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Short attention span

Media players take big look at mini-movies

It’s looking a lot like the year 2000 all over again — or even the 1940s and ’50s.

Short films, once a staple of moviegoing and the subject of frenzied dealmaking when the first dot-com wave hit six years ago, are back. Again.

And the big media players are scrambling to find a way to monetize them. Again.

Sony Pictures recently paid $65 million for Grouper, the short-form video site that it hopes to turn into “another entertainment business,” as Michael Lynton called at the time of the buy. After buying shorts site AtomFilms for $200 million, Viacom last week promoted topper and CEO Mika Salmi to run digital strategy for the entire MTV Networks. Atom, which for now is being kept separate from Paramount, offers shorts from Par directors like Trey Parker and Matt Stone as well as directors at other studios such as Tim Burton.

Unlikely players ranging from wireless firms to magazines are also plunking down cash for shorts. Motorola commissioned films shot on its phones, then sponsored a showcase at the Toronto Film Fest. Elle magazine teamed up with indie shingle Plum Pictures for a short that Julia Stiles will write and direct; the mag will run a related article and show the film on its site.

On Nov. 9, Robert Redford and the Sundance Film Festival will throw their weight behind shorts with an announcement about mobile-related films.

There’s certainly plenty of investment. Revenue? Not so much.

The most popular shorts, whether on more professional sites like Atom or amateur-leaning ones like YouTube, can garner 500,000 views, but no coin. Google hopes to turn YouTube into a big advertising play — a kind of broadcast television model, where customers will watch ads in exchange for free content — but so far Madison Avenue hasn’t bitten.

Sometimes, in fact, shorts seem more like an easy publicity ploy. Helmer John Landis pacted with humor site JibJab last month to produce a series of shorts in a deal that seemed like little more than an attempt to get both parties back into the limelight.

Of course, showbiz has been through a short-lived renaissance of shorts before. In 2000, sites like Atom and Icebox were considered a shoo-in for studio attention, with Atom drawing investment from Warners and Frank Biondi. But those ambitions died quickly with the dot-com bust.

Now that most Web users have broadband access, the potential aud for shorts has grown. And the new attention on shorts is spilling into Hollywood in other ways.

Magnolia will widen its February theatrical release of Oscar shorts to 20 cities this year, and shorts like last year’s Oscar-nommed “Cashback” drew several thousand paid downloads on iTunes.

There’s also a new generation of filmmakers getting their start in shorts . “Half Nelson” director Ryan Fleck developed his movie from his own short, while Jason Reitman used his AtomFilms short “In God We Trust” to help him land a deal to write and direct “Thank You for Smoking.”

It’s possible all the hype will bring the form full circle, to the days when studios like MGM and Warners produced an abundance of shorts. Back then, properties like “Laurel and Hardy” and “The Little Rascals” began as shorts. They soon migrated to other media, too.

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