The Short Story at Sundance

Watching 2,000 short films in four months isn’t something you take on in your free time. It requires a finely honed system. For Roberta Munroe, one of the Sundance Film Festival’s two short film programmers, that system resembles an assembly line of video playback equipment. Since 2001, Munroe has spent an enormous chunk of her time from August to November ensconced in her LA apartment, situated amidst a television on a wheeling cart, her DVD-enabled laptop, two DVD players (one all-region, one region 1), and two VCRs (one PAL, one NTSC). She fills each machine with a different festival submission, watches one after the other, and then repeats the process, sifting through thousands of diverse films in an effort to prepare for Sundance’s showcase of domestic and international shorts. Some days, this routine might last only six hours, other days—especially during the deadline-looming month of November—it can go on for 14 or more hours. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, along with fellow programmer Mike Plante, Munroe likely watches as many (if not more) short films in a given year than anyone else in the world.

Perhaps no film festival outside of France’s esteemed Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival lavishes as much attention and holds such a lofty industry position as Sundance’s annual Short Film Festival. Launched in 1982 as a component of the United States Film and Video Festival (which would merge in 1985 with Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute to become the Sundance Film Festival), the program started as a peripheral part of the overall festival but has nevertheless, over the past two decades, become one of the premier destinations for short films. Expanded to include international films, the festival has awarded two jury prizes since 2004 (for best American and international shorts), both of which are chosen from the 4,000-plus submissions sent to Sundance—and, specifically, to Munroe and Plante—each year from around the globe (roughly 25 percent come from locales outside the US). To put into perspective the phenomenal growth of the short film festival, submission numbers were closer to 2,000 per year as recently as 2001.

With regards to their moviewatching careers, Munroe often tells Plante, “I think that we’re kind of insane,” a sentiment that most people who hear about their colossal workload generally concur with. “Anybody we talk to outside of the programming world thinks that they’d shoot themselves in the head if they had to watch 2,000 short films.” Though she admits that slogging through such an overwhelming number of films can be daunting and, at times, exhausting, Munroe views her job not as a chore but as a rare opportunity to introduce exciting films and filmmakers to the world that, without a place like Sundance, might never receive such a chance. “What really drives me is the hope that the next film I watch is going to be a really good film and that we’re going to have another film to show up in Park City the likes of which has never been seen before,” she says.

Such optimism is the guiding force for both Munroe and Plante, who forged separate (but similar) paths to Sundance after years of filmmaking and festival work. A Toronto native with a lifelong passion for film (“It’s sort of a cliché, but film is just one of my greatest loves,” she says), Munroe started her festival career in the early ‘90s as co-director of the Inside/Out Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in Toronto. From there, she moved on to the Toronto International Film Festival and, in 1999 and 2000, worked as the administrative manager of the New York Film Festival and as a programmer of New York’s IFP Market. Offered a festival manager post at Outfest Los Angeles Lesbian Gay Film Festival in 2001, the self-described “East Coast girl” packed her bags for what she believed would be a six-month stint in sunny California. But shortly after Outfest finished, Munroe, Los Angeles’ who was also working on a variety of filmmaking projects, heard that Sundance senior programmer Trevor Groth was looking for someone to help out with the festival’s short films. One interview later, the post was hers.

And during her first year, it was all hers. “I literally did everything all by myself,” she says, recalling her inaugural festival. However, with submissions increasing a whopping 50 percent between the 2001 and 2002 festivals and Munroe admitting that, “I already sort of had tears of blood coming out of my eyes the first year,” it became clear that it was impossible for one person to handle the avalanche of shorts arriving on Sundance’s doorstep. Enter Plante. An aspiring filmmaker who’d cut his teeth working as a projectionist in Tucson, Plante found his way to Sundance after a gig at the Telluride Film Festival led him to Chapin Cutler, the technical director of both Sundance and Telluride. Cutler was looking for someone to work as the presentation manager—in essence, a “quality control of projection” job—at the Park City-based festival. Hired for the post, Plante spent his first year troubleshooting technical problems at the festival, acting as “the buffer between filmmaker and projectionist.” After helping program the 2002 CineVegas Film Festival with Groth, he was hired the following year to be Munroe’s short film programming partner.

Like Munroe, Plante started off as a budding filmmaker with a passion for the medium. “I always liked the idea of film festivals being this great [venue for] exposure,” he says, especially “since movie theaters have really sort of gone away besides those in mass malls and the arthouses in big cities.” His reasons for finding employment in the festival world, however, weren’t completely driven by a love of the cinema. “I needed a job,” he concedes with a chuckle. Upon joining Sundance, he was surprised to find an environment that confounded his expectations. “I anticipated everybody would be on power trips…but it was the exact opposite. Everybody was really cool and down to earth, and everybody knew a lot about film—not just film history, but what was going on today, what was going on in other countries, what was going on in the art film world. It was completely eye-opening.”

Programming together for the past three years, Munroe says that she and Plante consider themselves “essentially married” during the programming process, “even though I’m a lesbian and he has a girlfriend!” Nonetheless, the duo doesn’t sort through the pile of submissions all by themselves. A group of “consultants” (who are not official Sundance employees), are the first group of people to view the submissions, with each consultant watching and taking notes (called “coverage”) on anywhere from 100 to 700 tapes. Thus, each film has already been watched in its entirety and commented on critically before it’s viewed by one of the two programmers. “Then, if one of us thinks it’s even remotely worth showing, we’ll give it to the other person,” Plante explains. Once Plante and Munroe make it through their respective share of submissions, the two whittle the group down to around 200-250 films, which are then handed off to Groth—who, besides working as a feature film programmer, also collaborates with the two-person programming committee. From that group, the three debate and argue, and ultimately make a decision on which 80-90 films will be entered into competition.

With the exception of 20-25 films that annually screen in front of features, shorts are presented in one of eight programs: five for narrative films, one for documentaries, one for animation, and one (the “Frontier” program) for avant-garde and experimental works. Shorts are generally defined as films running under 50 minutes (for documentaries) and under 70 minutes (for features). However, as both programmers are quick to note, the majority of shorts that are selected for Sundance run 15 minutes or less. “Usually less,” Plante says. And unlike the feature festival, which often places a premium on high-profile premieres, no such demands are made of shorts—the only criteria for selection is quality. Given that submissions run the gamut in terms of production value and subject matter, the standards by which each short is judged are, as Plante admits, “pretty vague. Like a [feature-length] film, it’s just got to work for itself.”

Though a seemingly daunting mission, both programmers admit that narrowing down submissions isn’t as tough as it seems. “Most of them are just good films, and then there are the prize few that are just exceptional,” says Munroe. “And often they’re documentaries, because someone has gotten incredible access to an incredible subject, found an unbelievably talented editor, and made a beautiful documentary.” Figuring out which films make the grade, however, is made easier by the fact that so many are wholly unoriginal. Nonfiction films regularly concentrate on current events for their stories—the past few years’ hot topic being soldier stories involving GIs recently home from Iraq—and Munroe says that these shorts usually provide nothing that hasn’t already been seen ad nauseam on the national news. When it comes to fiction shorts, Munroe cites clichés and directorial plagiarism as the most frequent shortcomings, with rip-offs of current movies and popular directors (Wong Kar Wai and Wes Anderson are the most popular source material for current short filmmakers) a familiar attribute of submissions.

But even more so than those problems, Munroe says that short filmmakers’ most consistent failing is their lack of knowledge about what other types of films are being produced. “You need to be out there seeing what other people are making,” so as to avoid producing stuff that’s already been done, she urges. And, if you’re interested in actually being accepted by a festival, “you need to go on websites to find out what other festivals are programming.” Learning what types of shorts are being accepted into festival competitions is, she says, a shrewd means of developing a project. “Nobody cares about you and your buddies on a road trip to Vegas where you meet the Devil and have to make a decision between your soul and the million dollars on the table,” says Munroe, referencing a variation on one of many stories seen by the programmers each year. “It’s like [a shot of someone] drinking straight from a Jack Daniels bottle. Whoa! I haven’t seen that in, like, 15 minutes.”

Such shortcomings have become more glaring, in part, because of the sheer volume of shorts now inundating Sundance. Yet even though they wish it were the case, neither Munroe nor Plante believes that the escalating number of annual submissions means that short filmmaking has become more popular; rather, both attribute the situation to budding auteurs’ increased access to relatively low-cost, high-tech filmmaking tools. With every wannabe Scorsese able to make a short film with an off-the-shelf digital video camera, Final Cut Pro on their iMac, and many actors willing to work for peanuts, anybody who ever dreamed of making a film now can (and does). The result of this boom is that, “the quality of production has gotten better,” says Plante. “People have gotten smarter about shooting, smarter about sound. But it still comes down to the level of writing and editing—that’s what always seems to make the difference. That has not gotten better. Which makes sense, because some people are writers and editors, and some people are not.”

Once their programming duties are done, Munroe and Plante have nothing to do with choosing the competition’s winners and losers. Yet both are encouraged by the fact that shorts now experience an elongated lifespan after the festival is over. Most shorts still function as calling cards for future work; Munroe says that she thinks, “the number one thing short filmmakers are looking for at Sundance is finding an agent or manager.” And the Sundance Online Film Festival—begun in 2001 as a means of nurturing web-only productions—increasingly prolongs the life of these works (and helps them get seen by a wider audience) by providing directors with the option of offering their films, for free and with reasonably high video quality, on the Web. While roughly half of the filmmakers chose not to participate in the Online Festival in 2005 (likely for reasons involving the web’s technical limitations and their own desire to make money off of their movies), the added exposure for films via this online outlet can—along with the networking opportunities afforded by Sundance—greatly aid filmmakers in furthering their careers.

Ultimately, Munroe and Plante agree that their prime mandate is to help shine a spotlight on up-and-coming artists, and they handle each submission with the same attention and care that, were the roles reversed, they’d want their own films to receive. “You try to strike a nice balance between helping people out that are going to do something and showing shorts that will never have a life any other way, which is especially true of the avant-garde stuff,” says Plante. Because, as filmmakers, they know, “what it’s like to tough it out [making a movie] with $43 worth of Kraft service and all your friends working for free.” Munroe believes one of her chief duties is to give each and every film she watches considerable attention, care, and respect. “This is someone’s vision that I’m about to put into my DVD player, and hopefully I’m going to see that it was realized,” she says. “That’s an important thing, and as much as we joke about it, we take [that responsibility] very seriously.”

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