Film Fund-amentals: Short End of the Stick

The short film, like the short story, normally gets the short end of the stick. For most beginning filmmakers, the short film is the simplest way to get started. The production cost is relatively low and the format is much more flexible than a feature-length narrative movie. It is the easiest way to learn and develop new techniques, play with various forms and actually get the dang thing made at a cost that doesn’t involve selling your internal organs.

Too bad there’s no place to go with the results. Except for YouTube and various community cable stations, there simply is no significant market for shorts. Granted, this is the week that the 2010 Manhattan Short Film Festival unspools its incredibly complicated and extremely ambitious international presentation. It’s a noble idea and a reminder that short films have their own rich heritage. Too bad the format has been undeservedly squeezed out of the market.

Sure, way back at the beginning of time short comedy films and cartoons were shown before the double-feature. Tickets were also a nickel and popcorn was cheap and plentiful. That’s why they’re called the good old days. But even after that mythic time faded into the haze, there was still a viable market for shorts. Though the market was narrowly defined, it was part of the university film society and art house theater zone. Shorts had a place. It some respects, they even reached a kind of golden age.

For a brief moment of time, the short film was producing its own buzz. Between the controversy surrounding Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and the art house acclaim for Chris Marker’s La Jetee — as well as the strong university following for such experimental filmmakers as James Broughton and Chick Strand — you had a surprisingly large venue for some mighty offbeat movies. When the French short An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge got its prime time presentation on The Twilight Zone, the short movie suddenly reached a vigorous degree of national awareness.

It was also this time becoming obvious that a lot of these movies were turning into the unofficial basis for quite a few feature films. Scorpio Rising was loosely “borrowed” by Roger Corman for his production of The Wild Angels. La Jetee inspired several feature films (including 12 Monkeys). In 1967, an oddball student film called Electronic Labyrinth became a campus hit and was eventually extended into the feature THX 1138, the movie that launched the career of George Lucas.

But by the 1990s, everything had changed. University film societies largely became a second-run house for mainstream features. Art theaters became parking lots. Museum film programs were either severely cut back or altogether gutted. The biggest venue for short films became MTV and other music video systems and even then, the interest level quickly waned as music tapes gave way to reality shows. Certain specialty programs, such as the Ann Arbor Film Festival Tour, have managed to remain active but with a diminishing list of active locations. Small distributors who handle short films have also diminished, though there are still lively companies hanging in there (as listed at But as you run through Google in search of companies, you will quickly notice that the most active work in this area is currently going on in Europe and Britain.

The reason for this difference is simple. Most European countries provide greater public funding. It really is as simple as that. For a long time, the American mindset has viewed any kind of public support as a form of creeping communism that has to be avoided at all cost. In Europe, it is simply known as socialism and is a major part of the social/political system (along with lots of other things). Ironically, many Europeans learned this approach after World War Two when the Americans rebuilt Europe by way of the Roosevelt/New Deal model. This is also the reason why some of the major European countries have been slightly better at weathering the Great Recession. We taught them well. Too bad we forgot all this stuff.

Which gets back to the current low state of short films. Basically, they are not that expensive to make but they also have never been much of an income source (even in the best of times). Their low cost/lower reward structure actually makes them ideal for experimentation in form and structure. But the lack of public venues also makes the effort pretty worthless (if a film plays and nobody sees it, does anyone care?). The Internet is basically the main focal point for exposure, but short movies have to navigate a field more crowded and competitive than a drunken shouting contest in a packed stadium on game day. This is changing thanks to a variety of new initiatives from places like the Sundance Institute, but the pickings are still pretty slim and far between.

What is really needed is a single major site designed exclusively for the collection, preservation and presentation of the short film. I mean something other than either YouTube or Metacafe. This site would need to collect and operate in a manner that could balance a wide variety of critical concerns and artistic approaches. It would create a wide canvas that could cover surprisingly diverse subjects.

Maybe something like the American Film Institute. They actually have the resources. If they need donations, they could even get Martin Scorsese to make the pitch. He’s done enough work with shorts to want to get involved.