Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Don't shortchange the short!

Short films rock!! Plain and simple. And they rock for so many reasons that it infuriates me to hear people undervalue them. And trust me, they are almost always far undervalued. It surprises me that there is even a short film category at all at the Oscars - and that they actually televise it (which they don't do for the "technical" Oscars). Ironically, the short film category in the 2009 broadcast offered the most excitingly off-kilter moment of the whole telecast when producer Elinor Burkett desperately hijacked the spotlight from filmmaker Roger Ross Williams for the winning doc short "Music By Prudence".

Let's face it, mainstream film-goers rarely see shorts since they have long since been removed from commercial movie theater programs. So, if they don't catch them online, at festivals, on public television, or, occasionally, on a few cable networks, they may never see them. And, most often, when they do see shorts online (I mean real shorts, not clips of cats coughing up furballs), they are seeing comedic shorts that, although entertaining, rarely explore the full artistic potential of the short film.

And since there is very little institutional support for short films, there is little encouragement for audiences to seek them out. Unlike many nations abroad, our government - on the local, state or federal level - does not see the cultural value of filmmaking and therefore provides almost no financial support for it. There are no regional or national short film funds here to develop cinematic excellence and an audience's appetite for these films, as exists elsewhere. And there is very little philanthropic or foundational support (unless the film supports some broader social cause), either, because filmmaking in America, as a whole, is either deemed too commercial for arts support or not commercial enough for corporate support. American short filmmakers are largely left on their own to cobble together their short films and drum up audiences for them.

Film industry types have more opportunities to see short films than the mainstream public since filmmakers often use them as calling cards and send them to agents, managers, producers, production companies, studio execs, etc. But short films don't get much more respect in the industry universe - arguably even less, relative to how responsive the industry should be to short films. Short films are films. They are a different animal than feature films, NOT less of the same animal. They have their own intrinsic aesthetic and value. And they CAN BE MONETIZED, but after many years of lame attempts, the industry still seems to have no idea how to do it. Also, it is part of many industry professionals job to seek out new talent, and short films are the most accessible (the short length makes it easier to watch) and dynamic way to display a filmmaker's talent and potential. In some ways, even more dynamic than a feature film because you can take risks with a short film that you cannot always take with a feature film. But I know many filmmakers who've made not just one, but many beautiful, brilliant short films and still haven't gained any industry attention nor any professional opportunities.

Instead, industry types gravitate to any garbage that generates "buzz" or gets millions of hits on YouTube - then scratch their heads when the films and/or filmmakers they harvest from these dust-bowls turn out to be duds. And when newspapers like the L.A. Times publish an article like this one: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-shorts-20100509,0,3025079.story - which basically praises studio "opportunities" created by short films, it sends the wrong message to filmmakers and further demonstrates why the industry - and the media that covers it (especially the L.A. Times) - is so damned misguided/ignorant, arrogant and, frankly, dysfunctional. The film referenced in the article, "Panic Attack", is nothing more than a sequence from a big-budget CGI-heavy action film. Yet, because it garnered nearly six million hits on YouTube (and was done cost-effectively, I imagine), it scored a big $30m studio deal for the filmmakers. Not to begrudge the filmmakers. They are obviously very skilled at this sort of thing and I celebrate their good fortune. But frankly - and I hope the filmmakers themselves would admit this - there is almost zero story-telling in evidence (although some excellent editing) and very little original vision (beyond the monster/alien CGI work)

See for yourself:

If this trend continues, we can probably soon expect Paramount Pictures and their ilk to
offer the world fresh new cinematic masterpieces like "Cat Coughing Up Furball 2: This Time, It's Personal" armed with the dubious pedigree of 8 billion YouTube hits.

And the festival world is not too much better. Many festivals screen shorts, but they often treat the films and filmmakers like filmdom's ugly stepchild. Yes, you get to see your short in front of an audience, but rarely does a short filmmaker see any benefit beyond the screening. Of course, the screening is pretty awesome, but only when it is properly marketed. And short film Q&A's are almost always improperly managed. They typically show the whole program of shorts then make all the filmmakers stand up and take questions as if they all made one big film together. The first film in the program is a distant memory and any film that does not have popular appeal is usually not discussed at all (unless the filmmaker's friends offer comments/questions). They should screen a short, then have the filmmaker(s) come up and discuss it, then show another, then talk, then another, etc. This way each film is special and the screening itself feels like an event. And that's part of the problem, festival planners need to see shorts as event-worthy. Short filmmakers are almost never flown out to festivals and lodged as are feature filmmakers, no matter the size of a festival's budget (Savannah Film Festival is an awesome exception).

But now disrespect for the art of the short film is reaching into programming. Short film programs are more and more beginning to look like compilations of slicker versions of their YouTube cousins. Clever and/or snarky sketches often displace daring cinema. The jury award for best short film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival went to "Drunk History". What?!! That it was even programmed in competition is a big head-scratcher to me. With its celebrity-driven premise, it's not like it needs to the promotion. Therefore, a film that does need the promotion doesn't get it. Don't get me wrong, the "Drunk History" series is a very clever, funny series of "Funny Or Die" sketches. But the jury award for best short from the largest and most prestigious American independent film festival? What kind of message does that send to filmmakers in terms of encouraging them to strive for cinematic daring, ambition and excellence? I don't think I even need to answer that.

But perhaps the place where short films are most alarmingly undervalued is among filmmakers themselves. I rarely hear filmmakers discuss short films as stand-alone works of art/cinema. There is almost always an agenda attached: to gain attention for themselves, to raise interest in a feature film, to learn more about filmmaking, to use as a stepping stone to making larger commercial projects, to get into festivals, to meet the opposite sex, etc. Now, these are all great reasons to make a short film and I often use some of them to encourage people to get busy making films. But none of them alone - or even all of them put together - should be anything more than secondary goals. The first and foremost goal should be to make a great film and/or to challenge yourself creatively in the process - no matter what kind of film you are making: narrative, doc, animation, comedy, horror, thriller, art film, etc.....Only by taking this approach will your secondary goals ever stand a chance of being realized.

Some filmmakers avoid short films altogether or make them only with the sense that it is a necessary evil/task on the road to making a feature. They rob themselves of so many opportunities, but most importantly, from the joy of doing the very thing they are most passionate about. I made a feature film ten years ago called "The Dogwalker" and have done three short films since then - "Infidelity In Equal Parts", "Transaction" and "My Last Day On Earth". Not for any other reason than I wanted to make the best film I could make (and had the means to make).

Below: Logan Lozier and Daisy O'Bryan in "My Last Day On Earth"

And if you can't do a fully realized, fully budgeted short film, then conceive of something you can do inexpensively using cheap, but professional-quality filmmaking tools. However, take it equally seriously. The art is in the ideas, not in the cameras, set design, lighting and other toys/tools we too-often think is absolutely necessary. At Filmmakers Alliance, we encourage filmmakers to do what we call "sketchbooks". Sketchbooks are just small pieces you shoot with a few fellow filmmakers that you put together for no money - or as close to nothing as you can get. The idea is to keep the cost barrier so low that you have no excuse not to make them. If you are a filmmaker, you need to make films. And if you can't afford a polished short film, then make a sketchbook. Admittedly, FA sketchbooks are often YouTube-quality "workshop" pieces, but they are, nonetheless, intended to seriously explore meaningful ideas and cinematic techniques - allowing yourself to grow as a filmmaker along with giving yourself the pleasure of the filmmaking process.

But, most importantly, you are a filmmaker, no matter the length of the film. And success as a filmmaker lies in making films. Shorts are accessible because of their abbreviated length - and the lower costs associated with that shorter length. But the short film is also an art form unto itself - just as the short story is in comparison to a novel. And because of the short film's distinct nature, you can take all sorts of creative risks and fully explore the nature and texture of cinema in a way the cost and commercial demands of a feature film rarely allows. Short films are an amazing cinematic creative opportunity - one that should NEVER be shortchanged by filmmakers. Take your short films seriously if you ever hope for your life as a filmmaker to be taken seriously by others.

Here's a few places to see various great, interesting and/or entertaining shorts (and there's many more places if you just look around the net):

1 comment:

  1. Short essays on Short Films rock! Thanks for the reminder Jacques on the essential nature and potential of the "short" film. Just as Mr. Newman articulated in his song "short people got no reason to live", and Robert Altman took some "Short Cuts" to a bona fide feature length film, we should draw ourselves up short in our quick condemnation and judgment of mini masterpieces. Short changed, short, sharp, shocked songs, short people and short films are among the most maligned and abused of all forms of measurements. Big, Hefty, Lengthy, Extra Long and medium rare are just labels. Why do we drool over feature length when short and sweet are just as orgasmic, sometimes more so. The quickie and the mini should be embraced with all the fury of the epic and XX large. Thanks for directing our "status quo gaze" into the smaller realm of the short. Remember, each viewer was once only a foot long as a new born babe, and just as cuddly.
    P.S. - while composing this comment, a "short" very short film clip from "Taxi Driver" of crazy Robert De Niro clapping his hands enthusiastically for the Senator's speech was looping in the sidebar. With his wacky smile and Mohawk hairstyle enhancing his applause, I was a distracted witness to maybe a few thousand hand claps. Far out. All that applause for my short but creative comments.