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A Day at the Sundance Shortslab

A few weeks ago I attended the third Sundance ShortsLab, a day-long event about short filmmaking organized and conducted by the folks from Sundance (primarily, from what I could see, from the festival side of the house.) Sundance has previously put on two other Shortslabs, one in LA and one in Chicago. This was their first event in New York, and those of us in attendance spent the day in an auditorium at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as a variety of speakers and panels unfolded, and several short films were shown.

The day started with Trevor Groth, Sundance’s director of programming, addressing the audience with an overview of the history of Sundance (the festival and the institute) and describing how they had determined to start running these ShortsLabs. Groth said that shorts are always important to Sundance, both as part of their programming blocks and, I gathered, because of the importance they play in the industry as both a proving ground for directors as well as an art form unto themselves.

Groth said that while he loves the “purity of shorts” and the “pure passion” they evince, that of the thousands of shorts submitted to Sundance each year, he and the other programmers were seeing many of the same pitfalls over and over again. Thus they were inspired to create Shortslabs events in which they could provide insight for short filmmakers about honing their crafts.

He also acknowledged that in this single day, with almost 200 people in attendance, that Sundance was reaching more people in one fell swoop than they do over several years of their narrative labs (which tend to take about ten writer/directors per year, though they have several other types of labs as well.) He said he felt that Sundance wanted to democratize the learning and outreach part of their mission and create a more accessible event (again, than the labs, which are extremely competitive to get into.) Entrance to the Shortslab event cost $150, and there was no application process.

The day’s panels were interspersed with short films, both within the panels themselves, as well as a handful of shorts that had played at the festival. These were selected for this day and introduced by different programmers, including details from the programmer as to why this film had made the Sundance cut.

The official breakdown of the day’s events can be seen here. While I took detailed notes on the panels from the perspective of both journalist and a filmmaker, and could likely do several pages on what each of the speakers said, I think the strongest takeaways that I can report on for those who missed the event or are considering going in the future would be my impressions as a filmmaker: what did filmmakers learn, and what could a filmmaker go home with from a Sundance-branded event that will shape his or her future films?

Herewith, my impressions of the panels and the panelists; whenever possible, I’ve hyperlinked to the films shown, and I recommend any aspiring filmmaker check them out.

The day began with a “Story” panel moderated by Scott Macaulay (editor of this publication), with Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson), discussing their Sundance Best Short Film award winner Gowanus, Brooklyn, which grew into Half Nelson; and Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), discussing her 1998 Best Short Snake Feed, which grew into her debut feature Down to the Bone. Both Gowanus, Brooklyn and Snake Feed were shown, and Scott led a very detailed Q & A session in which he asked about inspiration, production method, challenges, and what the directors learned.

Personally, I was surprised that both films, of which I had heard of but had not seen, were rather rough around the edges. They weren’t messy by any stretch, but I’ve seen dozens of shorts at festivals which are far slicker and more “technically proficient.”

And, as these films and their directors’ success might indicate, and to which I can ably attest, that rough aesthetic didn’t matter at all. Both films captured an extraordinary atmosphere, and were authentic and beautiful and heartbreakingly honest; they each took their time for small, intimate moments; they were character driven in the very best sense of the phrase, in that there was virtually no overarching driving plot force, but instead the arc, flow, and movement of the main characters was the driving (maybe even “guiding” would be better) force. They both had rather thin plots, but while that may sound like a mild criticism, it’s also just a nice way to say that they weren’t packed with a programmatic beat-beat-beat-payoff plot structure, but instead allowed the audience to invest in the characters and their lives.

Both films were wonderfully naturalistic (Granik discussed making short documentaries and the effect that had on her), and I wrote in my notes that both films seemed “found in the editing” and that the editing in many ways seemed like the heart of these films. I think what I meant, upon reflection, is that the pacing, the flow, the decisions made of what to include and what to show and where to rest (including, memorably, on a lizard in a pet store in Snake Feed) were integral to what made these films extraordinary.

This is important to point out because, reductive as it may seem to say again, it bears repeating: both of these films won Sundance, and their directors have gone on to make critically acclaimed features. The one word which rattled around my head as I watched these films and then listened to Debra, Anna, and Ryan discuss how they had come to be, was that they both clearly had a voice. Granik has a worldview, a tone, an approach to character and story and plot and setting; and that worldview, her voice, is eminently audible, as it were, in Snake Feed. The same is true of Boden and Fleck, and indeed, having seen several of these directors’ later films, that voice is still there.

If compelled to a simple takeaway of what it is that made these films stand out not just as Sundance short film award winners but so powerful that seven and 13 years later, Sundance is using them as examples of the kind of work that speaks to their sensibility, it would be the authentic, humanistic, immediate, and distinctive voice of the filmmakers. As a filmmaker sitting in that audience, it was a great experience to see these films and then listen to a really long, really in depth discussion about them.

I’ve previously heard each of these directors on a variety of podcasts and interviews discussing their features; but it was very valuable for me, having not yet made a feature, but having made shorts, to hear these directors get in the way-back machine and dissect their earlier works, how they were inspired and created and artistically led them forward. Scott asked a lot about story, in keeping with the stated theme of the panel, but for me, style, voice, and vision emerged as more valuable than narrative in learning from these filmmakers.

Following lunch, Sundance programmer Todd Luoto presented Nash Edgerton’s short film Spider, and discussed what it was that spoke to him about this film; namely that it didn’t bite off more than he could chew. The film accomplished its goal cleanly, intelligently, with wit, shock, and style. It’s worth noting that Edgerton has gone on to direct features, and that the credits feature David Michod (Animal Kingdom), Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom), and Spencer Susser (Hesher).

The “Production” section of the day was started by Yancy Strickler, one of the founders of Kickstarter. It was interesting to hear him speak about the history of Kickstarter, the analytics behind the site (about $70M total raised so far, currently pulling about $2M a week), and what, historically, works when someone is starting a Kickstarter campaign. He presented a trio of case studies, and provided a lot of advice — “approach this differently than anything else you do in your life; you are engaging people in your passion, not asking them to give you money.”

I always have some mild suspicion when a, for lack of a better word, businessman or corporate executive is on a panel discussing his or her business; but to Strickler’s credit, while it’s clear that he’s in love with Kickstarter, he made his presentation about what it takes to succeed if you’re going to use Kickstarter, not a pitch to use it. He also amused me when he said that for the five years that he and his partners were building Kickstarter before they launched, they woke up every day worrying that this was the day that three guys in San Francisco were going to launch the same thing.

Thereafter came Josh and Benny Safdie, who showed their short John’s Gone. This film didn’t speak to me with nearly as much clarity and passion as Snake Feed and Gowanus, Brooklyn, but it played at the Venice Film Festival and the brothers have made a number of critically acclaimed shorts and features. They essentially had a loose discussion about shooting in New York City, and I think they might have benefitted from having a moderator to steer them a bit, but in reviewing my notes, I can see that they definitely had some fun insights — “All films need to be criminals on a certain level”; regarding permits and/or rented monkeys, “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission”; “a movie can not be great if there is not the constant threat that everything can fall apart at any minute.”

They also said that making shorts is, for them, like going to the gym, though I think they acknowledged that they don’t really go to the gym; the metaphor was that a short is a workout. They also discussed limiting themselves to one meal a day to promote visual acuity, which may be good advice for them, but I’ve worked with DPs and gaffers who would eat my arm if I tried to feed them only once a day, so take that advice at your own risk.

Up next was a collaboration roundtable, made up of director Carter Smith (Bugcrush, a Sundance short film award winner), d.p. Reed Morano (Frozen River), and editor Alan Oxman (Storytelling, The Edit Center), in a panel discussion about how they collaborate with other departments, moderated by Trevor Groth. A lot of the discussion was geared towards collaboration on shorts; Smith said that putting a crew together for a short is the same as for a feature, in that he’s trying to build a family, but that on his feature, he got involved with his editor earlier, and was glad that he did.

Oxman said that he’s been involved in some films from the casting tape stage, watching them with the director as if they were dailies, and said that he likes editing while shooting is ongoing, so that he and the director can catch if there are any problems with focus, actors, coverage. He acknowledged that this might be hard with a short, as they are so often over so quickly, of course.

Morano was asked if there is any style that is more conducive to a short, and she said that she makes story, not the length, the priority in establishing a visual style, but of course, budget enters the discussion as well. She pointed out that handheld obviously moves more quickly, and also added that while it felt horrible to say this as a cinematographer, in a short the story and the cast are truly the most important elements, and it’s best to work with a DP who can meet the constraints of the picture’s size and scope; that is, beware the DP who just wants to use a jib or Steadicam, and make sure that the story dictates the need for a shot.

At that point, Groth pointed out that Sundance is certainly willing to forgive technical flaws for story and voice, which echoes what I took away from the first panel, but which was good to hear from the director of programming at Sundance as well, of course.

Both Smith and Morano discussed putting together visual references, be it a collection of stills or looks books so that the DP and director can be on the same page with the same visual language. Morano said that if there are going to be stunts or VFX, storyboarding is mandatory, but otherwise she’s not a fan of the storyboard, as she feels it boxes her in. She prefers participating in a blocking rehearsal with the director, whether on set or beforehand, and that in those moments the ideas can come up. Smith said that while a storyboard isn’t mandatory, a shot list is, so if you have to lose stuff, you know where you can cut (shots.)

Groth asked Oxman if he prefers doing his own first rough assembly, or being with the director for the entire first pass? He said that in his experience with Todd Solondz, he goes all the way to a fine cut first, and then Solondz leaves about 50 percent of it, and they rework the other 50 percent. What he was clear that he didn’t like, however, was a director who is also a “frame fucker” — sitting on his shoulder advising to make a take one frame longer or one frame shorter, and likened that instruction to giving an actor a line reading. He urged directors to speak to editors like actors, and say “I want to focus in on that moment” or discuss what his or her goals for the scene and moment are … he quoted Steven Soderbergh as saying that on a movie, there is a chain of command, but not a chain of respect.

Morano was asked about what style of communication works best for her, and she said that her priority is recognizing what the director needs — they all have different styles, and she feels it’s her job to be intuitive, and that some directors just want to hand off the camera to the DP, and that’s fine with her. Smith said that he likes to hand off the camera, so he can go work with the actors, and Morano said that the benefit of talking a lot with the director beforehand is establishing that connection and understanding early. She also said, and Oxman agreed for editors, that very often their job is like being a shrink to a director.

Smith gave good advice which I think probably resonated with most everyone in the room: make a film only if you feel so passionate that you are going to die if you don’t make this film, because if you don’t feel that, you should go find something else that you’re passionate about, because making a film is so hard. In addition to the fact that each of the speakers was entertaining and interesting, they each spoke about short filmmaking as a seriously professional endeavor, a tone of respect for the form that was present throughout the day. This was an inspiring panel for active filmmakers, and for someone just setting off on his or her first short, the roundtable with different key players was a great format for really feeling what collaboration means.

These guys were followed by entertainment attorney Jonathan Gray, a senior partner at Gray Krauss Des Rochers, LLP, who shared his own history (been going to Sundance since 93), and described what he does in the industry as an indie film entertainment attorney. He had no moderator and didn’t need one, as he was pretty much a born raconteur. He provided some sobering advice about copyrights, fair use, and shared the story of a short film which had a distribution deal lined up which fell through because of a Letterman clip playing in the background during a scene. The Letterman people were fine; the guest was Mr. Rogers, whose people were not fine with the scene, and the film couldn’t be distributed.

He advised working with production counsel who understands your needs — that is, who will know to fax a one page (instead of 25 page) location release to the set when trying to lock down an Iowa gas station; essentially, a lawyer should be there for the exigent circumstances that always arise. Thereafter his session devolved into a Q & A from the audience, with most audience members asking fairly specific legal questions about their own productions.

To his credit, Gray didn’t sidestep all the questions with “ask your own lawyer,” but tackled almost everything head on, frequently acknowledging that he’d need more information than what the questioner provided, but all in all, giving direct and straightforward legal advice for what seemed like well over half an hour to whoever was raising their hands. Given that most top-flight entertainment attorneys bill at hundreds per hour in quarter hour increments, the crowd got a couple hundred dollars worth of entertainment law advice.

Thereafter, Michael Sladek of SAGIndie discussed the benefits and ways of using SAG actors for a low or no-budget short film. He said that SAGIndie has monthly orientation meetings, and made it pretty clear that if you want to use a SAG actor — and in his opinion, you should —they’ll work with you to make it painless and easy.

Sundance programmer Katie Metcalfe then presented Emily Carmichael’s short The Hunter and the Swan Discuss Their Meeting, a sweet, beautiful, clever and fun film that nevertheless did not, according to Metcalfe, have the full backing of the entire Sundance programming staff. She chose to curate this film for the day’s events for just that reason, because while she liked and championed the film (and it is wonderful), several other programmers didn’t like the ending, and that there was a general consensus that the film could have been a little shorter. With that said, she used her affection for the film as a way to point out that a film doesn’t need to be perfect — she described Sundance’s tastes as “looking for something magic and original,” which Hunter and Swan definitely had. Again… voice and personal vision.

The “Distribution” section’s panel was a discussion between Bob Moczydlowsky of Topspin Media and Matt Dentler of Cinetic Rights Management. These guys balanced their conversation through a shared Powerpoint presentation, and engaged in a dense conversation about distribution for shorts in general, and what their companies do specifically. In short, Topspin is a fee-based suite which offers a variety of tools for self-release and direct-to-fan distribution; and Cinetic is a company which offers a variety of advisory services, including project sales, financing, distribution, and management.

The essential difference between the two seems to be that Topspin is a company which enables the artist to get his or her work out to fans on his/her own, with the support of Topspin’s software; and Cinetic is a company which works with clients to manage/sell/monetize/etc. their output. (According to their website, Cinetic is a Preferred iTunes Aggregator, but is not currently accepting submissions of short-film content.)

Moczydlowsky was animated and excited and is clearly a true believer in direct-to-fan; as he put it, filmmakers have always been told to avoid self distribution at all costs, but the web has totally changed that. For counterpoint, Dentler deadpanned that he only half-agrees. The point-counterpoint between these two guys was instructive, because Topspin offers a DIY environment for distribution, and Cinetic has a more traditional company-client approach to distro, while clearly being a company which recognizes that the distribution landscape has changed over the last many years, and that direct-to-fan and the attendant outreach required of a filmmaker are a huge part of the process.

As I review my notes, it looks like Moczydlowsky had us under a digital age revival tent: “Free content and distribution makes marketing very hard”; “make an amazing film, use software like Topspin or Facebook and the social web to CONNECT and GROW with your audience”; “Offer great products fans want to buy”; “As an artist developing fans you need to put something great in front of them in a timely manner”; “Build an audience, monetize core fans, look for partners”; “Direct to fan is the new self-release, which is the term music and publishing already use”; “Direct to fan for an emerging artist will be 100% of your generation and distribution, and as you get more successful revenue will increase…” He also pulled up the Topspin website on screen and walked us through front-end audience user experience as well as the back-end artist management suite.

But Dentler gently brought it down to earth and said that direct-to-fan “only gets you so far,” and that it is still incredibly difficult to monetize shorts; advised “do not make short films to make money”; and from his perspective at Cinetic, know that cast is very important if there is any monetization to be done for a short film. As most folks know, Dentler is also the former director of South by Southwest, and he said that what he looks for at Cinetic is diametrically opposed to what he looked for at SXSW.

These guys agreed as much as they mildly disagreed, and the best and most honest part of both of their comments were that especially for a short filmmaker, finding, nurturing, and supplying an audience is YOUR job. It was very easy to listen to Moczydlowsky and foresee a future — scratch that, see a present — in which any filmmaker can build all the audience he or she needs, but neither he nor Dentler ever let it get too far from the audience’s mind that the bulk of the work must still be done by the filmmaker.

This panel was very informative, and would have been good for anyone in post-production on a short whose current business plan only involves submitting to festivals. Moczydlowsky was clearly working on behalf of Topspin (all attendees received gift cards good for $150 of Topspin services), but his advice and zealotry were primarily for direct to fan, not just his company, which was refreshing and inspiring.

These guys were followed by a Programmers Panel featuring programmers from Sundance (Luoto, who moderated, and Metcalfe); Jake Perlin from BAMcinématek, Sharon Badal from Tribeca, and Mark-Elijah Rosenberg from Rooftop Films. Luoto asked a bunch of questions, and then pulled audience questions that had been written on scraps of paper out of a bag. As a filmmaker who has submitted to dozens of festivals, gotten in to a few and been rejected from many, it was very insightful to hear the actual decision makers themselves discuss what they do and how they do it.

I think there’s a pretty strong (and mistaken) feeling among the filmmaking community that not getting in to a festival is less about the quality of one’s own film and more about the lack of personal access to festival programmers. This panel was chance to get some hopefully honest answers about what really happens after you mail off your DVD and $50.

Luoto started with a great question that everyone always wonders about — how much of your festival is from submissions vs. curated? Badal (Tribeca) and Metcalfe (Sundance) both answered 90% submissions, 10% curated (BAMcinématek is a curated festival and doesn’t take submissions, and I didn’t catch Rooftop’s answer.) Luoto: do nice DVD cases, EPKs, and letters matter? To a person, the answer was resounding NO. Programmers don’t see it and it doesn’t matter.

Luoto asked another question that I think is darkly suspected about in the film-festival-submitting community: how much do you really watch of a film? Badal took the lead and answered honestly “As much as I need to,” meaning if she knows five minutes into a 15-minute film that it won’t be programmed, it goes off. Metcalfe agreed, and Rosenberg said that at Rooftop, it’s 100%.

How about knowing someone at the festival? Badal said knowing someone at Tribeca is zero help in terms of getting a film programmed, but it may get the film seen higher up the chain. Perlin said that it is valuable to make contact and build relationships at his festival, perhaps especially because while he said BAMcinématek would look at a film if sent in, they don’t have a submission policy and essentially just curate.

And finally, they ended with a lightning round of biggest short film cliches: adaptations of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”; film noir takeoffs; black-and-white films with something red; docs that begin with voiceover “I remember when…”; films opening with a quotation or a definition; films opening with the main character waking up.

The day’s official program wrapped with a final short curated by Sundance programmer Lisa Ogdie called Deeper Than Yesterday directed by Ariel Kleiman, which won the short jury prize at Sundance. Ogden pointed out that she liked this film because of its atmosphere, unique location, pacing, and deft direction. It was a claustrophobic story set on a Russian submarine, full of actors who truly looked like they could easily have been Russian submariners, who discover something floating in the water…

It was an interesting film to bookend the day after starting with Granik and Boden/Fleck’s films, because it was technically perfect, with production values to match a Hollywood film — yet it was another film more about mood, tone, and character than plot or narrative thrust; i.e., the director’s voice again seems to have been the main attraction for Sundance.

Midway through the day, Groth took the stage again to talk some more about why he and Sundance decided to start these ShortsLab events. He urged audience members to reach out to him, and said that Sundance wants to start an ongoing discussion with filmmakers about what they want and need. He said that Shortslab was in part a reaction to the high number of shorts that they were seeing being submitted, and the realization that beyond film school and their own labs, there is truly little in the way of instruction in filmmaking out there. He also said that seeing the same pitfalls over and over again (in watching thousands of shorts a year), with the same familiar trappings and cliches (film opens with main character’s alarm clock going off! Long opening credits!) made them want to showcase truly original films in a learning environment. He encouraged filmmakers to see as many films as possible, and not to mimic the successful ones, but to take inspiration.

With business over, it was time for networking and drinks. There was an open bar at the BAM lounge with three or four types of Brooklyn Brewery beers, audience members milling about, and many of the day’s speakers, including all of the aforementioned Sundance programmers. Personally, I had the chance not only to connect with Groth, Luoto, and Sundance staffer Charlie Reff, but also to meet several other filmmakers, which has since led to multiple e-mails, Facebook friending, and sharing films and scripts.

That’s a wrap on my rundown, and here’s my opinion on its value: tickets for the day cost $150. (Disclosure, I didn’t pay as I had a media pass through this magazine). And yes, I think it was worth it. I recommend a ShortsLab for any serious or aspiring short filmmaker. $150 isn’t cheap, but I think it’s not just a fair price, it’s a price that rightly assigns value to what is being offered.

I’m a big believer that when things are free or cheap they are often considered to be, well, not worth any money or cheap; when you put a price on it, especially a fairly high price, it separates the wheat from the chaff and makes sure that the people who showed up were serious about filmmaking and growing their careers. I know there are people who can’t afford this, and that doesn’t speak to their seriousness about pursuing filmmaking, but I think the price was fair, and if it was too steep for someone who wished he or she could have been there, I’d recommend to save for next year.

The day ran from 10 AM through about 7:30 in the auditorium (cocktail party afterwards) with maybe an hour for lunch; other than that, no breaks, which is another way of saying once the day got started, it was essentially packed wall to wall with virtually no downtime between panels.

This would have been valuable for any seriously aspiring beginner, but there was no time devoted to what camera to use, how to find crew, or the nuts and bolts of film production. The focus was truly on the section headings: story, collaboration, distribution, and programming. A brand new filmmaker could learn a lot, but this would be almost more valuable to someone with a short or two on his or her IMDb, looking to grow his/her filmmaking to the next level.

In short, there were six films, four moderated panels, four speakers, and all the beer one could drink while networking. (I might also point out that I took 16 handwritten pages of notes, and the bulk of advice, insight, and information shared by the speakers didn’t even make it into this article. That’s my way of saying there was a ton of information to be had and I’m sharing as best I can, but this is no substitute for going yourself.)

I was impressed by the way in which Sundance is looking to extend their brand and their outreach. I think Sundance stands, for many filmmakers, as a nearly mythic high peak of accomplishment; I myself have had the sense that if I could just get into Sundance, then I would really be “making it.” (I’ve had shorts rejected and made it as far as the second round for the screenwriting lab, but not all the way.) But in fact, this event demythologized Sundance a bit, and I think they were doing that consciously, to further establish their connection with both filmmakers and audiences.

I personally took note of the fact that Groth was at the event throughout the day; he is the director of programming for the festival, he lives in LA, and yet he emceed the whole day, and was at the afterparty, meeting and passing out his business card with his e-mail address on it to anyone he met. Likewise, the other programmers were at the party (and I know Luoto is also from L.A.), giving out cards and e-mails. The Sundance staff was working to make themselves accessible, and I both appreciate that and find it refreshing.

If a filmmaker were to complain that he or she doesn’t know anyone and that’s the reason his/her film isn’t getting programmed and/or that the festival circuit is rigged for insiders (none of which I agree with), the accessibility of the Sundance staff throughout the day would put the lie to that. Does getting Trevor Groth’s card guarantee that he personally will watch your film next year? Obviously not, and, as another programmer pointed out, he might not be the best person to watch your film — films have champions, and just because a programmer is higher on the food chain at his or her festival doesn’t make him/her the best choice to champion your particular film… which is another way of saying, submit and cross your fingers that whoever sees your film first falls in love with it and fights for it.

As may have been clear earlier, I really loved seeing Snake Feed and Gowanus, Brooklyn, and the pairing of those two films and the lengthy panel that followed really felt to me like the closest to a sense of Sundance’s “taste” that I could get — and it’s one that emphasizes voice, tone, and atmosphere. That, of course, is just my impression; there were about 175 people in attendance, which makes for many other impressions of what Sundance “likes.”

If you’ve gotten this far and want to know more about the ShortsLab, Todd Luoto wrote a (much shorter) wrap up piece for Sundance here. Likewise, Sundance is doing a Comedy ShortsLab in LA on Saturday, August 6th, and, as of this posting, registration is still open.

Beyond the extraordinary films and excellent panels, the inclusion of Strickler (Kickstarter), Moczydlowsky (Topspin), Dentler (Cinetic), and the other festival programmers also served as reminders that Sundance isn’t the be-all, end-all; there is a wide audience out there looking for great short films, and a variety of ways to make films, reach those audiences, and to establish one’s own voice. I think that may have been an unstated goal for Sundance in creating the Shortslab, and I’d say they succeeded.

(Photo: Trevor Groth, Carter Smith, Alan Oxman and Reed Morano at Sundance ShortsLAB NYC. Credit: Charles Eshelman.)

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