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Back on the Mainscreen

Back on the Mainscreen

Articles - Directing

The

feature film format has not always been as dominant a factor in

the motion picture industry as it is today. Back in the 1930s and

’40s, standard commercial fare included not only the feature but

a Movietone newsreel, a cartoon and several short films as well.

"Also Selected Short Subjects" underlined movie titles

on theater marquees and lobby cards and was a familiar phrase to

moviegoers across the country.

Then television

came and altered the entertainment landscape significantly. Besides

rendering Movietones and "chapters" obsolete, it introduced

a new set of market imperatives that led ultimately to the disappearance

of all manner of short programming front the big screen. Cut loose

suddenly from their commercial moorings, short filmmakers took to

the underground and set about demolishing conventions and enriching

the art form with new modes of aesthetic and technical expression.

Now, after

decades in relative obscurity, the short film is undergoing a revival

which, if current trends continue, might well flourish into a renaissance.

Ironically, powering its comeback is the very same force that buried

it in the ’50s: television, this time cable television. Back in

the ’70s and early ’80s, short filmmakers completing their festival

routes had but one option as far as TV was concerned: Home Box Office.

In the mid 80s, PBS also started programming shorts. Today, broadcast

markets around the world are opening up to American short films,

while cable stations like Showtime, Bravo, A&E and Discovery

are providing short filmmakers with the lion’s share of opportunity

at home. As they acquire short films in increasing numbers these

stations are blazing a trail for upcoming networks like Bravo’s

Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Institute’s Sundance Channel,

both of which will look to the independent film world for much of

their programming and devote regular segments to short film and

video works.

Evidence of

a revival lies in other areas as well. The festival circuit – the

principal showcasing mechanism for shorts – has virtually doubled

in size in the past 10 years and has gone from a way to get distribution

to being almost like a distribution option in and of itself. Individually,

the Seattle International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festivals,

among others, have enhanced their shorts programs by presenting

them in groups, or "packages," related usually by theme,

and expanding their short film awards categories. Alternative cinema

groups continue springing up in big cities and have begun coordinating

activities and sharing compilations and short film collections.

A Los Angeles company called Strand Releasing has been theatrically

distributing a compilation of Academy Award-nominated short films

around major U.S. cities, and is operating in the black. And a man

named Doug Piburn has established a venue in Hollywood called the

Fellini Theater that screens nothing but short films year round.

So the tide

clearly is turning, but where will it lead? Will short films ever

really catch on again with mainstream audiences and, if so, is the

short form an arena where filmmakers can begin recouping some money?

Will the genre forever remain a costly rite of passage along the

path to feature filmmaking?

Deep Currents

When the National

Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences proposed in 1992 that

the short film category be eliminated from the Oscar lineup by 1994,

it galvanized short film devotees on all levels. Confronting the

move at its heart was Academy board member Hillary Ripps, who co-authored

a 91-page treatise that successfully argued the importance of maintaining

the category, and by extension, preserving the art form. Her enthusiasm

sprung in large part from her role as vice president of Chanticleer

Productions, a Los Angeles-based organization as deeply committed

to the short film revival effort as perhaps any other.

Founded by

Jana Sue Memel and Jonathan Sanger in 1986, Chanticleer has been

providing artists accomplished in other aspects of filmmaking with

an opportunity to demonstrate their ability as directors. The "Discovery

Program," as they call it, has produced 55 shorts to

date and launched more than a few directing careers. Seventy percent

of the people who have been through the program, in fact, have gone

on to direct TV movies, series or features. Showtime, which airs

the shorts both as pre-features and as part of its award-winning

"30 Minute Movie" series, will in September begin airing

Chanticleer’s new "Directed By…" series, featuring short

works directed by celebrity actors including JoBeth Williams, Laura

Dern, Danny Glover and Treat Williams.

"We started

(producing shorts) eight years ago," says Memel, who serves

as executive producer of the "Directed By…" series.

"My assessment is it’s phenomenal for launching careers; it’s

really the only way to do it. But it’s not a viable commercial format

at this point, and I don’t believe it ever will be." Why, then,

is she positioning her company where the money isn’t? "It’s

sort of like saving someone’s life and then being responsible for

that person. We’re now the people the industry looks to to be doing

it, so we feel an obligation tocontinue doing it. But economically

there’s no benefit."

Jeffrey Haniblin,

co-founder of San Diego-based distributor Andalusian Pictures, does

not share that view, even as his first ­of-its-kind traveling International

Festival of Short Films struggles to remain solvent. Striving to

build wider audience acceptance of short films, Hamblin conceived

the idea of packaging prize-winning shorts with common themes and

marketing them city by city in feature-length compilation form.

The first one has entertained audiences in over 30 cities across

the U.S. and Canada; the second one in nearly 20. So far the program

has operated on a strictly commercial basis, deriving its funding

entirely through ticket sales.

"We’re

actually coming very close to making a breakthrough," Hamblin

explains. "But this type of endeavor – raising public awareness

about the short film format and breaking down people’s resistance

to it – simply requires deeper pockets than we have right now. The

potential is there and the audience is there, but it’s fragmented

and needs to be pulled together."

Hamblin has

proven that with a strong promotion and advertising campaign one

can entice a mainstream audience into seeing a string of well-made

shorts. His second festival drew over 6,000 people in the Boston

and San Francisco markets over a nine day period, but other markets

not so heavily promoted were not so lucrative. Clearly, the cost

of getting the word out beyond the art house circuit presents a

major challenge to grassroots operators like Andalusian.

But even before

the marketing effort even begins there are expenses that can break

the bank of a small independent company. Lab fees for a string of

shorts tend to run double those of ordinary features, in part because

compilations containing, say, 10 short films, have 10 times the

waste footage relative to a feature. Also, since only one or two

prints are purchased instead of tens or hundreds, there are no quantity

discounts. Add to that the cost of shipping prints from the domestic

and overseas labs in which they were originally processed, and you

are talking large sums (especially since lab prices in places like

New Zealand, France and Belgium are astronomical by U.S. standards).

So instead of the usual $1,500, Andalusian spends an average $6,000

per print. Then they start buying the advertising, and after all

is said and done, pays a percentage of the box office to the film

producers.

"Most

people associate the short film format with lower production costs

without realizing that on the distribution side it’s just the opposite,"

Hamblin says. "The frustrating thing is that we know the market

is there; we’ve proven it. When we’ve gone beyond print ads to postering,

flyering, PR promotion and press reviews, we’ve gotten a very big

response. But without sponsorship or some other type of funding

to fill the gap, it’ll be difficult to launch."

Hamblin has

seen a few of his producer clients make back their production budgets

and feels that down the road it could happen much more commonly.

A theatrical run by itself, he believes, will earn back enough to

cover a $35,000 film. "But theatrical is not the only outlet

for shorts," he points out. "Where shorts are recouping

their money is in TV distribution. There are 30-40 short films made

each year that make significant amounts of money in TV. Several

companies are out there selling to foreign markets exclusively."

One of those,

Brooklyn-based Forefront Films, which presently has 30 shorts circulating

the overseas film markets and 4estivals, had been working exclusively

with features until it lurched almost accidentally into this brave

new market. After picking up Mark Christopher’s critically acclaimed The Dead Boys Club on a hunch and then quickly selling it

to different Pay TV stations in Europe and Asia, the company was

convinced the market was there. Now they sift through hundreds of

submissions looking for films under 30 minutes, that tell good stories

with minimal dialogue, and that fit into one of the burgeoning niche

markets, like women’s themes, gay themes and, of course, comedies.

"Europe

is really where it’s taking off," believes Forefront co-founder

Megan O’Neill. "They use them as filler in between features,

or in theme nights. The German pay TV station Premiere, for example,

did a theme called "Dark Love," featuring film noir shorts

about love. We sold them a film called Love after Death which

became a part of that.

JoBeth Williams directing Mercedes Ruehl in the Showtime series

"Directed By…"

"I think

it’s going to happen in the States, too, because as more arts channels

pop up, they’ll definitely pick up shorts. It’s gonna hit in Hong

Kong and Latin America also as more channels emerge. But Europe

is the strongest and is driving this at the moment."

Echoing that

sentiment is Nancy Walzog of New York ­based Tapestry International,

another foreign sales distributor of short films. "We’re finding

the half-hour format to be pretty viable overseas," she explains.

"There are a lot of loyal supporters (in foreign markets).

It went by the wayside domestically as cable companies felt the

need to use every possible minute between films to promote their

schedules with promos or free music videos. So why buy short films?

Domestic cable companies don’t need them."

Don’t tell

that to the people at Bravo, the Film and Arts Network, who have

long placed a primacy on acquiring shorts, and will soon feature

them with even greater regularity on their new Independent Film

Channel. Back in March the network held its first-ever "Independent

Spirit Weekend," brazenly running a program of 19 short films

directly opposite the Academy Awards ceremonies. The program enjoyed

surprising success.

"We believe

filmmaking is all-encompassing and transcends the studio system’s

product," remarks a Bravo spokesperson. "Independent filmmakers

are important people and (the short film) is an important art form.

It’s the part of our programming that is most original and diverse.

We look at filmmaking from a director’s point of view. If he or

she only needs 10 minutes to relate a message instead of two hours,

we want to facilitate that."

Alive with Possibilities

The gains short filmmakers have made

on the television front have not come easy, but as the poet J.G.

Holland put it, "There is no royal road to anything … that

which grows fast withers as rapidly; that which grows slowly endures."

PBS first began broadcasting short film

packages on its Alive TV program back in 1985. Based in Minneapolis/St.

Paul, the program has been the main constant showcase for short

form film and video ever since. American Playhouse, another

PBS series, also broadcasted short films on occasion during this

time.

Neil Sieling, executive producer of Alive

TV, explains how the roughly 200 short pieces his show has produced

made their way into the living rooms of the nearly two million viewers

watching each program: "We raise the money, produce or acquire

the pieces, assemble the packages and send them off to Washington,

where they’re sent out on satellite. Any one of 300-plus PBS stations

can then pull them down and run them whenever they want over a three-year

period as individual packages."

"The foundation of our series is

that it’s contemporary and unlike anything which is on regular TV.

We’re like an ice breaker giving people a taste of what is to cone."

The compilations being exhibited in theatrical

venues like the Fellini Theater are contributing greatly

to the overall increase in awareness and respect for the short film

format. Founder Doug Piburn feels the greatest obstacle he must

overcome is the ingrained hesitancy among theater bookers to purchasing

shorts, and the resistance – film critics have to reviewing them.

"These people are commercially oriented, and the nature of

short films, let’s face it, is non-commercial," he remarks.

Director Danny Glover and actress "Erika

Alexander in Override, part of Showtime’s "Directed

By…" series.

Piburn is trying to put together a non-profit

organization that would function as a financing mechanism for his

endeavor, which involves curating, exhibiting and distributing short

films. He envisions a member-supported arrangement rather than corporate

or NEA sponsorship, but seems open to all options. "In this

town there are people who really believe in the short film. Even

powerful people. I haven’t tapped into that crowd yet but

I think ultimately they may jibe with my whole mission, which is

to promote independent short film."

Down in the Trenches

With an expanding

network of organizations dedicated to furthering the cause of short

filmmakers on the local level, the overall revival is not likely

to lose momentum anytime soon. Here in Seattle, groups like 911

Media Arts, Scarecrow Video and Essential Cinema of Seattle are

tirelessly developing ways to cater to film and video artists at

the grassroots level. Essential Cinema president Robert Graves is

arranging pre­screenings of shorts related in some way to the silents

and early classics his organization is bringing to Seattle’s art

house cinemas. "This is for those who are reluctant to see

an entire program of short films," explains Graves. "It’s

a way of working people into shorts … by presenting them the way

they used to be presented, which was before features."

Scarecrow Video, meanwhile, is devoting a section of its store

to the works of experimental Northwest filmmakers. Assistant Manager

Sue Purton is compiling locally-produced shorts on videocassette

for public rental and eventual national distribution. "I don’t

think it’s a far-fetched idea," she says.

"There are very strong film communities

out there that we could reach through an existing distributor."

As Victor Hugo said, "No army can

withstand the strength of an idea whose time has conic." Or,

he night have added, an idea whose time has cone again.

Tom Allen is a screenwriter who studied English literature

at the University cf Notre Dame and film at New York University.

He has made three short films and lives in Seattle with his wife

and son.

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