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Sundance and CineVegas programmer Mike Plante on what makes a good short film.

Left to Right: Martha Colburn's Skelahellavision; Kelly Reichardt's Ode; Jinoh Park's Request.

An alarm buzzer goes off. A man lying in bed stretches over to turn it off, grabbing the Jack Daniel’s off the nightstand. He takes a swig straight from the bottle. We realize that the man is a mime. Just as a gunshot is heard, a ninja jumps through the window and attacks him. Cut to black and a quote from a famous philosopher. The short film ends by revealing itself to be a mockumentary.

Working as a short-film programmer for the Sundance Film Festival and a programmer for CineVegas, I watch a good percentage of the approximately 3,500 to 4,000 short films produced in the U.S. every year. And although it’s impossible to define what makes a successful festival short, there are some fundamental rules that can increase the beginning filmmaker’s chances of success. The first? Avoid the above clichés.

Internet sites such as AtomFilms and IFILM still stream acquired films, but for many filmmakers, the main outlet for their short-form work remains film festivals. Festival programmers wade through thousands of entries to compile their programs, slotting shorts in their own program or, individually, as preludes to feature presentations. Shorts that play before a feature often fit with the theme of the longer film or simply establish a vibe for the audience.

How Short Is Short?

Length, of course, defines a short film, but a short’s running time can either help or hurt it in the eyes of programmers and audiences. A good but not great short that is less than five minutes can be programmed much easier than a good but not great 45-minute film. The latter basically has to beat out a number of shorter works to justify the program time taken up. The fact that James Brett’s Earthquake! (2002) is hilarious, with who-knows-where-from dolls freaking out in Tarzana, Calif., is why it has shown in many festivals. The fact that it is 90 seconds long hasn’t hurt it either.

A short film that’s an hour long faces an aesthetic challenge as well. It has to introduce characters and sustain plot in a different way than a feature. If it sets up too much, it becomes a failed feature. If it doesn’t do enough, it’s simply too long a short. Of course, there are always exceptions, such as Kelly Reichardt’s amazing Super 8mm wonder Ode (1999), at 50 minutes, and Christopher Münch’s The Hours and Times (1991), at 60 minutes. Both films accomplish the difficult task of introducing characters and making them whole, and they also fulfill perfectly calibrated storylines without leaving issues unfinished. Both also demonstrate the filmmaker’s talent for producing a solid longer film.

Profession: Filmmaker

One of the most common varieties of short film, the “calling card” or résumé short, isn’t necessarily programmable by a festival. It’s often a scene from a planned feature or an abbreviated rehash of whatever genre film was hot the year before. For a programmer interested in the short film as its own art form, it’s just not that interesting to watch a filmmaker demonstrate how well he or she can shoot gangsters walking down the street.

Glossy lighting, heavily produced sound, Steadicam shots and big casts are trademarks of mainstream feature films and, therefore, many filmmakers — particularly those looking to craft industry calling cards — strive for these values in their shorts. This sort of slickness, however, doesn’t guarantee instant success.

The dialogue and acting of Rawson Marshall Thurber’s genius — and defiantly “anti-slick” — Terry Tate, Office Linebacker (2001) will have you laughing longer than recent Chris Rock or Jack Black efforts. Though lit well, the short is almost all handheld, and the image quality looks like consumer video. Following the exploits of a football linebacker who attacks office workers when they make long-distance calls or don’t fill up the coffee (“You kill the joe, you make some more!”), the actors and story in Tate never let you sit and think about the production value.

It’s All about the Art

Although part of my job is to find new talent and showcase it to the film industry — and thus, despite my comments above, validate the “résumé quality” of a short film — there are shorts that are their own autonomous works of art. The films of Martha Colburn, for example, are amazing. Using found footage, they are a mix of insane collage and hand-painting. In Skelahellavision (2002), hardcore porn footage is slowed down, with skeletons painted over the flesh. Cats Amore (2002) and Spiders in Love (1999) have body parts from animals, insects and humans combined, freaking out to heavily constructed noise soundtracks. Will these get her a job at Disney? No. Is she an utterly original talent? Hell, yes.

So how can a filmmaker balance careerist dreams with artistic goals when making a short? Two filmmakers in particular have shown a knack for making personal art within the short-film format and have excited critics and the industry in the process.

Stefan Nadelman’s highly personal film Terminal Bar (2002) examines the New York City bar Nadelman’s grandfather owned for decades, through a series of photographs his father took while bartending. The family business is not a healthy one, yet the youngest Nadelman portrays it perfectly. His father’s photos are beautiful and telling, making up almost the entire film. As opposed to the popular but boring PBS style of telling a story through long takes of stills, Nadelman presents the images in a more animated and flowing style, with videotaped narration by his father telling the true stories behind the pictures. At 22 minutes the film actually feels like it could be longer, with more time spent on the photos and stories. It is essentially a small film but pushes what has been done before in traditional shorts.

Through his development of a particularly minimalist brand of narrative, Jinoh Park has made shorts that have scored with audiences, critics and those who track up-and-coming directing talent. Lunch and Request (both 2002) and Slowly Silently (2003) have both challenged audiences and gotten the filmmaker sponsored by the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinefondation to develop a feature film. Lunch is five minutes long and consists only of two shots of a homeless woman eating. The black-and-white photography is stark and heavy. The sound design evokes the perfect feel. What could easily just piss people off — two long takes, little explanation — not only provokes deep emotion but is realized in a technically proficient way. Silently ups the ante, running 18 minutes with about four shots. In Request, Park elaborates on his style, employing more shots to tell the unusual story of a young boy who wants to observe a mortician preparing his deceased mother.

Critics are fond of identifying themes among the films programmed at festivals, but the initial curating does not involve such analysis. As a festival programmer, I sit down with a giant stack of tapes, I watch a film, I write down what I think, I do it all again, and then I see what I have at the end of the process with two more seasoned programmers. If trends surface from what was submitted, we deal with them when packaging and grouping the programs. If there are numerous great short films made with a certain technical edge or if several shorts hail from a certain part of the world or champion a particular style of acting, then it must mean something. It is what filmmakers are doing in their communities and, for better or worse, that should be studied.

203 E. Ann St.,
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Deadline: Oct. 1 (early); Nov. 15; Dec. 10 (late)
Entry fee: $30 (early); $35; $40 (late)
Festival dates: Mar. 16­21, 2004
Phone: (734) 995-5356
Fax: (734) 995-5396
Web site:
Number of shorts submitted: 505
Number of shorts accepted: 112
6 place Michel-de-L'Hospital
63058 Clermont-Ferrand Cedex 1, France
Deadline: Oct. 17
Entry fee: No fee
Festival dates: Jan. 30­Feb. 7
Phone: (33 4) 7391-6573
Fax: (33 4) 7392-1193
Web site:
Number of shorts submitted: 3,590
Number of shorts accepted: 187
Aspen Filmfest
110 E. Hallam St., Ste. 102
Aspen, CO 81611
Deadline: Nov. 7; Dec.19 (late)
Entry fee: $35; $45 (late)
Festival dates: Mar. 31­Apr. 4, 2004
Phone: (970) 925-6882
Fax: (970) 925-1967
Web site:
Number of shorts submitted: 1,400+
Number of shorts accepted: 59
195 Chrystie St. #503
New York, NY 10002
Deadline: Nov. 15; Dec. 1 (late)
Entry fee: $30; $35 (late); waived for past festival participants
Festival dates: Mar. 10­16
Phone: (212) 614-2775
Fax: (212) 614-2776
Web site:
Number of shorts submitted: 1,400
Number of shorts accepted: 140
University of Texas at Austin
Dept. of Radio-TV-Film
1 University Station A0800
Austin, TX 78712-0108
Deadline: May 21; June 4 (late)
Entry fee: $30; $55 (late)
Festival dates: Sept. 22­26, 2004
Phone: (512) 471-6497
Fax: (512) 471-4077
Web site:
Number of shorts submitted: 800
Number of shorts accepted:130
601 W. 26th St. #1150
New York, NY 10001
Deadline: May 1; June 6 (late)
Entry fee: $20; $25 (late)
Festival dates: Sept.18­Dec. 7, 2004
Phone: (212) 320-3677
Fax: (212) 937-7134
Web site:
Number of shorts submitted: 1,300
Number of shorts accepted: 100
2290 Corporate Circle Dr., Ste. 110
Henderson, NV 89074
Deadline: April 9
Entry fee: $25
Festival dates: June 11-19, 2004
Phone: (702) 992-7979
Fax: (702) 898-5191
Web site:
Number of shorts submitted: 188
Number of shorts accepted: 42
Sundance Institute
8857 W. Olympic Blvd., Ste. 200
Beverly Hills, CA 90211-3605
Deadline: Sept. 12 for U.S.; Aug. 15 for international
Entry fee: $35; $25 before Aug. 1
Festival dates: Jan.15-25, 2004
Phone: (310) 360-1981
Fax: (310) 394-8353
Web site:
Number of shorts submitted: 3,345
Number of shorts accepted: 90


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