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Short Films Find New Life
by Bruce Coughran
Short films are getting something of a renaissance.
After the ashes of the Internet boom and bust, with its promise of
limitless wealth (although no one seemed to know where the revenue
would come from….and finally it did not come) came a dry period for
short films. The young internet seemed to need content, but it all
seemed to be without any revenue, or much else, coming back to the
filmmaker. Today some new distribution options are actually appearing.
Cable channels and DVD collections are actually getting some shorts out
to the viewing public.
Shorts are, of course, not new. Shorts
were the original “movies”. For the first decade and a half of its
history, the motion picture industry was built almost entirely on 15-30
minute movies (“One reelers” or “Two Reelers”). When feature length
movies appeared (after 1911), shorts were shown before the show, along
with newsreels. With the advent of television in the 1950s newsreels
disappeared and animated and live-action shorts were eventually
replaced by trailers for upcoming movies, and now, even advertising.
short films continue to be made. A classic preparation for upcoming and
student filmmakers, almost all working filmmakers have made a short at
one time or another. They are also made by established filmmakers
(particularly in Europe) between projects. Distribution opportunities
have come and gone, the latest craze being during the dot-com boom. But
shorts have never been a money-maker, with only rare exceptions.
a couple of years there was a whole new world of limitless
possibilities for short films to be delivered over the internet. Huge
parties and frenzied acquisition activity appeared at Sundance given by
the new internet short film distributors. But like the rest of the
dot-com craziness, the wild acquisition activity and the parties
dissolved with the crash (without a revenue model ever appearing). A
few films rode this wave and gained a lot of exposure, but the “new
market” for short films failed to appear. Many filmmakers found their
films going out on the internet, without much return, and other
opportunities being closed to them (some film festivals and awards,
including the Oscar for short film, disqualify the film if it has been
shown on the internet.)
Today there is a new wave of
distribution activity. Not as frenzied or high-talking as the dot-com
era, but perhaps more sustainable. No one seems to be talking about new
revenue from short films (except for the persistent promise of
distributing shorts over cell phones, which no one really seems to be
making money on, at least not yet.) But there are new ways of
distributing shorts, and a new wave of distributors attending the short
At the recent Palm Springs Short Film Festival
the quality of films exhibited seemed higher than in recent years. Palm
Spring, a juried competition festival, showed 333 films from 48
countries. As one of the Oscar-qualifying festivals, and with the only
large short film market in the US, Palm Springs has always drawn a
select group of short films from around the world.
favorites of the festival included the animated films “The Danish Poet”
(an animated short from Norway that charmed audiences), “Rabbit” (an
odd take off on a child’s nursery rhyme), and the computer-generated
‘One Rat Short” about the life of a city rat who stumbles into a
high-tech rat laboratory. The jury gave a special “High 5 to Low Tech”
award to the very simply animated “Angry Unpaid Hooker” (rumored to be
a favorite of the festival staff).
The live action shorts that
won awards included ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” a period piece about
teenage girls trying to fend off bordom in a small New-England town in
the 1980’s, “Bwak” from Norway, and “Aruba” from Canada. Sage Stallon’s
directorial debut “Vic” included a stand-out performance by veteran
actor Clu Gulager. Audience award winners included the musical “Zombie
Prom” and “Dark Night” from Israel.
The films at this year’s
festival seemed to be a bump up in quality from previous years. The
advent of easier production, available to many more people, has raised
the bar. And despite the trend toward lower production values in things
like reality TV, many more artists are able to find ways to make
quality short films, and apparently many are making good ones.
week after Palm Springs there was the larger LA Short Film Festival.
With over 600 films showing it is not as selective as Palm Springs, but
has the advantage of being in the industry-town of L.A. There are
several other large short film festivals around the world. Aspen in the
U.S., Sao Paulo in Brazil, Worldwide Short Film Festival in Canada,
Oberhausen and Hamburg in Germany, Clermont-Furrand in France, and
Short Shorts in Japan. In all there are over 100 Short Film Festivals
around the world.
Distribution opportunities for short films
have expanded dramatically in the last few years. The short film market
at Palm Springs was busy with buyers from public television and
overseas markets as well as a number of short film distributors.
panel on short film distribution included representatives from Big Film
Shorts and Apollo Cinema (who have been in business over 10 years)
along with the newly consolidated Shorts International and the new
Microcinema International. The later has rode the rise of Microcinema
distribution, which has become a viable source of distribution for
short films. Microcinemas in bars, coffee houses or meeting places show
short films. Some charge admission, others don’t but none of this
revenue goes back to the filmmakers. Also at the panel were Internet
distributors Atom Films and IFilm (the survivors from the dot-com
craze), who still show shorts over the internet.
But with or
without a revenue model, shorts continue to please audiences when they
get to see them. For some reason everyone loves the satisfaction of a
small package. And, like short stories are to novels, they are really
an art form unto themselves, although they live in the shadow of their
big brothers (novels and features). Maybe it is just the knowledge that
if you like it you will be pleased quickly, and if you don’t it will be
over soon. But audiences always do love short films. There have been
several attempts to bring shorts back to movie theaters, shown before
features. All the experiments have drawn enthusiastic responses from
audiences. The problem always seems to be how to pay for them.
has started attaching shorts to animated features (beginning with
“Geri’s Dream” released along with “A Bug’s Life” in 1998). And
Dreamworks Animation has done the same thing, releasing shorts with
their features. This has helped to bring short form back to the
attention of audiences. What used to be a staple of movie houses
(shorts before features) is being exposed to a new generation of
moviegoers. Perhaps these audiences, with their appetites wheted will
pressure the theaters to start including short subjects.
Shorts have found their most viable new life on cable channels.
Sundance, Showtime, IFC and other cable channels have shown shorts both
as filler and in shorts programs. PBS has a short film programs
(including ‘Short Cuts” and “Independent Lens”). And some cable
channels exclusively for short films are currently operating or in the
works. Canada’s Movieola Channel Zero is a shorts-only cable channel.
Comcast is launching a short-film only channel as part of their VOD
offerings, and other cable companies are looking at them as well.
has been much talk about the opportunities for distributing short films
over cell phones. As with the dot-com boom, this is really a
technological opportunity (the ability to show video on cell phones)
reaching for “content”. There is, again, no business model for paying
filmmakers, other than attaching ads to the films. There are companies
distributing these short ad-supported content for the cell phone
companies, but none of them were in evidence at Palm Springs Short Film
Executives in Hollywood are quietly starting to talk
about the future. A future without movie theaters, TV networks. Where
programming is delivered by the internet in some form, and direct
contact from audience to content generator is not mediated by the
powerful intermediaries of Movie Studios and TV networks. What this
future will look like, no one is really quite sure. But it seems clear
that personal delivery of “content” will increasingly be a personal
deliver rather than a collective presentation (on a movie screen or a
TV broadcast). It seems like short films are leading the way.
first distribution of feature films over the internet has started in
the last few months. These distributors learned much from the
experiences of those who have tried to distribute short films over the
internet since it became a force at the end of the century. As
technology continues to change the landscape, completing the transition
from the twentieth century to the twenty-first, short films will
undoubtedly find new ways to find their audiences. And this is a good
Short films will continue to be made, if for no other
reason than filmmakers want to make them. Audiences will continue to
enjoy them when they can see them. The changes in the distribution
landscape can’t help but facilitate the meeting of the two.
Long live the short film!
April 3, 2020