Washington, D.C. is our nation’s capital, but next week it is also turning into the capital of film—short films, to be exact. DC Shorts Film Festival is celebrating their 10-year anniversary, and we’ve picked them for our Festival Spotlight this week.

DC Shorts

Starting on September 19, DC Shorts will be screening movies in six different locations around the city, as well as hosting numerous parties, free panels and a highly celebrated Screenplay Competition—all before its close on the 29th. Keeping in spirit with the cosmopolitan background of the city (and capitalizing on its abundance of foreign embassies), the 153 films this year have been sourced from 23 countries – including America’s largest collection of short films by Russian filmmakers. The festival has also, uniquely, developed a feedback system for filmmakers to receive firsthand commentary from reviewers about their submissions – perhaps one of the most truly useful innovations of any film festival on the circuit.

MovieMaker spoke to DC Shorts’ Media Liaison Laura Gross about what she hopes is their best incarnation yet. She explains their “Tapas Plate” approach to programming short films (you had us at “tapas”) as well as the festival’s plans to celebrate their decade anniversary. DC Shorts Film Festival begins next week, running from September 19-29.

MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The 2013 installment of the DC Shorts Film Festival marks its 10-year anniversary. Can you tell us a little about the history of the past 10 years of DC Shorts?

Laura Gross (LG): Filmmaker Jon Gann created DC Shorts as an celebration of cinema without the commercialism and big-name worship he encountered when presenting a short at over 40 festivals in the early 2000s. Jon came back from his year on the circuit and shaped a festival that would focus on filmmakers and films, hoping that sponsorship money and parties would follow—and that’s what happened. The first year, DC Shorts showed 33 films (from 78 entries) in a single day, in a single theater. This year, we are showcasing 153 films (from over 1,200 entries) over 11 days in six venues throughout the area. DC Shorts is now the largest short film event on the East Coast.

MM: What can festival attendees expect this year? How will the festival be celebrating 10 years of short film?

LG: As always, we strive to bring the best films from around the world. This year we will show films from 23 countries (we received submissions from 49) in every genre, style and length—from one minute to 25 minutes.

MM: What makes the DC Shorts film festival unique among film festivals?

LG: For our audience, we program in what we call the “Tapas Plate” approach: in a 90-minute screening, they see eight to 10 films from documentaries, comedies, dramas, animation, music videos, experimental, local films, and foreign films, all strung together in an emotional arc. Audiences laugh, cry, learn and are uplifted while experiencing something new every few minutes.

For filmmakers, we give feedback for every entry. We have developed a proprietary online system that allows our film reviewers to score and comment on the films. This information is sent to every filmmaker after decisions are made. It is a great window into why a film is or is not programmed. We have filmmakers who send their films to us every year just for the feedback.

MM: What the festival gain from being based in DC? How does the festival work with and represent the local community?

LG: DC is the center of world power—and we take advantage of that. We work with embassies and cultural attaches to find the best films from around the world. Every year, we focus on a single country, partnering with their embassy and major production studios. This year, we are showcasing the largest collection of short films by emerging Russian filmmakers to ever play in the United States—16 films from documentaries and comedies, to dramas, animation, and experimental. We are very proud of this work!

DC Shorts

MM: Your website highlights the festival’s focus on films and filmmakers rather than on money and sponsors. What does the festival do to encourage new filmmakers while addressing the needs of more established filmmakers?

LG: Our feedback program is one of the main reasons new filmmakers enter our competition. The unsolicited insights are worth far more than a $35 entry fee. We also reach out to our alums—filmmakers we’ve screened before and worked with in the past. Chances are if we loved your past work, our audiences would like to see more.

DC Shorts also has a screenplay competition unlike anyone else’s. Six finalists are selected (from over 150 entries). The writers come to DC, work with us to find and cast actors, and then perform a live table reading in front of an audience. The audience and a small jury decide the winner of a $2,000 prize to make the film and screen it in the following DC Shorts festival. Last year’s winner, Shenanigans, will make its world premiere at the festival.

MM: In your opinion, what does the DC Shorts Film Festival do better than any other film festival?

LG: We do so many things well: great hospitality, crystal-clear HD projection, a comprehensive and socially-geared web site, parties, and more. But the most important thing we do is help to connect filmmakers—connect them to an eager and enthusiastic audience that appreciates their work and with one another. The greatest compliment we receive is when a filmmaker calls to tell us that they will be working on their next project with someone they met at DC Shorts.

MM: What do you think has contributed to the success of DC Shorts? What about the festival has kept attendees coming back over the past ten years?

LG: As short film content has become more available online, the audiences who want to watch shorts has also increased. DC Shorts taps into an audience’s desire to see the newest and best—often the stuff that is unavailable on the net.

This year, we have expanded the DC Shorts Online Film Festival, a one-week online pass to watch over 120 films from the festival on any computer, tablet, or smartphone. This is a great opportunity for our fan base outside of Washington, D.C. to catch the films and for new and emerging filmmakers to see the types of films we, and other major festivals, are programming.

MM: What does the medium of short film accomplish, and how does the DC Shorts celebrate this medium?

LG: Everyone has sat through a 90-minute feature with a 10-minute plot. Short films cut to the heart of the matter. Like short stories, short films are to be appreciated as their own form—they are not feature-length films smashed into a few minutes, but fully-formed, well-written and beautifully told stories that only need a few moments to touch an audience.
Our mantra when reviewing submissions is “plot first.” Our audiences want to see great storytelling. It doesn’t matter what the SFX of the week is, or how cool the set is, or even what great A-list actor you convinced to work on the project. Filmmaking is, and always will be, visual storytelling. Without a plot, you have nothing to keep an audience interested.

The 2013 DC Shorts Film Festival runs from September 19-29. For more information about the fest, click here.

To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.