts because they love the challenge and the creative freedom that comes with the art form.

“These are people who are not trying to find their way forward — they’re not experimenting and getting out of film school,” he said. “They’re people who want to try things out and tell a story, who have real talent and established credentials. They want to have fun or experiment in shorts.”

Meanwhile, short-form content is gaining currency across the media landscape, including social platforms. “There is now starting to be crossover where some of these influencers are actually very talented at making a film,” Pilcher said. “They’re starting to explore moving from making TikTok videos to making sketches to making actual films and entertainment. We’re in a great part of the industry… it seems like things are moving in our direction because so many people are watching short-form entertainment.”

He also credits anthology series like Netflix’s “Love, Death, & Robots” with giving major directors like David Fincher and Tim Miller the platform and resources to make high quality short films. Those kinds of projects can lend legitimacy to the art form while also giving fans some fun stuff to watch.

“[Tim Miller] makes shorts because he loves shorts,” he said. “He’s a big director and he makes big features, but he will tell you that making shorts is way, way more interesting.”

Pilcher’s film expertise recently informed IndieWire’s upcoming LA3C showcase, which he said he hopes will shine some attention on the kind of shorts that are sometimes overlooked by Oscar voters.

“It’s a great project to highlight some films that we all think are great, that are audience pleasers,” he said. “Sometimes, Academy members stray into the dark and the depressing, so we tried to look at a group of films that we thought had a broader audience appeal.”

A rising tide lifts all boats, and Pilcher sees quality festival programming as a way to build an audience for short film streaming and television content as well.

“You go to festivals, and a lot of times the features aren’t as good. And often the shorts are more shocking,” he said. “We find audiences are very often people who have been to festivals, loved the shorts, and go ‘Wow, I didn’t know these existed, and now I want to watch them on TV.’”

IndieWire and ShortsTV’s short film showcase will take place in Los Angeles on Friday, December 9.

Academy Members, Guild Members, and Industry Persons may apply to attend this event. Capacity is limited. An application does not guarantee admission.

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