Short film directors win in the long run

People make shorts for all sorts of reasons, but money is seldom ever one of them. “I don’t think there’s any financial hope for any short film since the beginning of time,” says Alan Smith, one half of the directing duo behind “This Way Up.”

This is the story of two short films, how they came to be made and what will happen if either one should come to be Oscar-nominated.

Small packages

Chris Jones made a short nearly 20 years ago. He was right out of film school, audiences loved it and more work followed. But his biggest hit wasn’t a film at all, but a how-to guide called “The Guerilla Filmmaker’s Handbook” that became so successful, Jones found himself publishing follow-ups instead of pursuing his intended profession.

“Basically, I needed to make something to get myself back in the film world,” Jones says. He also wanted to prove all those principles about how to make a movie that he’d championed in the book, so he set his goals “impossibly high”: Make a short so good, it would win an Oscar.

Jones shared his vision with potential investors, collecting at least £50 from nearly 200 people to make “Gone Fishing.” In return, the donors received an associate producer credit and a ticket to the premiere.

Taking a page from his book, Jones explains: “People always say, ‘I haven’t got any money, so how can I do it?’ The money will find you. Whatever you do, it has to be worthy of the money.”

Shorts qualify for Oscar consideration in one of three ways: By booking a theatrical run in Los Angeles, by winning a student Academy Award or by winning a prize from the Acad’s preapproved list of festival accolades.

Jones’ short, a 13-minute tale about a big fish garnished with some genuine emotional moments, proved its worth at its first festival engagement, winning best short honors at the Rhode Island Intl. Film Festival.

Though hardly the only measure of success, an Oscar nom would validate Jones’ “investors” (none of whom expected a penny in return but bought in to a shared dream), re-establish his directing career and “open a window into a huge distribution opportunity,” he says.

Toon contender

Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes have enjoyed no shortage of work since graduating from the Royal College of Art’s animation program in 1997, though their talents have thus far been limited to commercials. Then Mike Judge called, asking them to make a short for his “The Animation Show” omnibus.

“With short films, no matter what discipline you work in, there’s always a lot of pressure that it has to be the best thing you’ve ever made,” Smith says. “With this, we just decided to start from scratch, write a quite simple, honest idea and see where it went.”

Through their Nexus Prods. , Smith and Foulkes have experimented with everything from simple Flash animation to complex CGI to puppets. On “This Way Up,” they opted for a mix of 3-D computer-generated characters with painterly backgrounds for the story of a father-son undertaker team saddled with a particularly tricky corpse.

They presented the idea to the BBC and French funding body Arcadi, earning additional funds to finish the project.

“The hardest part was really to find the time to fit it all in,” explains Smith, who turned down several jobs to finish the project.

Smith and Foulkes were excited to attempt narrative beyond the 60-second format, but careful not to abuse it. “A lot of short films drift into the 25-minute territory. I think our history of working in commercials gave us the discipline to get in, tell the story and get out,” Smith says.

“This Way Up” won the children’s prize at Sweden’s Uppsala shorts fest (thereby qualifying for Oscar consideration) and heads to Sundance later this month. An Oscar nomination could boost the feature prospects the duo are developing now.

Eyes on the prize

The one goal all short filmmakers have in common is the desire for their work to be seen. In general, not just the films’ running times, but their ultimate life cycles are short. If lucky, they play fests for a year or so and then fade into obscurity.

Shorts Intl. CEO Carter Pilcher established his company to prolong that span, working with Magnolia Pictures these past few years to release the Oscar-nominated shorts in theaters, on iTunes and on DVD.

“2008 was the biggest year yet for the program,” says Pilcher, who takes the lead on that plan this time around. But even shorts without Oscar’s benediction have a better chance these days via Shorts TV, a linear channel Pilcher’s company has made available to more than 10 million homes in France and the U.K.

“We’ve learned an awful lot in just the last year,” he says, hoping to take the lessons of programming shorts for a TV aud and apply them to the Oscar program’s marketing efforts this time around.

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