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No time for short films? You’re not alone

Widespread popularity has proved elusive for the short film. While the short story remains a great tradition in literature, the cinematic equivalent is largely marginalized.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The short has enjoyed a year of mainstream attention.

As a prelude to “The Darjeeling Limited,” Wes Anderson created the 13-minute “Hotel Chevalier.” Earlier this year “Paris, Je T’Aime” assembled 18 well-known directors to each make a short film set in a Paris arrondissement. And Pixar again released a highly anticipated animated feature (“Ratatouille”) with a memorable short played beforehand (“Lifted”).

Yet widespread popularity has proved elusive for the short film. While the short story remains a great tradition in literature, the cinematic equivalent is largely marginalized.

Shorts predate feature-length films and were the springboard to stardom for Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, among others. (Pixar’s shorts, typically without dialogue, are in the tradition of these comedy classics as well as the revered 1957 Bugs Bunny short “What’s Opera, Doc?” by Chuck Jones.)

With the advent of sound, the short still played a key role in the theatrical experience — as a cartoon, newsreel or travelogue.

“They used to be terribly important because they filled out a film program,” says film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. TCM often airs classic shorts, while contemporary shorts fill in the broadcasts for the Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel.

Osborne says shorts were also “a kind of wonderful screen test” for people behind and in front of the camera. (Judy Garland got her start in a short film at MGM titled “Every Sunday.”)

Shorts, though, were eventually fazed out. They became an unnecessary expense to distributors, and theater owners would rather squeeze in as many showings of features as possible.

Aspiring filmmakers typically create shorts to practice and prove their ability. George Lucas’s THX sound system, for example, is named after the sci-fi short he filmed at the University of Southern California: “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB.”

Great directors turn to shortsEstablished directors rarely return to making shorts, which made “Paris Je T’Aime” an unlikely treat, drawing the talents of Joel and Ethan Coen, Alexander Payne, Walter Salles and others.

One of the appeals for filmmakers is the possibility for experimentation. Alfonso Cuaron’s short in “Paris Je T’Aime,” for example, is one long shot, starring Nick Nolte and Ludivine Sagnier.

Anderson spent his own money for the two-day shooting of “Hotel Chevalier,” which many critics have enjoyed more than “The Darjeeling Limited.” Though it may later be added to the theatrical run, “Hotel Chevalier” was released for free online on iTunes.

“I don’t think you’ve seen the whole thing until you’ve seen them both,” says Anderson. “If you’re watching the movie without the short, I’d like it to just say: ‘See our short. It stars Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman.”’

Fox Searchlight, which is distributing “Darjeeling,” announced Monday that “Hotel Chevalier” will be added to the film’s theatrical run when “Darjeeling” expands nationally on Friday.

“Hotel Chevalier” also played at numerous film festivals, where it’s customary for shorts to run before features.

“Theatrically, the only opportunity people have had (to see shorts) has been at film festivals,” says Trevor Groth, who programs short film for the Sundance Film Festival. “But I’ve always been interested that at film festivals, the audiences that have the chance to see shorts, they love them. They can’t get enough of them. It’s always been curious that no one’s been able to capitalize on that interest and excitement.”

Groth says submissions spiked six or seven years ago when digital filmmaking equipment became relatively inexpensive. Submissions for next year’s Sundance number about 5,200 — approximately 1,000 more than last year.

Online helps, but theater owners are resistantThe popularity of online video (sites like host short films, to say nothing of the amateur works on YouTube) has played a part in the increase, says Groth.

But he’s still frustrated by the lack of distribution.

Groth says he’s been approached by distributors that have been interested in putting shorts in front of features, “but they just haven’t been able to figure out financially how that benefits them.”

BMW had success with a 2001 and 2002 ad campaign titled “The Hire,” in which the car company sponsored eight shorts by big-name directors including Ang Lee and Tony Scott. Music videos are also essentially short films used to promote an album.

“People watch shorts all day,” says Mike Plante, a programmer for the CineVegas Film Festival and Sundance. “They watch a 5-minute music video, a 30-second commercial ... People are more used to watching shorts than features.”

Of course, the theatrical experience has been much maligned in recent years, with increasingly dwindling attendance. Could shorts rejuvenate the specialness of going to the movies?

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“Audiences would just have more fun because it’s more bang for your buck,” says Plante. “Distributors are thinking about anything that cuts into runtime, but there are 5,000 one-minute films that are great.”

The Academy Awards still honor both live-action and animated shorts. (1956’s “The Red Balloon” is the only short to win an Oscar outside of short film categories.) It’s a moment in the ceremony when viewers typically tune out, totally unfamiliar with the nominated films.

“They’re wonderful,” says Osborne says of the yearly nominees. “They’re amazingly good. It’s heartbreaking to think that those things are not going to be in the theater and be seen by people.”