A Tall Task for Short Films: How Festivals Are Adapting to a Changing Landscape for Viewers

No story in the world of short-form content attracted as much attention (and derision) as the staggering collapse of Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s mobile video platform dedicated solely to “quick bites” of content. Don’t write the epitaph for shorts solely based on the demise of Quibi, however. As smartphones and internet speeds have better adapted to a video-based web, the ecosystem to exhibit and enjoy short films has only grown more expansive and exciting.

Over the past decade, there has been something of a renaissance for short film distribution online. Communities sprung up around curatorial sections like Vimeo’s staff picks and Short of the Week. Dedicated channels for short films like Field of Vision, Newness and Omeleto have built up large followings and racked up big view counts for their videos. Massive journalistic outfits such as The New York Times and The New Yorker invested heavily in short films, particularly documentaries, as part of their pivots beyond the written word. Feature-heavy streamers like Criterion Channel and Mubi also push their viewers towards shorts; even Netflix, which saw the short film categories as an easy path to Oscar glory, has gotten in on the game in a major way.

The bet Quibi made was that people felt so overwhelmed by this new media environment that they’d flock to a service that promised them less: shorter videos, quicker information and tighter storytelling. But the opposite is true. The short film boom of recent years proves people want more content, greater investment and a diversity of experiences.

The greater leveler that is COVID-19 forced film festivals, one of the few physical spaces that regularly host screenings of short films, to compete on this digital turf as in-person gatherings became impossible. I spoke with programmers from across America at festivals of all sizes to learn how their jobs and missions have been affected by both the pandemic and long-gestating forces within the medium. What changed – or didn’t – may point the way to what the emerging hybrid landscape will look like once the virus abates.

Whither the Curated Short Film Program?

Before the advent of these new viewing platforms, your options for seeing short films were largely limited to film festivals, galleries, museums, classrooms and perhaps programs for Oscar nominees or Sundance selections … if your local arthouse theater had space to show it. If your preferred mechanism of short film delivery sputters back to life once the vaccine gets distributed, don’t blame the explosion of viewing methods. “I can’t think of a single negative thing about having short films more available to people,” said Tyler Wilson, a shorts programmer at the New York Film Festival (NYFF). “It just gives viewers the opportunity to just keep informed of any kind of filmmaking.”

Online shorts viewing, however, tends to be a single-serving affair. Unlike going to a film festival, where people go to watch the shorts, online consumers tend to watch a short. “It is a really different way of engaging,” pointed out Aily Nash, another NYFF shorts programmer. Something like an email newsletter in the middle of the day prompts the online shorts viewer to start watching, and they are given wide latitude to watch them at a time of their own discretion.

The dominant mode of theatrical exhibition for short films is the “program,” a block of shorts usually curated around some common theme or shared attribute. This format stems largely from practicality. After all, as Nash put it, “if you’re going to a film festival, you’re not going to get a ticket and go all the way uptown to see a ten-minute film. You’re gonna want to sit down and watch at least an hour of a program.” Though an economic mode of storytelling, the cruel realities of the attention economy have dictated its chief public programming format for years.

As regular festgoers know, however, the cruelty of simultaneity can be a stumbling block for those trying to make time for shorts in a brutal festival schedule. If given the choice during the same window, do you take the chance on a block of short films where only one or two in the program seems to really catch your eye … or just go with the feature that looks promising in its entirety? Some programmers, like Ritesh Mehta of the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), see the challenge as an opportunity to really make the shorts standout amidst the competition. “[It] makes me even more determined to ensure writing the best possible loglines and tag lines in the program, and coming up with really unusual themes, as ways to retain audience eyeballs so to speak,” he wrote in an email.

But without brick-and-mortar theaters to project shorts in 2020, programmers had a choice. With audiences freed from the tight time constraints of venue scheduling, does the curated short film program still have a place in a digital only festival? For those I spoke to, the answer was a resounding yes. As Eric Moore, shorts programmer at AFI, put it, “People engage in festivals because they are interested in the films they select, which says something for the value of curation.” Different programmers and festivals, however, approached it from varying angles.

Given the changing of the guard at NYFF in 2020 that was already underway pre-pandemic, as I reported earlier this fall, all sorts of shifts were fair game this year. With the organization already in a mindset to look at their offerings with fresh eyes, Nash confirmed that they discussed showing short films individually when they knew most of the festival would occur online. “We ended up still choosing to do the programs because we felt that there’s something to putting films in conversation with one another,” Nash explained. “They help to make a context around these individual works by bringing them together.”

Though perhaps a programmer might bristle at the description, curating the shorts block elevates them to a position not unlike that of a filmmaker. They can guide mood, tempo and pace by positioning shorts in relation to each other within the festival as well as an individual program. It’s the closest thing visual media has to a mixtape or playlist. “A fair amount of programming deliberation in the final stretch goes towards figuring out the best permutation of shorts within a program,” Mehta described, “how to add in a palette cleaning five-minute comedy after a dark, unsettling 27-minute drama, and the like.”

Other festivals, on the other hand, were willing to use the digital space to grant their attendees a little more leeway on how they chose to experience shorts. Brigid Wheeler of IndieMemphis created a program just like any other, but the festival’s digital home, Eventive, allowed à la carte viewing of the shorts. “Once the viewer is in the shorts block ‘package’, they do have the freedom to pick and choose which films to watch and in what order,” she explained. “Obviously, we will make sure each block is presented in a particular order in hopes it suggests to the viewer to watch them the way we feel like the programmer [said] they should be watched.”

“I try not to allow these ‘other ways’ of consumption that isn’t specifically festival-related alter how I am choosing to show the short films,” Wheeler admitted. Nonetheless, IndieMemphis found a way to straddle both worlds effectively, bringing that curatorial expertise that festgoers expect while also adapting for digital viewing habits.

No “Graduation” from Shorts

There is, of course, one exception to NYFF’s insistence on maintaining the short film programs: Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice, a 30-minute adaptation of a Jean Cocteau play starring Tilda Swinton. Nash mentioned that the short technically fell under the auspices of the festival’s “Spotlight” section, a sidebar for gala events and sneak previews new for the 2020 edition. This irresistible meeting of talents also drew the attention of distributor Sony Pictures Classics, who acquired The Human Voice for distribution in 2021 – their first non-feature length release since dabbling in IMAX 3D back in the 1990s.

How exactly Sony Classics intends to roll it out remains a question mark; the studio declined to offer any more specifics on the theatrical release when I reached out for comment. Nonetheless, it’s certainly an exclamation point on an exciting time for short films to have a powerhouse independent distributor putting its distribution muscle behind a 30-minute film. Almodóvar was far from the only marquee-name director with a short film at NYFF in 2020; fans of world cinema might have recognized such heavyweights as Jafar Panahi, Sergei Losnitza and Guy Maddin nestled within a short film block at the festival.

“I don’t know if this was just an especially unique year where maybe filmmakers […] felt the need to just make a film of some kind right now,” replied Wilson when I asked the NYFF shorts programmers if they thought there might be a “moment” happening within the form, attributable to the rise in new viewing opportunities or not. “I’m sure there are a lot of restless artists,” he postulated, and Almodóvar is certainly among them – he directed The Human Voice in July 2020 under tight COVID production protocols.

Wilson seemed to chalk up the high volume of established artists bringing shorts to NYFF as a fortuitous coincidence of timing, and one driven by the enduring features of the medium rather than advances in exhibition. There’s a prevailing notion today that short films are like a playground for young, scrappy filmmakers. Many of the shorts with the most visibility are ones made as proof of concept for a full feature; think Damien Chazelle, who went from the Sundance shorts program to becoming the youngest person to win the Oscar for Best Director in four years.

The audience that has traditionally shown up for shorts at in-person festivals supports this view. One constant I heard across all my interviews with programmers is that there is one reliable component of the crowd: students. “I’ve definitely noticed that there are more younger audiences that attend short films,” Wilson observed. “Perhaps they […] are just trying to see what the landscape of short films is in a given year to see what artists are doing and just how audiences are responding to that work.”

But take a look inside any short film program at a festival and you’ll find that, within the medium, it’s not just a glimpse at the future. Short films are the present, too. “I generally don’t feel the short film is something that filmmakers should graduate from or use as a steppingstone into feature-length filmmaking,” Wilson opined. “I really do think it is its own form. I think the reason so many established filmmakers return to it [is that] they tend to be the filmmakers who are still willing to take risks in their filmmaking. They’re not necessarily settling on a particular profile or style. I think it’s an opportunity to step away from the commercial demands that feature films typically require.” 

“We see a lot of filmmakers who’ve made features also returned to making shorts,” Nash concurred. “I don’t think it’s a one-way direction where you go from making shorts into features […] I think it allows filmmakers to continue to reinvent their practice and do things that they can’t do in features.” At a moment when the expansion of the miniseries and limited series format seems to be pushing artists towards creating longer and more drawn-out works, it’s heartening to see that there’s a countercurrent pushing some intrepid artists in the opposite direction. Whether this increases demand to see individual shorts on their own could further upend festival programming, especially if a recession endures and feature film financing becomes even more strained.

The need for concision and to give every moment a magnified impact has created many inspired works throughout the years. Though it does not negate the unnecessary harm inflicted this year, one unexpected gift of 2020 across the board has been to help us see the good that’s already before our eyes but under our noses – and ensuring we have the proper infrastructure in place to appreciate it. “I think it could be really nice, if it’s possible,” Nash suggested, “to still show some shorts online or in a way that can be accessed by people across the country who aren’t able to attend in person. Or somehow retain some of the positive things have come out of doing it virtually.”

While nothing replaces that feeling of a communal filmgoing experience, perhaps a lasting legacy of this year in the world of film festivals will be to bring them more in line with the trend towards accessibility in viewing. (Maybe Sony Classics can find a way to reinvent the wheel with their rollout of The Human Voice in 2021, which would certainly be something to look forward to.) There’s simply no reason to keep shorts cloistered away from people clamoring to see them without a more robust theatrical exhibition model.

“But we won’t know until next year,” Nash concluded as to the persistence of the virtual shorts programs.

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