The long view of short subjects; Mel the invader

SHORTS PEOPLE GOT NO REASON to live: Well, that dire pronouncement simply doesn’t take into account the incredible tenacity of the men and women who toil in the fields of one- and two-reel entertainment. A little over a year ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was about to deem that segment of the industry theatrically insignificant. The categories of live-action and documentary short subject were to be banished from the program. Boy, did it ever ge t a heated response. So much so that a decision on the ultimate fate of the two sections at the Oscars was postponed until further data could be gleaned. Word had it that round two would occur this month, but committee chair Saul Bass says the board won’t meet to sift through info and arrive at a Solomonic decision until January. The conundrum is that while thousands of shorts are made every year, they rarely show up at the local movie house or multiplex. Next month’s Sundance Film Fest will screen more than 50, largely U.S. made mini-features. The program committee had to weed through about 650 submissions to determine the screening list. So a lot of people are making these films, in spite of the theatrical “insignificance” of the field. “In addition to the diversity of content,” notes Sundance shorts programmer John Cooper, “the people making them are a very eclectic group.” Everyone from university students to movie stars are repped in the fest lineup. Among the budding auteurs are Rob Morrow, Peter Weller, Ethan Hawke and Daryl Hannah. Cooper is very clear about making sure the work from high-profile talent earns its berth. He wouldn’t mention some other famous names whose movies were among the 600 titles that didn’t make the cut. “It’s a distinct form with its own special regimen,” says doc and feature director George Hickenlooper. He made the darkly ironic “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade” with Molly Ringwald and Billy Bob Thornton, in between television and feature projects. It’s headed for Sundance. “You shouldn’t have to say ‘I’ll make shorts’ or ‘I’ll make features,’ ” notes Hickenlooper. “The work is distinct, just as the form is different doing a novel , a short story or an essay. It’s just a way of stretching different creative muscles.” The problem is getting a response for one’s effort. Festivals provide some feedback and there are a few theatrical venues that sporadically have shorts in front of the feature presentation. There’s even one local effort to secure a full-time venue screening nothing but short subjects. Later this month, there will be benefit screenings for the proposed Fellini Theater. The cycle for shorts may be on an upturn. Let’s face it, the money guys feel it’s wiser that fledgling filmmakers have hands-on experience prior to making a feature. Disney is making a bunch of vignettes with neophytes right now. Maybe some will find theatrical life as a result. But the prime buyer and screener in this country happens to be television. In Motion Picture Academy circles the two most dreaded letters in the world are T and V.

TOO SHORT TO BE A VIKING? He may not be anyone’s idea of a Nordic type, but Mel Gibson is top choice to star in Morgan Creek’s “The Northmen.” And just to prove its sincerity, the company has put a $ 12 million offer on the table. “He’s not supposed to be a Scandinavian,” notes writer/director John Milius. “He’s an English monk taken by the invaders who winds up joining their ranks. The guy out-Vikings these guys.” Milius doesn’t have an open field to Gibson but there maybe a convenient hole in the actor’s schedule in early 1994, when the saga is scheduled to film. Gibson, and a very select circle that includes Sean Connery and Daniel Day-Lewis, are among the few who are seriously considered when a period adventure crops up. For instance, he’s also top sea dog in the floundering Warner Bros. redo of “Captain Blood.” That project — with John McTiernan attached to direct — has been on rocky seas. Alec Baldwin’s also been considered but an aye from Mel would be a surefire green light. Gibson’s not oblivious to that ace. His Icon banner is developing the vintage “A Tale of Two Cities.” Though Terry Gilliam’s attached to direct, it isn’t far enough along to pose a threat to the other films vying for his favor.

TOO MANY OPTIONS! Likely Oscar contender (for “In the Line of Fire”) John Malkovich has been told the role is his if he wants it. The coveted part is the riven Jekyll and Hyde in “Mary Reilly” opposite Julia Roberts. Ironically, he may be too busy to take it on. Venturing into R.L. Stevenson land (word is he’d do Hyde sans makeup) definitely would mean that his more long-standing projects will have to be further delayed. It’s clear that Malkovich wants to expand his horizons into producing and directing. In addition to some stage prospects, he plans to produce and star in the psychological thriller “The Forget-Me-Knot.” He’d play a shrink who goes toe-to-toe with a presumed serial killer. On the directing front, he’s back on the boards developing Don DeLillo’s bestseller “Libra.” The presidential assassination yarn, owned by A&M Films, got sidetracked when “JFK” and “Ruby” went into production. The passage of time appears to have improved its commercial prospects.

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