Back in the summer of 1956, when an 18-year-old student from northeast England borrowed a Bolex camera to capture his kid brother cycling around their home town of Hartlepool, he can’t have imagined that people would still be watching the resulting short film 50 years later.
Ridley Scott‘s debut “Boy and Bicycle,” starring his brother Tony, is one of the gems unearthed by Cinema16, a DVD series of classic and award-winning shorts that launches in the U.S. this September.
Cinema16 is the brainchild of a young British producer, Luke Morris, who has already released three editions in Europe and the Far East, passing $1 million in sales. He has pulled off the extremely rare trick of presenting shorts in a package that some people — albeit a niche audience of cineastes and film students — are willing to pay for.
Morris hit on the winning formula of digging up the youthful efforts of famous auteurs, and showcasing them alongside the best recent prizewinners. With commentaries from each director, Cinema16 offers an intriguing insight into early experiments and formative influences, while making a beguiling case for short filmmaking as an art in its own right.
Morris has himself produced two BAFTA-nominated shorts by Brit director Toby McDonald. One of these, a New Wave pastiche titled “Je t’aime John Wayne,” appears both on the original C16 collection, and on the upcoming version to be released in the States.
“The early work of these established people shines a light on the work of these younger filmmakers,” Morris says. “It shows that everyone starts from the same place, like Ridley Scott, with no money and a borrowed camera.”
The first three discs were dedicated successively to British, European and American talent. The Stateside edition contains the highlights from the British and European collections — Scott’s “Boy and Bicycle,” of course, along with shorts by the likes of Christopher Nolan, Nanni Moretti and Lars Von Trier — spiced up with new work, including Oscar winners “Six Shooter” by Martin McDonagh and “Wasp” by Andrea Arnold.
It’s a labor of love for Morris, who handles the worldwide distribution himself. Getting the rights to the shorts can be no simple matter, even though the directors themselves are usually enthusiastic.
For an upcoming disc devoted to world cinema, Brazilian helmer Fernando Mereilles has been banging for a year on the door of broadcaster Globo to try to get the rights back to one of his early works so that Morris can include it in the collection, but without success. The bigger the corporation that owns the rights, the harder is generally is to get their attention over something that has no financial value to them.
“Getting Tim Burton‘s short from Disney took a while, but we did it in the end, and it was great that Burton was so supportive,” Morris says.
Several directors, such as Todd Solondz, Alexander Payne and Alfonso Cuaron, have personally remastered and even recut their shorts for the series. Only a few have been reluctant to participate. “There are two types of directors: Those who appreciate how important shorts culture is, and recognize how useful it is to let young filmmakers see their work — and those who don’t,” Morris notes.
“Sometimes directors are horribly embarrassed by their earlier efforts. I would love to have some Almodovar in there. He made a bunch of Super16 shorts, but he’s not going to let everyone see them.”
Morris is hopeful that the Cinema16 concept will find a ready audience among America’s cinephiles. “Some would say I’m aiming at a double niche — not just shorts, but European shorts, some of them subtitled,” he laughs. “But I think that if the critics watch it, they will get behind it.”
He believes Americans are starved of good shorts by the “calling card” culture that exists at many U.S. film schools, which results in less ground-breaking work. “There isn’t as vibrant a short film culture in the States because of the way they train their filmmakers,” he comments
“But the directors I think are most interesting all came up through short films. I don’t think they would have found their way through TV or commercials or pop promos.”
And in this age of YouTube, when directing your own movie has become a democratic right, Morris argues there’s all the more need for a project that wades through the glut and “showcases the best of the best.”