Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Bringing Short Films to a Mailbox Near You: An Interview with Karl Mechem

The accessibility and diffusion of digital media has led to almost daily pronouncements about the “revolution” of art and expression. Blogs are changing journalism. YouTube is threatening television. Digital video is remaking film. However, technologies do not drive themselves, and, as matters of habit, most people still rely on television and radio for news, YouTube is more a supplement to, and not a replacement for, TV, and an Adam Sandler comedy is pretty much the same no matter what it’s shot on. The point here is not so much to deny the creative potential of new media, but to underscore that media, any media, are what we make them. One person who should be on any short list of people serious about realizing the transformative potential of digital media is Karl Mechem, publisher of the Journal of Short Film (the JSF).

Mechem is a Columbus, Ohio based documentary filmmaker. His has a M.A. in History from the University of Georgia where his major field of study was diplomatic history. His interests in history and international politics has informed his own film making, where he is close to completing a feature length documentary on poverty, globalization, and the Paris-to-Dakar Rally.

It was while shooting his documentary that Karl got the idea for the JSF. While in Africa, he came to the realization that even as film making has become more accessible for people, film distribution has remained pretty much the same: if you want to reach people, you need to sign on with a company that can get your work into theaters and, eventually, people’s homes. Anyone can burn a DVD or upload a video to a sharing service like YouTube, but drawing attention to your work is another issue entirely. The JSF offers film makers a way to differentiate their work from other the millions of possibilities now available and to get it delivered directly to a wide audience through the Journal’s institutional and individual subscribers.

The JSF works much like a literary journal, only instead of collecting stories, essays, and poetry into bound volumes, the Journal collects short films and releases them quarterly on DVD. Submissions are reviewed by the Journal’s editorial board, most of whom are filmmakers themselves or are drawn from institutions like the Columbus International Film Festival. Volume 5 of the Journal is being guest edited by New York-based visual artists Lucy Raven. Future volumes are also likely to be guest edited by well-known artists and filmmakers. The editorial board recommends selections for each issue and Mechem makes the final choices based on the board’s preferences. By employing an editorial review process that selects films for quality, creativity, and interest, the JSF is able to distinguish its offerings from the mass of products available online. By focusing on short film, the Journal employs new media for the sake of an old and marginal form, but one that is increasingly popular for aspiring artists thanks to digital video.

On August 8 of this year, the JSF held its first public screening at Columbus State Community College. The following week, Karl Mechem and I sat down for an online chat. We discussed the JSF, the future of short film, prospects for the DVD, the nature of film distribution, and the JSF’s first spin-off, the Journal of Political Film.

How was the screening?

It went very well! I couldn’t have been much happier. Eighty to ninety people showed up and were very receptive. I’m encouraged to hold more screenings.

That leads to one of the issues I wanted to discuss and that is getting the Journal screened. Is this important to you?

Well, the short answer is: not really. I want to have some screenings, but for promotion only. In fact, the JSF doesn’t have for-profit screening rights. But, I think it would help us to travel around to receptive cities to hold events. It might help generate press, too. In the long run, I think it’s totally legitimate to think about collections of short films (like the JSF) having runs in theaters like features–much like The Animation Show did a couple of years ago.

How do you work out copyright with film makers?

We keep the agreement very simple. The first clause states that the filmmakers keep the rights to their films. We don’t want to own anything. We ask for the one-time right to publish in the DVD journal. As for compensation, there is little. Filmmakers get a token amount, that’s it. The JSF is run more or less like a literary journal.

Do you think that film makers are more likely to submit their work because of your copyright policy or if you wanted to, could you assert more control over the works that appear in the JSF?

If I had to guess, I’d say 80% of the filmmakers would give up more rights than they have to with us, because they have so few options, otherwise. But (1) we don’t really want to have to make them do that, and (2) we wouldn’t want to miss out on what might be in the remaining 20%. Plus, when we started the JSF, it was a pretty new phenomenon, and some people were uneasy about it. More than one filmmaker thought it was a scam. That’s no longer a concern.

How wide ranging have the submissions been, both in terms of where the films are coming from and what kinds of films they are?

Super wide, thankfully! Submissions have come from about 10 countries. Probably 80% are from the U.S. Canada is #2, of course. They’re starting to come in more frequently from Europe. Volume 4 (Summer 2006) has five countries represented — US, Canada, UK, Spain (Basque Region), and Hungary. And the variety is incredibly diverse, too. We made it clear from the beginning that we accepted everything, and we’ve been happy to get a lot of different stuff. And it’s easy to see that we like it all — we publish a big variety in every volume.

I’m glad you mentioned “diversity”, because you’ve cited that as an important goal for the Journal. Are you concerned most with diversity in a social sense, or an artistic one? Or both?

I think it’s impossible to separate the two. I suppose my most immediate goal is to support diversity in art, with hopes that it will create or encourage diversity in society. I think the connection can most easily be seen in the documentary world. If we can support creativity and diversity in documentary film, perhaps that will show people that alternative ways of presenting information are possible. Then maybe that will lead to media reform and how the public receives and digests information. Then, perhaps we could see some reform in society, as well.

Encouraging short film in and of itself, whether documentary or otherwise, seems like a way of cultivating diversity in ways of seeing and representing the world. It isn’t a form that has a very far reach at the moment, even though the very first films were shorts.

Indeed! And what a ridiculous crime that short film is still so marginal. Short stories didn’t stay marginal for 100 fucking years! No, short stories quickly caught on as both art and entertainment. I think short stories did a lot for fiction over the next 100 years. So why is short film still marginal? I don’t entirely know, but I think it has most to do with the costs associated with making films and the stranglehold on film/video held by Hollywood, etc. But, those costs are now plummeting, so it’s increasingly ridiculous that short film isn’t more prevalent or popular. It deserves much better.

This in some ways gets us around to why you started the JSF, which, you’ve said elsewhere, was related to an epiphany you had about the gap between people’s ability to make films and their ability to distribute them. Could you elaborate on the genesis of the Journal?

Yeah, I was in the process of making my own film — something only possible with a sub-$1,000 digital camera — and I quickly learned that lots of other people were doing this, too. I was in West Africa, shooting interviews with villagers along the route of the Paris-Dakar Rally race, and, somewhere in Bamako (capital city of Mali), I came across another film maker doing the same thing with a camera even cheaper than mine.

I was learning that soon, if not now, people all over the world (almost everywhere) could be making their own films. And that is really promising for any lover of film, but also for someone obsessed with documentaries, like I am. It would kill me to miss out on the first-hand docs that might be made on the other side of the world just because Hollywood has deemed the short illegitimate and because no one has organized a distribution channel for it. Digital technology has revolutionized filmmaking, but not film distribution. I am no digital genius, but I know how easy it is to make a bloody DVD. The JSF is my attempt to bridge this gap.

Are you seeing mostly works shot on DV or are you also getting submissions that were shot on traditional film?

It’s hard to generalize. It’s mixed, mostly. The early submissions were on more established media, but that’s mostly because those filmmakers were tapped into the networks where I put out the call for submissions. A lot of the DV makers are not in those networks, just yet. But the awareness of the JSF is increasing, so we’re getting more DV stuff.

One of the questions I immediately had after discovering the Journal was, “why DVD”? To what extent did you deliberate about the format of the JSF or were you always thinking it would be DVD?

It’s the only format I think works. I wanted to create a film magazine (in effect), so it was either DVD or videotape (we seriously thought about videotape for about three minutes.) Anyway, I wanted a permanent home for short films, and DVD seemed the way to go. The current other alternative seems to be hosting short films on the Internet, and, while it’s better than nothing, it is far from permanent, and the delivery is much worse (in my mind) than a DVD. There are a million short films on the Internet and almost no way to consistently find good films. I wanted the JSF to have an editorial sensibility, like a good magazine or journal, that people could trust to give them collections they like.

Do you have any thoughts on what the ideal format for distribution might be? Let’s say that Internet delivery was of higher quality or more reliable, for example. Or do the advantages of DVD the ability to screen it in a variety ways being one, make it pretty close to the best format for your purposes?

The only other format that i think could potentially compete with the JSF‘s doesn’t exist quite yet. It is for (1) great short films to be hosted on the Internet, then (2) those films to be collected and juried somehow to ensure quality, then (3) those films to be downloaded to your DVR for permanent storage so you could watch them on your television. I don’t think any other distribution system, other than ours, gives the works the respect they deserve.

That said, the only superior distribution system I can think of is putting short films into movie theaters. Again, this was done recently with The Animation Show, but has not caught on. I think short film is as legitimate as feature-length film, so I see no reason why it doesn’t belong in theaters. Of course, a distributor would need them to be collected, somehow, to provide a 90-minute (or whatever)-length show.

But you’re not really interested in fighting the distribution fight for theatrical screenings?

No, I can’t imagine actually convincing distributors to do that, just yet. As the DVR technology becomes more common and easy to use, we might have to cross that bridge, too. I don’t even have a DVR, yet, and I’m really excited about the prospect of downloading videoblogs so I can watch them on my couch in the evening instead of at my desk. Surely it’s going to be very common in five years or so.

We’ve been discussing submission a lot, but haven’t touched on subscription. How have those been and who is subscribing (individuals, institutions, what parts of the world, etc.)?

Right now the subscription breakdown is probably two to one, individuals to institutions. However, I expect institutions to be a solid base of support for the Journal (they’re a bit slow to act). We’re still a little underground because we have spent almost nothing on marketing and haven’t reached any buzzing, viral status on the Internet, but we expect subscriptions to pick up. Our farthest subscription is in Taiwan, I think, but by far most of the sales are in the U.S.

Your next project is the Journal of Political Film (the JPF). What can you say about that at this point?

I’m dying to get the JPF into production, but it is still many months away. The JSF needs to get on a more firm foundation before we can get it going.

I really wanted the JPF to be up and running before the 2006 election season, but it’s not going to happen. I like the idea of filmmakers submitting a wide variety of political films to demonstrate that there are many ways to deliver political messages. The JPF won’t be partisan; it’ll just bring diversity to political communication that is sorely lacking.

Will it also be short films? And here I am also wondering what will qualify a film as “political.”

I haven’t thought about that definition in a long time. Not sure what to say. I’ll say this: for a long time “political” films in art-film circles have been mostly “personal” films — as in “the personal is political” — and I’d like to change that. Personal political films are still important, but the public really needs creative political films, too. I would like to present art that applies to public policy, etc. Sounds clunky, I know. Anyway, I think there is a startling lack of diversity in how people think about politics, and a lot of that is due to the limited vocabulary in which they ingest and discuss politics. The JPF would address that.

I think an argument can be made that people like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock are successful at what they do because they manage to give a personal voice to their subjects. For me, one of the biggest weaknesses of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was its lack of voice. The filmmakers did not stake a claim on the public policy questions. I may not have agreed with their choices, but I think the film would have been more important if they had. Having written all that, I agree that not all “personal” film is per se “political,” at least not in an immediate, addressing key issues of the day kind of a way.

Yes, I’d like to see us re-visit the traditional arena of politics: public issues. I totally agree with your points on Moore and Spurlock, but then, some people hate the personal interjections and the “voice” you talk about. I tend to like it — not believing in “objectivity,” anyway — but we can’t ignore that a huge percentage of the population hates it. I’m not talking about art, now; I’m talking more about how political issues get delivered to peoples’ heads and how they subsequently think about them.

I’d love to put a five-minute piece like something Michael Moore would produce and a five-minute piece on the same subject that Frederick Wiseman would produce and make people talk about it!

The difficulty is that, as with journalism, there is that dominant idea of objectivity. Mostly, that’s just a matter of style, the voice of God rather than the voice of an identifiable individual, but it is still powerful as a tool for disciplining dissent and political discussion in the media.

Totally right. And when I say that many people hate the interjections, that’s not even really true, either. They just hate it when they suspect that it’s coming from the other side.