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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
(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."
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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."
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."
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
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
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
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