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Shorts Story 

Short films fight for attention, but it’s hard to find them after festivals.

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Ryan Fleck remembers his first Sundance Film Festival well. In 2003, he was in Park City with a short film titled Struggle, and he remembers the dizzying feeling of being accepted to a festival he assumed was only for people who “knew somebody.” He recalls being so excited that he never even thought about creating any of the publicity materials that Sundance regulars see plastered on Main Street kiosks and bulletin boards, instead spending the whole first night in a hotel room with his filmmaking partner Anna Boden writing screening times on the back of business cards. And he remembers building friendships with fellow filmmakers that have lasted to this day.

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Fleck also remembers a comment made by Raising Victor Vargas director Peter Sollett while Sollett was on a Sundance panel that year. Sollett’s own 29-minute short film Five Feet High and Rising had played at Sundance in 2000, a short that ultimately was developed into Vargas. “[Sollett] said something like, from the point of view of the industry, when you’re traveling festivals with a short film, you feel like you’re at the kiddie table,” Fleck recalls.

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The festivals try not to make it so. Sundance short film programmer Roberta Marie Munroe said, “We all think it’s important for us to be showcasing work from filmmakers who are often at the beginning of their careers”; Slamdance programmer Sarah Diamond asserted that the festival doesn’t want to treat shorts “just as condiments to our feature platter.” Yet, year after year, short-form films in Park City receive virtually no media attention, and the short films that show there likely never will be seen by an audience again. American independent features, foreign language features and even documentaries have managed to break through to matter in the film world. Short films remain marginalized, unseen and unreported on.

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It seems odd that this should be the case. An entire generation has grown up with music videos'which are, at their core, short musical films. The work of directors like Mark Romanek and Spike Jonze in videos and commercials became so celebrated that it inspired DVD box sets. Thanks to MTV, it may be true that Generation X has watched more short films than any that has come before.

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In recent years, as well, at least one of Sundance’s American Dramatic Competition films seems to have begun its life as a short. In perhaps the best-known example, a nine-minute short titled Peluca'about a frizzy-haired high school oddball, directed by an unknown BYU alum named Jared Hess'screened at Slamdance 2003 before turning into the 2004 indie sensation Napoleon Dynamite. Last year, Scott Coffey screened a feature-length version of Ellie Parker'with Naomi Watts as a struggling actress'which was at Sundance 2001 in a 16-minute form. This year, it’s Fleck and Boden who find themselves in that position, having developed their 2004 short Gowanus, Brooklyn into this year’s competition feature Half Nelson. If film festivals are, at least in part, about getting ahead of the curve in terms of finding the next generation of filmmaking talent, and if there’s a theoretically receptive audience to short-form filmmaking, why can’t shorts get any love?

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It’s a complicated matter, but like most matters in the world of filmmaking, it’s mostly about money and perception.

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In 2006, the Sundance Film Festival will screen 73 short films. Slamdance will screen 57 short films. And the people who program the festival assume that the majority of those films were made by people who see them mostly as a necessary step on the way to the big leagues of filmmaking, says Sundance’s Munroe. There is definitely the quintessential short filmmaker with a script under their arm.

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Filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung recognizes that reality for filmmakers, even as he has become part of it himself. In 2005, the 2004 graduate of the University of Utah film program attended Slamdance with his short film Sex & Coffee, and wrote about his experience in the Feb. 10, 2005, City Weekly. For that film, “I just tried to focus on telling the short film in and of itself,” he recalled. “I was very lucky that it did well. And even now, that’s my favorite [of his five short films].nn

This year, he brings the short film Los Coyotes to Slamdance, and had different thoughts in mind when making it. “Where can I go if I can demonstrate what I can do,” he said of his creative process. “Production values, ... delivering certain sequences that are technically well-done. Really, we’re trying to get attention from executives and producers.

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“That’s my biggest complaint about the short form: Most of the people doing them don’t really want to be doing them. They’re doing them because they have to. It’s almost as if they’re not staying true to the short form itself, like a Raymond Carver did for short stories. … And I’m guilty of this as well.nn

It is this impression'that shorts are a means to an end for an aspiring filmmaker, rather than an end in themselves'that can lead to a degree of uncertainty about how to approach short films. Audiences and the press may get the feeling that they’re watching something made to further the director’s career, rather than something meant to create its own artistic impression.

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But some filmmakers are careful to clarify that the functional purpose of short films can often be far less mercenary-seeming. Anna Boden, co-writer with Fleck and editor of Half Nelson, believes that there’s tremendous value for young filmmakers in creating short films, and not just as calling cards. “In terms of practicing the craft … and working in miniature, it’s invaluable,” said Boden. “You can make a mistake without it being a million-dollar mistake. It can be a $200 mistake.nn

Director Silas Howard is discovering that fact, but doing so while taking the unusual career path from features back to shorts. In 2002, Howard was at Sundance with her first behind-the-camera effort as co-director, co-writer and co-star of By Hook or By Crook; her feature script Exactly Like You is currently in development at HBO. “While [Harriet Dodge] and I were making By Hook or By Crook,” Howard recalled, “people were like, ‘Why don’t you make a short first?’ We were dead set against it, almost ridiculously so.nn

Now, however, Howard is in the MFA directing program at UCLA, where making short films is part of the curriculum. The short nonfiction film she’ll be bringing to Sundance 2006'What I Love About Dying'was not developed as part of her program, but her seven-minute short Frozen Smile has already found distribution. She has found the experience of short filmmaking useful simply “to keep doing work” in an industry where projects can take so long to gestate that a director can end up doing a lot of sitting around and waiting. “With a feature, sometimes you get in and at points you want to get out and you can’t,” she said. “It can take you hostage. And shorts, you really just kind of get through.nn

For Howard, short films can be part of an overall filmmaking career. But making short films exclusively, most filmmakers agree, isn’t really an option. Noted Isaac Chung, “This is the main reason people just see short films as a stepping stone to something else: What we really desire is an audience, and that’s not going to happen with short films. The film has to find some sort of distribution, even if you’re making ‘art’ cinema, because that’s the only way to stay viable. The only way the money’s going to come in [for your next project] is to show that somehow it’s going to make money. Short films only cost money.nn

“There are a lot of filmmakers who would like to continue making short films,” said Ryan Fleck. “But people don’t even go to see collections by known filmmakers.nn

Added Boden, “It’s definitely not a career option if you want to be able to make a living. Now, if you want to be a receptionist and make short films nnShort-Attention-Span Theaternn

The primary obstacle fortifying Boden’s perception has been the closed doors of the conventional theatrical exhibition market to short films. Cable networks like IFC and Sundance Channel deliver some viewers, and occasional shorts programs have been able to make the art-house rounds, like Apollo Cinema’s Oscar-nominated shorts collections and Spike and Mike’s “Sick and Twisted” Animation festivals. But there has been nothing comparable to the availability of short films on theatrical programs through the first half of the 20th century.

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That changed in 2005, when Los Angeles-based art house chain Landmark Theatres ran a six-month pilot program sponsored by Stella Artois beer. From April through September, one short film was shown before the feature on all 209 of Landmark’s screens. For those six months, films like Geoff, World Destroyer; Mating Call; and Aaron Ruell’s 2005 Sundance short Mary got something few shorts have gotten in decades: a full theatrical run.

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The program was largely a hit with patrons, according to Landmark’s vice-president of marketing Ray Price but still faced plenty of obstacles. Despite the thousands of shorts available, the chain was limited to considering only those shorts under three minutes long, as well as those shot in a format that would look decent when blown up to exhibit on a 60-foot screen. Landmark also absorbed the cost not just of acquiring the films but of striking two 35mm negatives'for the Scope and flat formats'and 209 prints for each of the six short films.

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Those financial limitations, which meant the same short playing before every Landmark Theatres presentation, in turn created other limitations on acceptable content. “That’s an incredibly wide range of films that we’re showing,” Price said, “and what might be really good for one audience is not going to be real popular with another. I had to turn down a nice film about a punk-rock band, because I couldn’t conceive of it playing before Ladies in Lavender.nn

In addition, Price noted, because many Landmark patrons see several films a month, some of them simply grew tired of the one film they were seeing repeatedly: “We would get letters saying, ‘We really liked the short'the first three times we saw it.’nn

But for the filmmakers, it was still an unheard-of opportunity. “People would say things like, ‘I made this short, it played at Sundance and I thought that was the end,’” Price recalled. “You have one moment with a short film and then the life of the film is ended. We provided an opportunity for a million people [to see these shorts].nn

According to Price, Landmark still hopes to continue showing shorts theatrically, but “the program would have to change” to make it financially viable. In the meantime, Landmark is planning to launch Movienet.com in early 2006, providing curated short-film programs on the newest, most popular outlet for short films: the Internet.

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They already will be in successful company. Launched in 1999, AtomFilms.com survived the dot-com bust and'now merged with media software company Shockwave'has become a profitable showcase for short films online. In 2004, JibJab’s election-year parody “This Land Is My Land” registered 80 million views to become an all-time phenomenon; other popular shorts have topped out at 10 million views. On a monthly basis, anywhere from a dozen to two-dozen films might notch approximately 100,000 to 200,000 viewers'more people than saw the most recent features by Jean-Luc Godard or Ingmar Bergman in American theaters.

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It’s a market for short films that didn’t exist a decade ago. According to Scott Roesch, AtomFilms vice president and general manager, while 90 percent of AtomFilms’ content is under 10 minutes, “The most important criterion is that the film or animation drops you into a compelling experience immediately. There’s no time for expository setup.nn

Isaac Chung worries that the AtomFilms paradigm may actually be contributing to an additional problem with short-form filmmaking: the focus on “punch line” movies. While Roesch insists that AtomFilms’ audience craves timely political content as well as comedy, those filmmakers whose works do fit the AtomFilms profile are finding'some for the first time'an exception to Chung’s observation that short films only cost money. The site generates a pool of money allocated to filmmaker royalties, divided up based on percentage of the total film views represented by each individual film. “In any given quarter, a couple dozen filmmakers are usually taking home $1,000, $2,000 or more,” said Roesch. “Many more are making hundreds. And we’ve had unusual cases where filmmakers have made in the six figures.nn

Roesch also expects AtomFilms to have a lot of competition very soon for the kinds of works it shows. “The surge of advertising into the field says that this is going to be a place where consumers come in big numbers to get entertainment content,” said Roesch. “We know it’s short-form content that works best on the Internet … [and] mobile applications like video iPod and PSP mean that behind the gross of the Internet is another mass-market medium perfectly suited to short-form content.

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“We have seen a lot of our most successful filmmakers go on to make a nice living for themselves. It’s not in our interest or anybody’s interest to say, ‘Hey, you have to do short-form content.’ But that’s going to be a new option for filmmakers.nnThe Festival Dancenn

The online arms of Slamdance and Sundance have added to this wave of Internet-based short-film exposure. Since January 2000, Slamdance’s Anarchy Online competition has created a monthly March-to-November viewer-vote short-film competition with finals involving nine monthly winners. Sundance, meanwhile, draws between 400,000 and 500,000 hits to the Sundance Online Film Festival, which showcases many of the festival shorts.

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But for filmmakers, the festival experience itself remains the crucial part of being accepted. Sometimes it’s about a “support network” between filmmakers, as Isaac Chung describes it. Often, it’s simply for the unusual opportunity of seeing their short film with other viewers. “With Gowanus, Brooklyn,” Anna Boden recalled, “we had spent so much time looking at it. … Watching it with people who were watching for the first time was like getting a new perspective.nn

Of course, there’s also no escaping the reality that Park City becomes a massive industry networking gathering-slash-press junket during those 11 days in January, and most creators of short films are out to finance their next project. Ryan Fleck recalls learning the lesson of his less-than-prepared appearance at Sundance 2003 when Gowanus, Brooklyn was accepted in 2004: “We said, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this right.’ We had actually written [Half Nelson] first and made Gowanus as a way to get attention for it. We had a list of goals we wanted to achieve, and we checked off a bunch of them.nn

Fleck thinks his Sundance 2006 experience might be considerably different as he arrives with a competition feature film. “We’re going to try not to get caught up in [the hype],” he said. “We want to see movies. But the PR world, that’s going to be tricky navigating.nn

That’s a side of the festival that continues to elude short-form filmmakers. Film press will not be ringing their publicists’ cell phones off the hook, and festival attendees will not be standing in wait-list lines 200 people deep to see the short-films programs. The next great filmmaker will probably show her or his work in Park City this week, and few people will even realize it.

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But maybe the shift in attentions will come when the film press catches up with new media'when the latest AtomFilms or Anarchy Online breakout hit draws as much media attention as a mediocre box-office draw. Silas Howard expects the day is not far away when the commercial need for short-form content will lead to an influx of money. “That will change the nature of how people think of [shorts],” said Howard, “and not always as a great thing.nn

This is show biz, after all. In the end, it will be cash that buys a seat at the big kids’ table.

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