LOS ANGELES — When Barbara and Andres Muschietti, two television-commercial veterans with little movie-making experience, decided on a lark to make a short horror film last year, they didn’t exactly have a larger plan in mind. “We didn’t even have an outline,” says Barbara Muschietti. “We just wanted to do something scary.”
But a few months later, the Muschiettis, who work mainly in their native Spain, had done a lot more than that. With their short film “Mama,” a sparkplug of a tale about two children in a Gothic haunted house, the Muschiettis secured a deal from Universal Pictures to turn their short into a feature.
And they won the admiration of a Hollywood A-lister who has just a bit of name-recognition: Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Hellboy” and upcoming epic “The Hobbit,” who liked “Mama” so much he decided to join the project as a producer and even write a draft of the script.
To many movie fans, the mention of short films conjures some dusty notions. If the form registers at all, it’s as a film-festival afterthought or a quaint anachronism, a reminder of the moviegoing era of a half-century ago when the main theatrical event was sandwiched between cartoons, newsreels and other filler.
But to contemporary Hollywood, shorts are serious business — or at least a serious fad.
The massive success last year of the short-derived “District 9” — and the power of YouTube to spread word quickly — has transformed how Hollywood views these mini-movies.
“Studios and financiers have always said they’d like to see as much of the movie as they can, figuratively, before they develop it,” says the veteran Hollywood producer Douglas Wick, who has been behind mega-hits such as “Gladiator.” “With shorts, they literally can.”
In recent months, shorts from filmmaking neophytes have seized the imagination of some of the town’s biggest names, who see them as not just a calling card for new talent, as they previously did, but the basis for hot, multiplex-worthy material.
Sam Raimi’s production company was the envy of many in Hollywood last year when it outmaneuvered several players to acquire the feature rights to “Panic Attack,” an apocalyptic tale evoking “The War of the Worlds” from a Uruguayan unknown named Fede Alvarez. Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company optioned a science-fiction short from a Dutch physics student named Tim Smit called “What’s in the Box?” Top producers have expressed interest in turning “Alma” — a dark, impeccably executed short with Tim Burton overtones from an in-the-trenches Pixar employee named Rodrigo Blaas — into a big-budget animated feature. Patrick Jean’s “Pixels,” a playful ode to classic video games, is also attracting feature attention.
And over the last few weeks, heat has swirled around Ricardo de Montreuil’s “The Raven,” about a man pursued across a dystopian downtown Los Angeles, where the film was shot. “The Raven” is the most current example of a short gaining buzz in real time, as stars, producers and agents send links to one another with an air of conspiracy and discovery. It’s Hollywood’s version of scouting unassuming bar bands in the hope of discovering the next Rolling Stones.
The profit motive and creative template for nearly all these efforts stems from the short “Alive in Joburg.” Several years ago, no one had heard of the modest nine-minute science-fiction film or its rookie director, Neill Blomkamp. But under the tutelage of “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson, the short was honed and chiseled into “District 9” — which went on to become one of the biggest hits of 2009.
“A good short tells you that a filmmaker can handle a story, that he has vision and that he has the ability to convey emotion, which are all things we saw with Neill,” says Peter Schlessel, Sony’s president of worldwide affairs, who helped spearhead “District 9.” “You can never take something like that and build a business plan around it. But if it worked once, it could work again.”
Yet it’s more than just a lone hit that has so many Hollywood power players going shorts-mad. If graphic novels became the rage because they offered nervous studio executives a tangible representation of a story idea, shorts do graphic novels one better: They show how a finished film might actually look. And with traffic so easily measured, it can demonstrate an audience for a film.
Meanwhile, for the creators, the low barrier to making a short has had a democratizing effect.
“Animation is a producers’ medium. This is a way to take the reins back,” says Blaas, who should know about the difficulties of imprinting one’s vision on a film — he holds a day job at Pixar, where hundreds of animators work just to create a single frame. (Blaas took a five-month leave from the Disney-owned company to work on “Alma,” which he financed himself.).
Or, put another way, it means everyday Joes, with little more than a handheld camera and software they picked up at Best Buy, can win the lottery, landing six-figure development deals and going overnight from their basements to the corridors of Hollywood power .
Packed with homemade videos showing teenage karaoke and silly pet tricks, Web video has long had little relevance to serious filmmaking.
But these days, it’s being seen as a shortcut through the Hollywood system; a way to avoid the tortuous world of music videos and commercials.
It’s also no accident that many hot shorts directors come from abroad as filmmakers use the Web to shorten the distance between themselves, fans and executives. (Plus, insiders say, foreign sensibilities seem fresh to jaded Hollywood eyes.)
But as the trend has caught fire, some point out there are limits to what even a good short can prove. A five-minute movie, after all, is shorthand — not a well-paced, three-act story that all screenwriters turn out. And only certain film categories lend themselves to shorts; one could hardly lay out the building blocks of an emotional drama in a few minutes.
“With a genre movie, it’s about feeling and sensation,” admits Andres Muschietti. “I don’t know if a short works well for other types of movies.”
The shorts wave has also grown intense enough that it has provoked a backlash — in many ways before it even has had time to prove itself. The Hollywood Reporter ran a story last week proclaiming that the trend had already passed.
“Hollywood Feeling Shorts Fatigue,” the headline announced, even though no film from this new crop of shorts has gotten close to becoming a finished feature.
Like other Hollywood trends, this one will probably mint a few more overnight stars before it’s all over, as well as churn out a number of cut-rate copycats. “Shorts remind me of how Esquire used to put the image of a monkey typing on its cover to show how easy everyone thought it was to write a screenplay,” Wick says. “But it of course wasn’t that easy.” He pauses. “The idea of creating a good short is much easier than the actuality.”