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Stream or Screen: Are Film Festivals Still Worth It for Short Films?

George Eldred and Laura Thielen (Photo courtesy of Karl Wolfgang)

Before the advent of streaming platforms, the festival circuit was practically the only option for distributing short form content. You’d ship your finished film off to Sundance and pray for that acceptance letter — and maybe even a feature deal made at the festival. But while some of today’s filmmakers still hold tight to that romantic ideal, others are capitalizing on the visibility and fan cultivation teased by the online sphere. They argue against festival submission fees and pricey DCP shipments and for the simplicity of an online premiere on Vimeo, YouTube, NoBudge, Fandor or another platform where audiences are not in the hundreds but, potentially, hundreds of thousands.

When notoriety and viewership can be achieved for free with a simple upload, does the festival circuit still hold value for filmmakers? Is a festival strategy an old-fashioned one as compared to an online run, or can the two work hand in hand? A number of short film festival programmers we spoke to had strong opinions about the subject.

Surprisingly, given his current position as senior manager, curation at Vimeo on Demand, Jeffrey Bowers, who previously programmed shorts for Rooftop Films and the Hamptons and Tribeca Film Festivals, argues for the continued worth of festivals. Online, he says, “exposure is still relative. Festivals are much more democratic, because if a short film is good and worth seeing, it will get programmed. When a film gets placed online to something like Vimeo or YouTube, there’s no established system to review content, and it’s easy and very possible for films to fall through the cracks.”

Unless there is a clear marketing plan in place, Bowers believes your short may end up being one of plenty of “great short films online that gets viewed only a few hundred times and sort of putter out, which is much less than a successful festival short film. Plus, when you’re screening for a festival like Sundance or Toronto, your audience is comprised of tastemakers and industry members, whose appreciation of your film could lead to a whole host of benefits from awards, representation, critical acclaim and more.”

Furthermore, say some festival programmers, festivals and online are not an either/or proposition. A handful of top-tier festivals welcomes submissions that are already available online. Landon Zakheim, who programs for Sundance, AFI FEST and LAFF, all of which accept films already posted online, speaks highly of the potentials of concurrent Internet distribution: “Short filmmakers need all the help they can get, and an online audience is often going to be the best place to get the work seen, generate a fan base or find new collaborators. Imposing a premiere requirement on short films does a disservice, cuts off opportunities for talented filmmakers and sacrifices the potential of your program.”

Mike Plante, senior programmer of short film at Sundance, agrees, arguing that shorts have no business being wrapped up in the guarded release strategy of feature films. “Shorts have had to follow this old, dusty business model that features live by,” he says. “It’s just silly. A feature has a lot tied up in its premiere and press, and that all leads to a release. Short films have film festivals as their theatrical release.”

Other programmers, however, draw a line in the sand. Laura Henneman, of Palm Springs ShortFest, stands by her festival’s belief that the Internet should be the final step in the process. “A short filmmaker has just as much need as a feature filmmaker for a conscious, purposeful strategy in distributing their film. Aim for a premiere at a festival you think will help your film, pick and choose other festivals to play from there, and finally, as the last step, put it online.”

Of the Tribeca Film Festival’s decision not to accept online work, Sharon Badal, head of shorts programming, emphasizes the need to “discover and nurture filmmakers.” “When it’s online,” she says, “we can’t introduce it.” So what makes Tribeca worth waiting for? “We know how important it is to a filmmaker’s career to launch their film at Tribeca,” Badal continues. “We show our shorts four times, so the exposure is there. We have private networking events just for the filmmakers to give them the opportunity to meet the industry and press. And following the festival, we want to know what they’re doing with their careers.” Often, as is the case with any festival, one-time shorts filmmakers will return in the ensuing years with a feature.

Badal continues by arguing for festivals’ fostering of human connection that is arguably absent in the online world. “I would rather be in a darkened auditorium and hear 400 people clapping,” she says, “than imagine people in their underwear.” Badal doesn’t reject the Internet as a shorts platform; rather, she views it as an alternative: “We accept two percent of the films that are submitted, and there has to be alternate routes for the ones we don’t accept. We can coexist peacefully with the Internet.”

But perhaps the festival vs. online opposition isn’t ultimately such a meaningful one since both platforms can value different sorts of content. Would a short like Whiplash, which won the Sundance Short Film Jury Prize in 2013, propel its director to the Oscars if it had dropped without fanfare on Vimeo one day? Similarly, would the latest viral video have caught as much fire on the festival circuit? The festival strategy was the right choice for director Damien Chazelle, but before filmmakers follow suit, they should have an understanding of the types of films festival programmers are — and aren’t — looking for.

One type of short Zakheim avers is the “calling card” short. “I’m not a fan of films that exclusively show off a filmmaker’s style at the expense of the overall quality of the short,” he says. “More often than not, you end up with a film that’s longer than it needs to be, with lots of production value and superficial storytelling. Large budgets and visual panache work great if they are in service of a story that requires such technique. But a unique script with great performers and limited resources has a better chance [of getting in] than superior filmmaking brought to a weak story.”

Similarly, Claudette Godfrey, short film programmer at SXSW, cautions against obvious proof-of-concept treatments for feature work: “There are many shorts that feel like the first 10 minutes of a feature that the filmmaker has written. Sometimes I’m drawn in, but when there’s no payoff and it’s apparent that it’s an incomplete piece of work, it makes me sad. Many talented people fall into this trap.”

What, then, makes a good festival short? Just as the criteria for a viral short can be rather amorphous, festival programmers don’t necessarily set out after a particular collection of attributes. “The ideal Sundance Film Festival short,” Plante says, “is one that achieves what it sets out to do.” In other words, he expects to be successfully immersed: “When I hit play on a film submission, I don’t know what I’m supposed to expect. I don’t even check how long it is, where it was filmed, or if a man or a woman made it. I have the same experience the audience will. How does the film set up the atmosphere? How does it tell a story or show a moment in time? What style does it use? These aspects all set up expectations for me as a viewer in the moment, and hopefully by the end it pays off in some way. If it surprises me, that’s fun, but it’s not necessary. If it’s a drama, then I hope to feel for the characters. If it’s a comedy, I hope to laugh. If it’s a documentary, I hope to see inside someone else’s world.”

Often it’s a festival’s identity that will shape the shorts chosen for its program. “My personal taste is irrelevant,” Badal says of her work with Tribeca. “We are programming for a New York audience, which is diverse, challenging, sometimes jaded and always inquisitive. We’re looking for the best films for them. For instance, I have a psychotic fear of clowns, but have programmed films about them. That is what makes a good programmer: the ability to separate personal taste from the audience.”

One aspect necessitated by festival curation as opposed to the Wild West of the Internet is a cohesive viewing experience, or, the arranging of selected films into a program. Laura Thielen and George Eldred, co-directors of Aspen Shortsfest, cite this part of the process as one of the more underestimated parts of the job. “Arranging a program, like editing a sequence into a coherent whole, requires considering the flow of each short’s subject, tone, style and genre,” they say. Further, “You want the program to make a statement while highlighting the unique qualities of each work.” The metaphor most often invoked in grouping the programs was “taking the audience on a journey,” with Badal commenting that she spends a great deal of time “curating how the shorts play emotionally.” She does not, however, go into the selection process with thematic trends in mind; rather, they reveal themselves along the way, “like piecing together a word in Scrabble.” In fact, if she is considering a handful of shorts that are too thematically similar, she will have to invoke “Sophie’s Choice,” and pare down the prevalence of, say, father-daughter narratives.

For Henneman, “thematic consistency is important, but so is contrast. Too much of one thing is numbing for an audience; it’s ideal when a shorts program is built around a unifying element like a theme and also achieves variety in tone, pacing and style.” Plante too aims for diversity when stringing together Sundance’s selections: “We might have something meaningful and poignant followed by a short that’s pure genre, and then the next one will be just quick and funny. Or a short that is 15 minutes of really smart laughs, and then a quick slice-of-life that resonates with you as you walk out.”

Longer shorts, with a 20-minute or more runtime, also stand a much better chance courting play on the festival circuit as opposed to the Internet, where attention spans are far more precious. Plante notes that this year’s Sundance had eight films over 20 minutes, and five more around 17 minutes. But, he notes, the competition for a Sundance slot gets tougher for a longer short that’s going to knock out two others in its place. “In general,” he says, “a shorter short usually pays off better, especially for fiction. Too often filmmakers try to cram a feature-length idea into a short, and it’s not satisfying. Longer documentaries often play great [because] you have the weight of a true story in it.” Godfrey has no bones about inviting the longer-form shorts so long as the length feels justified: “I’m looking for work that makes the most of the screen time. It’s hard to watch a well-produced long short and see where they could have cut it down to create a more powerful and interesting piece. Recognizing that is part of being a great filmmaker.” Badal, on the other hand, claims that “the ideal short is between 12 and 16 minutes, in that it gives you the most flexibility for programming. That said, I’ve never seen a short I didn’t think could be tighter.”

If there’s one thing almost all the programmers contest, it’s the common refrain that submissions don’t get watched, or that programmers only accept work through personal connections. In this respect, the curators invoke Bowers’ argument that the circuit is as democratic as any online audience. “In the 2015 program,” Plante says, “I didn’t know 40 out of the 60 directors. Part of the job is to discover talent, whether they are working in Los Angeles or Maine or on the edge of a lake in Poland or in a mine in Bolivia. And that’s really exciting to do every day at work.” At Sundance, 10 programmers cover the 8,000 shorts submissions, with Plante noting that he watches 1,200 shorts a year.

“Every time I hit play, I want to love your film,” Badal says. “The hardest part of the job for me is the rejections. I know how much time and sweat and heart has been put into each one of them. I respect each piece of work, and think most programmers would say that as well.”

Badal isn’t alone in her love of film and enthusiasm for the shorts form. Indeed, in a world in which high-profile narrative competition titles walk away with press and distribution deals, it’s the shorts programmers who are most often the champion of the new, undiscovered and, sometimes, the truly unmarketable. So, when considering whether to bypass the festival circuit with your short, realize that every time you submit to a festival, your work is viewed by an ardent lover of film, who is cognizant of the great effort filmmaking calls for. Can the same be said for online audiences?

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