The State of Short Films

Cinema was born as a short form. Most early films were mere seconds long. Throughout the history of celluloid, countless great filmmakers have worked in the short format, and in many cases it is the medium that gives film and video-makers their best shot at creative freedom.

One of my personal all-time favorite short films is Francois Truffaut’s Les Mistons (1958), which is a simple and beautiful film about a group of adolescent French boys whose frustrated, unrequited love for an unattainable young woman serves as the central point of their ascent into maturity. While the editing, story, and acting are all superb, what makes the film most effective is its unique voice and creative care.

As a filmmaker and the director of the Movieside Film Festival, the world’s largest short film festival, I have watched thousands of short films and videos. In the three years since its inception, Movieside has screened over 400 short films by filmmakers from all over the world and held over 40 screenings in theaters, museums, and schools across the country. And a number of these films have been amazing—films like Sarina Khan Reddy’s politically charged With Us or Against Us (2001), Nathan Pommer’s hilariously self-explanatory Don’t Trust Whitey (2003), Bryan Boyce’s brutally sardonic George W. Bush eye-opener State of the Union (2001), Christine Hart’s restless personal essay piece, Construction One: A Perfect Cheerleader (2001), Ray Harryhausen’s delightful puppet romp The Tortoise and the Hare (2002), and Matt Marsden’s creature-filled animation Small Green Scratches (2001).

But along with the good and great work comes a mountain of poor, mediocre, and lackluster pieces with the main purpose it seems, of acting as a foot in the door to the Hollywood palace. I consider these projects “business card” films or videos, and the problem with making these kinds of mini-Hollywood monsters is that they’re not even as bad as most major Hollywood monsters—they’re much worse.

When we first began the festival in June 2001, most of the submissions we received were shot on film, and 60 percent of those submissions were screened. But increasingly, as video becomes the primary production medium for shorts, that percentage has dropped dramatically. Even though more video-produced work means more overall submissions, unfortunately that also means more poorly made films. To be completely blunt, there are a lot of badly made videos out there.

Judging from the recent crop of videos we’ve received, it seems that a lot of budding directors are afraid of making interesting or different shorts for fear the film may not be liked, bought, or distributed. In the end, a shocking amount of current work serves up the zillionth portion of screaming men with guns facing off against one another—works that I am positive will go no further than the filmmaker’s personal DVD rack. In addition to rampant violence, many of these films feature blatant homophobia, misogyny, and racism. And they lack a sense of humor.

Even if your plan is to make bad Hollywood movies, couldn’t you at least make a couple of good short films before you get there? Give yourself something to glance at occasionally on the fancy marble shelf after the millions have poured in and your tax shelters are firmly intact? This will act as a way to set the old mental embers tumbling back to a past when you wanted to do something worthwhile with film.

Make the movie that you want to make, regardless of what the audience might think, and your chances of being noticed will be 100 times better. If David Lynch had made his early film The Alphabet (1968) with a Hollywood audience in mind, it would not be the intense, horrific master short we know and love. For many established feature filmmakers, their short films are their greatest triumphs. Only John Waters’s trashy exploitation short The Diane Linkletter Story (1969) could logically lead to the sweet filth of Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972). Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World (2000) and Odilon Redon (1995) are renowned for their beauty and ingenuity. Todd Haynes would not have breathed life into Far From Heaven (2002) if he had not first made the tragic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), and then followed it with Poison (1991). Jane Campion’s gripping family malfunction short Peel (1982) would lead us to the even more twisted Sweetie (1989). All of these short films have the same integral ingredients in common: passion, great stories, and humor.

Movieside has always received a broad range of submissions in terms of content, but one particular constant is that we get films that would be so much better if they were shorter by half or two thirds their submission length. Short films are called short films for a reason. This is a concern echoed by programmers all over the world—we’ve all had to pass on films because the length inhibited its potential.

When our festival began three years ago, many short-filmmakers saw the internet as a mystical money-making rainbow where they could dash off to, armed with an empty briefcase to stuff money into after someone bought their projects and billions of viewers logged on to screen the goods. As a programmer/ curator, I rarely visit sites to check out videos. A good number of people continue to ask me whether they should put their films on the net. And I say, the days of people making money from showing their shorts on the web (and very few did actually make money) are completely over. It can’t hurt to have your work posted around, just don’t sign any exclusive agreements that restrict the screening of your work (keeping it out of festivals or venues), unless you’re comfortable with what is being offered in return. Many festivals are very particular about where your work has screened, so do your homework on the subject.

For some short filmmakers, the emergence of microcinemas has eclipsed the “prestige” festivals like Sundance, Slamdance, Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto, because sending short films to these festivals can seem so hopeless—filmmakers feel that their work will be a grain of sand on the beach of tapes. Whereas microcinemas—like Balagan, Ice Capades, Independent Exposure, Microcinefest, 20,000 Leagues Under the Industry, The Inflatable Duck Film Festival, Flicker, Shock-O-Rama and thousands of others are popping up around the world—require only a light submission fee of about $10, or no entry fee at all, and you’re good to go.

A major plus to these programs is the accessibility, friendliness, and ease with which organizers can be contacted. Many offer rewards in the form of certificates, cash prizes, or even your initials made out of pancakes (Hi Mom! Film Festival). But it’s the appreciative audiences at these smaller venues/festivals that serve as the real reward. People who come to these theaters, store fronts, loft spaces, and warehouses are often only charged as little as $5 (or what you can afford) and are truly there to see the films—not to ogle the red carpet pageantrys or catch a glimpse of a famous person. Microcinemas are one of the best things to happen to independent filmmakers and festivals in a long time.

In recent years, I’ve noticed a massive push among short-filmmakers to grab hold of the punk-inspired, do-it-yourself aesthetic—many are pushing festivals to the wayside completely and holding personal screenings at bars, clubs, galleries, apartments, parking lots, and anywhere else you can fix an image. I’ve been to a number of these events and there is often an air of excitement and relief that the work has finally gone public. Video projectors are becoming more affordable, and used 16mm projectors are so cheap you’d think someone left them on the sidewalk. We’re getting to the point where every short-filmmaker will have a screening somewhere, which is as it should be. Their films are made to be seen.

*Special thanks to Leah Pietrusiak.

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