While feature-length documentaries have been considered by many to form the backbone of quality programming at Sundance, the fest’s burgeoning short films program might be considered its ace in the hole.
“The best part of the Sundance film fest is the shorts program,” opines George Lentz, director film acquisitions, Bravo Networks (Bravo and Independent Film Channel). Lentz cites the consistently high level of the entries, diverse storytelling and the ingenious way American filmmakers approach the form. He believes short films are “in many ways more difficult due to time restrictions.”
A journey into the collective psyche of emerging filmmakers, this year’s short films cost from $500 to $100,000 to produce and range in approach from the classically linear to the wildly innovative.
With no set criteria for inclusion, Sundance’s programmers culled 65 shorts from 2,100 submissions, a festival record. For the first time, a separate Frontier program will screen experimental shorts that fest organizers believe “push the concept of cinematic storytelling and expression.”
Although the opportunity for theatrical exhibition of shorts is almost exclusively limited to festival screenings, cable channels like Bravo (and now IFC), have showcased shorts as interstisials or as part of 30- to 60-minute blocks for more than a decade.
‘Net provides alternative distribution
But the chance for festival after-life has expanded exponentially due to Internet distribution.
“No one knows what’s going to happen, but with the Internet, there’s a growing acceptance and room for programming,” says Trevor Groth, now in his second year of choosing shorts for the fest.
Groth admits being inundated with requests from Internet acquisition execs. Outlets like IFILM, AtomFilms, MediaTrip.com, Reelshort.com and the upcoming POP.com have pushed short films beyond glorified business cards into worldwide exposure. The Internet also adds to the form’s chances of generating a return.
“There’ll be total frenzy for short films at Sundance this year, you can absolutely bank on it,” says Rodger Raderman, founder and co-chairman of IFILM.com, formed as a distributor and broker of shorts.
Raderman asserts that the Internet is the perfect distribution medium for shorts, and the ‘Net makes it very easy for filmmakers to market and promote their work.
“We accept as many films as a possible on a revenue share basis,” says Raderman. “With the game changing very quickly, we don’t lock filmmakers into exclusive deals.”
The year’s most decorated short, “More,” began its year-long, 70-festival run at the ’99 edition of Sundance. A top prizewinner at 18 fests, including RES Fest, director Mark Osborne made the film with the idea of landing music video directing jobs. Instead “More’s” success, currently the most viewed film on IFILM, was the springboard for his feature debut.
“You can’t get into shorts to make money,” says Osborne. “I was trying to generate momentum for another project” (the dark comedy “Dropping Out,” which is included in this year’s American Spectrum sidebar).
A game of chance
“What I learned at Sundance was that the less of an agenda you have going in, the better,” says documentary short director and Sundance vet Samuel Ball, whose 1996 short “Zimbabwe Wheel,” had a “long and fruitful life” due to the fest’s cache. “The most useful contacts I made were by fortuitous accident. Everything I set up in advance didn’t work out.” Ball’s “Pleasures of Urban Decay,” in this year’s lineup, profiles satirist, cartoonist and renowned cynic Ben Katchor.
Six shorts programs are scheduled throughout the festival and individual shorts precede some features. The Frontier line-up includes Martha Colburn’s “There’s A Pervert in Our Pool!,” Lorelei Pepi’s “Grace” and Peter Tscherkassky’s “Outerspace.”
The program also features second-generation filmmakers: Zoe Cassavetes (“Men Make Women Crazy Theory”) and Jason Reitman (“In God We Trust,”); and thesp-turned-directors: Anne Heche (“Reaching Normal”) and Sarah Polley (“Don’t Think Twice”).