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An American in Tokyo

An American in Tokyo

Articles - Festival Beat

For more than a decade, American Short Shorts President
and Co-Founder Douglas Williams has been working to bring together
American and Japanese cultures. He returned to the United States
in 1997 after an eight-year stint as a reporter and anchor for both
American and Japanese television. While a correspondent for NBC
Asia in Tokyo, he also wrote a film review column in a noted Japanese
magazine. Upon his return, Williams created one of the world’s fastest
growing short film festivals, American Short Shorts. Each year,
he takes a full slate of American-made short films and showcases
them to a variety of sold-out crowds. Williams spoke with MM about
the origins of this original festival, the importance of the short
film format and where the festival will be in year four.

Jennifer Wood (MM): How did the idea for
American Short Shorts originate?

Douglas Williams (DW): My co-founders Tetsuya
Bessho, Keiko Takahashi and I were in LA and a friend asked us to
a shorts screening on the Sony lot of a 28-minute film called Culture,
directed by Will Speck. It was the first time either of us had seen
a short, and we were amazed by its quality. iIt was nominated for
an Academy Award in 1999. We had just started Pacific Voice to create
a niche entertainment business between the US and Japan, and we
realized upon seeing this short, that short film was going to be
the platform that we would introduce to Japan. We love the genre
and liked the fact that we would be the first ones to really push
short film in Japan.

MM: Why only short films?

DW: Because they are unique and they are great!
And the Japanese love things that are really cool. We have marketed
the festival as a very cutting edge, indie event. We have been able
to make Short Shorts a hip form of entertainment.

MM: But why showcase just American films?

DW: Japan is the largest overseas market for
US movies, and we believed that if the Japanese like long US films,
then they would also like short US films. We were right. We have
sold out all screenings over three years in Tokyo and our satellite
cities as well. We had 23,000 attendees across the country last
year, and this year we expect 30,000 with Singapore on board and
five cities in Japan.

MM: This year was the first year you screened
Japanese shorts in the festival as well. Who came to this decision
and why?

DW: One of the festivalÕs missions is
to make the event a crossroads for Japanese and American creators.
Since there has never been a venue for Japanese filmmakers, there
has not been the momentum there to create. We hope that the j-shorts
category creates a stir among talented young filmmakers to make
shorts and screen them. We had about 80 submissions from Japan this
year. It was great to have the Japanese filmmakers meet their US
counterparts at the festival. Eventually, we hope to screen some
Japanese works here in the US.

MM: In what ways do American and Japanese
short films differÑif at all?

DW: Japanese creators of short film do not
necessarily use their short films to land a feature
project. We have wanted to educate the public about the role of
shorts in filmmaking in the US, which is why we have the support
of a famous US filmmaker every year. That shows the audience how
even the biggest filmmakers got their start, and also that amongst
our visiting filmmakers are the future Lucases, Scorseses and Burtons.

MM: Though just in your third year, you
have recruited some big name talent such as Scorsese and Burton
to support the festival. What is it about the festival do you think
has struck a chord with such notables?

DW: Not all of these notables are huge fans
of having their early works out for the public to see, but the pervading
consensus is the great support for young filmmakers. And I believe
that all our "big name" filmmakers are happy to lend their
name and their talent to a festival that fosters cross cultural
film exchange.

MM: Can you talk a bit about the festivalÕs
national tour of Japan?

DW: We could not believe the overwhelming response
by the local cities of Japan to also host the event. Again, I think
this shows the incredible appetite that Japan has for US entertainment.
We work the tour like a franchise, where a committee head is named
in each city, and that person is solely responsible for getting
local sponsorship and overseeing local operations.

MM: What is your role in this?

DW: The overall look of the venue, and all
publicity is strictly managed by us, as to keep continuity.

MM: What sort of reaction are you expecting
to this national tour?

DW: So far, the reaction to the festival in
the local cities has been even greater than in Tokyo. My thinking
is there are even fewer cultural outlets outside of Tokyo, although
there is still a film savvy population.

MM: How many people does it take to run
such a huge operation?

DW: Here in LA, the festival is practically
a full time job now. There is me, Marliese Schneider our programming
director and Katy O’connell, who is our programming assistant and
operations manager. We have a film student intern as well. In Tokyo,
there are about 10 staffers and 30 volunteers. Each of the five
cities in Japan has a separate committee of about eight people,
and separate operations staffs.

MM: What is in the immediate future for
the festival?

DW: We are just now getting ready for Singapore
(July 11-14) and then we think about next year. We are also considering
a pared down ASSFF in LA later this year. We would like to take
the fest to a couple of more countries in Asia, and a couple of
more cities in Japan. We keep growing every year, and until we feel
we have saturated our territories, we will keep considering the
proposals from event planners across Asia.

MM: What, if any, changes do you see instituting
for the 2002 event?

DW: The festival will change a lot next year.
I can’t talk about everything yet, but we are going to give more
time to international films and Japanese films, while keeping the
foundation of the festival American. now that we have established
the genre, we are more comfortable removing the American hat from
the festival, and making it more of a melting pot of films.

In terms of the satellite cities, and the overall
programming style, [there are] no changes planned. Why mess up a
good thing?

For more information on American
Short Shorts Film Festival, please visit www.americanshortshorts.com.

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