Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Three Ideas to Save the Short Film from Obscurity (and Meaninglessness)

By Lars Trodson

Quick! Name the five most beloved short films in history.

Tasking myself with my own question, I came up with two: “The Red Balloon” and “Winnie The Pooh and the Blustery Day.” (If that’s even the right title.) I’m sure there are some revered avant garde films that I’m forgetting (the Bunuel/Dali film, Un Chien Andalou,” I suppose), but they are probably more respected than loved.

So. What is the state of the short film today? One could argue that it is thriving. In 2013, a record 8,102 short films were submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. The Cannes Film Festival has hosted, since 1998, its Cinéfondation, which is dedicated to short and medium length films and is designed to support the next generation of filmmakers.

Every film festival on the planet has a short film program, and of course there is a plethora of events dedicated exclusively to the art of short filmmaking. In the last decade or so, short film anthologies (Oscar winners, for example) have been issued on DVD, and there are uncountable numbers of obscure and well-known shorts available on YouTube and other online formats.

So why does it feel like short films don’t matter? Rarely does a short film enter the public discussion.

There is no question that short films can be beautiful, meaningful and thoughtful. They are also an opportunity for artists to express themselves at a reasonable cost, but the dispiriting issue is that, despite that reasonable cost, despite the many opportunities available to have a short film screened, the effort very rarely seems to yield fruit. How many verifiable stories are there out there of an unknown, wholly independent filmmaker (with no ties to the industry or to any major film festival) having their film accepted and who then goes on to a major, lasting career in Hollywood? I can think of none. If I’m wrong, then I stand corrected. (And again, I’m talking about completely unknown and disconnected filmmakers here, with no family ties or anything else to the industry.)

I think, with little effort, both the film industry and the film festival industry can change all that in three simple ways.

            Film festival programmers should start commingling short films with features. Two unrelated films with similar themes or tones can even be paired together in a smart way.  Create equal footing for the short film. Have audiences start getting used to the idea of seeing the two art forms together. It won’t take away from either category, and it may be a way to introduce a film or two to an audience that might not have gone out of their way to see a short film. Pairing a short film with the premier feature film event at your film festival will also go a long way to elevating its stature.

  1. Is there any real reason why short films need to be separated from features, other than one is deemed more important simply because of length?
  2.  I know this is a matter of economics, because no one wants to take away from the endless round of commercials that now appear before each feature in the movie theater, but some theater chains should at least entertain the notion of including a short film with the feature program. Keep the length of the short reasonable (under 10 minutes), so that audiences won’t get restless. But if the shorts that play with the feature are done well enough, are entertaining enough, then audiences may very well come to enjoy that aspect of the program. Also, it will give the next generation of filmmakers a real platform to have their work seen by large audiences.
  3.  Movie theaters are dominated by huge chains, but the local franchise has local management. Is there a way to allow filmmakers in any city or town submit short films to the management so that a short film can get the opportunity to be screened along with a major motion picture? I wouldn't recommend doing this for every showing, but perhaps once or twice during the run of a picture. Two things would happen: local filmmaker gets a career boost, and the theater would be packed (for that showing) with the filmmakers’ friends, families and fans. That’s a win-win. 

These, I think, are reasonable and doable, but it will require a change in the mindset of film festival programmers and some largesse on the part of theater chain owners. Otherwise, the short film will continue to drop not only into further obscurity. A different approach may also give filmmakers the feeling that their work is more highly valued than it seems to be in the current environment.