Like Rodney Dangerfield, short films get no respect

[24 February 2008]

By John Anderson

Newsday (MCT)

If someone mentions “short film makers” do you look down?

You’re not alone: Misunderstanding and a certain lack of respect have plagued the makers of short films throughout the history of the Academy Awards, never mind that the all-time shorts champ is Walt Disney. In fact, shorts are the not-so-ugly little secret of the film industry as a whole: They may be shorter, but they’re often better.

“I still remember a 1994 short, `The Coriolis Effect,’ that completely changed my perception of visual storytelling,” said Kathleen McInnis, film curator and special projects coordinator for the Palm Springs Shorts Film Festival. “A short film did that. Film can be art, art is meant to be shared, and short films should be passed around with abandon, in my opinion, being shared on a global scale as often as possible.”

It doesn’t hurt circulation if they win an Oscar. Or just get nominated: Magnolia Pictures has, for the third year, theatrically released two programs of the nominated short films, live-action and animated, in collaboration with Shorts International. In New York, the shorts are currently playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan, as well as being available on iTunes. It’s the kind of exposure the shorts seldom get and gives Oscar show watchers a chance to grasp the depth and richness of the shorts field - and maybe better their chances in the Oscar pool.

“The shorts had been theatrically distributed in the past by other companies, but always well after the fact and not hitting all the major markets,” said Magnolia’s Eamonn Bowles. “Our head of acquisitions, Tom Quinn, spearheaded the drive to get them released before the awards show, while they were fresh and the winner hadn’t been announced yet.”

This means, of course, having only a three-week window between nominations and awards to negotiate deals with 10 individual filmmakers, get the film materials delivered and put into formats that would be compatible for theatrical play. It’s a crazy drill to just get them on screen in time, Bowles said.

But New York filmgoers have stepped up to see them. Bowles says that the program’s grosses increase dramatically from year to year. “These films are a breeding ground for talent and this is one of the most important forums for drawing attention to that talent.” He pointed out that directors from the past two years’ live action winners currently have feature films in the marketplace (Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges” and Ari Sandel’s “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Tour”). “They are made by people because they want or need to make a film, which is where the best work always comes from.”

“Since most filmmakers are aiming for a career in the commercial filmmaking world,” said McInnis, “their short films might be the first, last and even only place to hear their truly unique, individual filmmaker voices.”

Jon Bloom, an Oscar-winning shorts director (“Overnight Sensation”, 1983) is chair of the Short Film and Feature Animation branch of the Academy - and also, he said, a “supporter and defender” of a format that has occasionally needed both.

“Over the years, there have been movements to limit the shorts, to take them off the main show,” said Bloom. “But I’m very grateful to see the traction shorts have been getting, the increased opportunity to see them and their acceptance by new technology.”

There are two ways for a short film to qualify for the Oscars, Bloom said: “four-walling” (renting) a theater for a minimum three-day run in Los Angeles County, and screening at least twice a day. Or by winning the best short film prize at one of the 60-plus film festivals Oscar recognizes.

There are literally hundreds of short film festivals worldwide. There are nearly 3,000 film festivals that also play shorts as part of their line up worldwide. There were more than 5,000 short films submitted to Sundance this year. Yet, the average audience sees less than a handful of short films each year, and then it’s usually only by chance. Oscar may provide an avenue for only a handful of these movies, but it’s one of the larger things he does.

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