The Death and Life of Finding Great Short Films

Attention spans, I heard, are getting shorter.
By  · Published on June 11th, 2017

Attention spans, I heard, are getting shorter.

This is good news, perhaps we’ve reached the end of an age of two-hour Michael Bay opuses at last. This is good news also for the long-suffering medium of the short film, so long-shuttered from movie theater and video rental store alike. If the relentlessness of the current information age has created a generation capable of watching nothing longer than the standard issue YouTube video, length conventionally capped at fifteen minutes but often bored long before then, then a genre purposefully limited in running time should be celebrated. 2015, after all, was the year of the Vine, millions of dollars made and stored in weird apartment complexes on Vine Street, Hollywood. Vine may have suddenly and dramatically died a year later but the marketplace is still crowded: how often has creative possibility been suggested by making a video and putting it on YouTube? The multifarious hands behind million dollar visual albums, the catchy narrative surrealism of today’s commercials for car insurance. And, of course, the pile of dime-a-dozen struggling filmmakers where the next Wes or P.T. Anderson is busily trying to put together a pastiche of enough things. Where to find these people?

The successor to the last decade of infinite access culture of is curator culture: little people who claim to know where the good stuff is. The “best of” list, once a way of avoiding assigning news coverage in last few weeks of December, has become a way of life for content farms everywhere as choice-tired citizens have becomes desperate to know what they should be doing with their life. Interested in the smaller chasms of life,  I made the trek to the SoHo office of Marie-Louise Khondji, who runs a website called Le Cinema Club. Among the many curators trying to find a foothold in the only slightly less cluttered world of streaming websites, Khondji has zeroed her aim on the short film genre in order to “offer a promotional window for filmmakers.”

While most of the short programming that has gotten major traction on streaming platforms has been repurposed versions of the half-century old television show, certain websites have flirted with gems of smaller, quirkier content. Crackle, a free, ad-supported streaming service run by Sony, originally pushed small, five-minute episode miniseries before largely abandoning the format. Other brands like Super Deluxe and CollegeHumor have found massive success with short and shareable filmed pop culture sketches. Many of these leave much to be desired, aesthetically, but the occasional gem can be found. For instance: Dean Fleischer-Camp’s “David,” which ran on Super Deluxe last year, masterfully captured the small awkward surrealism of its star, Nathan Fielder. Billed as a ‘mini-series’ and best consumed on a Sunday afternoon in lieu of brunch, it’s thirty minutes, total, that would be bereft of a home in an earlier time. Even streaming giants like Netflix have had some success with self-contained short content: the cultishly-fawned oeuvre of Don Hertzfeldt has long been on and off the website (currently, his latest Oscar-nominated short is available for streaming). And this year, among the hundreds of hours of original content the site had bought, was Michael Stephenson’s Girlfriends Day, a movie who’s star, Bob Odenkirk, told me that its 70-minute runtime would have been near impossible to sell anywhere else.

But, going past the now-customary elevators larger than office rooms, Ms. Khondji told me that even this was too much noise for her to negotiate as a viewer. “I couldn’t really relate to other platforms, it felt sad to watch so many films turned into one gigantic monolith,” she told me. On her website, Khondji draws a vaguely radical line in the sand. The website shows 52 short films, of lengths that vary from three minutes spasms of story-telling to self-contained epics with near full-length running times, but only shows one per week. After seven days, it’s on to the next one. In the battle between near-infinite choice and brand-curated playlists, Khondji thinks some austerity is needed.

“The point of the website is really to highlight the film and give the director a chance to speak to viewers, without worrying about competing with anyone else,” Khondji told me, indenting to the current fear of films getting lost in streaming’s proverbial sauce.  “[Netflix] is a volatile sea of content that likes to measure itself in terms of dimension rather than depth,” David Ehrlich wrote earlier this year in Indiewire, in a blistering indictment of the culture that has been built Netflix’s fight with movie theater chains. The idea of choosing between a Godard film and Transformers creates some anxiety that the two might be the same thing.

Khondji, daughter of the prolific Franco-Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji and who worked, earlier, as a producer for a number of indies, like the Safdie brothers’ Heaven Knows What wants to recreate the attention span that the movie theater, or cinema, was known to demand of viewers. Her target demographic is, unsurprisingly, aspirants of these higher rungs of the culture industry. While the website’s submission email address receives hundreds of short films from film school students everywhere, she likes to keep programming both studied and topical. During Oscar week, for instance, the site showed eventual Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins’ colligate work “My Josephine.” This week, with the attention to certain circles drawn to Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, the site is showing “Krisha,” the short film that inspired his full-length critical breakthrough of the same name last year. “I try to find films that have a great story and make great visual decisions at the same time,” she tells me, believing that movies today are losing their sense of cinema. We discussed, for some time, what exactly that means.

During Oscar week, Khondji’s Le Cinema Club focused on Barry Jenkins’ “My Josephine.”

The fear of not being lost in the proverbial sauce of the 81 million videos on YouTube is a driving force behind many short film website programmers. Vimeo, a competing video platform that quickly got buried by YouTube in the early aughts, gained an entirely new following by branding themselves as rewarders of quality content, at one point even banning gamer videos, whose pure utilitarian nature had made them one of YouTube’s most reliable cash cows. The website even spends a few years holding award ceremonies judged by the likes of David Lynch and Rian Johnson in order to cement their place among aspiring creatives. Of late, the brand confined themselves to their Staff Picks program, which still maintains an incredible amount of allure. Liz Nord, over at No Film School observed that they had become “the stuff of legend for independent filmmakers.”

Marco Luca, who administers and curates Film Shortage, tells me that a dissatisfaction with the flashiness of Vimeo’s curators was what drew him to develop his own website. “From the beginning, my main goal was to give filmmakers a chance at exposure…especially the ones that couldn’t quite reach the Staff Pick level,” he said. Unlike Khondji, who attends the major film festival circuit regularly, Luca tells me that the vast majority of his site’s picks remain user-submitted. A certain ruggedness pervades the work he has curated. The kinds of films he chooses, “might not be perfect or flashy enough for other platforms, but we believe deserve to be seen.” Like Vimeo, Luca’s website has its own editorial picks and each contains a small description and, in some cases, a statement by the director. This nods at the site’s own background; Luca is a filmmaker himself. He founded Film Shortage after Vimeo didn’t select a short of his for their Staff Picks and couldn’t find anywhere else to take his work. The website’s audience appears to be likewise amateurs: their blog tackles such questions as “The Importance of Your Film’s First Shot” and attempts to definitively answer such questions like “YouTube or Vimeo.”

Recent news that District 9-director and nerd hero Neill Blomkamp was diving into the world of producing shorts, gave Luca some hope that he might not be alone.  He was excited to find out more. “The short film is quick, snappy and engaging, and more often than not it just leaves you wanting more.”

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