The importance of being short
Short films. Are they 10 minutes of tightly packed narrative or the derivative art-wank of film students still finding their voice? It can easily go either way with the genre potentially a stepping stone to feature film success or an archive of broken celluloid dreams.
So, what is the point of short films? Do they matter?
John Polson, founder of Tropfest – the long-standing short film festival that will be held across Australia this past weekend with international offshoots from the Middle East to the US – certainly believes they do.
“Let me put it this way, if they don’t, I just wasted 21 years of my life,” says Polson.
“To me they matter. Short films are simply the most powerful way to launch a career for a film-maker because you can show what you’re capable of on a limited budget. Short films are the only accurate barometer of a film-maker’s talent. The business of short films is a meritocracy and the best rise to the top.”
Nash Edgerton is one of Australia’s most successful and prolific short film makers. His most recent short, The Captain, is his sixth film to be screened at the Sundance Film Festival. He won Tropfest in 1997 with another short, Deadline, made for $80. Edgerton tells Encore: “Short films show the director’s ability to tell a story. You get a sense of someone’s tone and aesthetic through shorts.”
Edgerton believes film-makers have a better chance of making it after cutting their teeth on shorts than the other common route of commercial directing because shorts are all about the story.
Anthony Maras, director of award-winning short The Palace, agrees. He says: “What makes a great short film work is story and the people who are making it. Funding bodies are right in still supporting short films but I hope they do it in a way that can make the money go as far as it can.”
Australia’s national film funding body Screen Australia supports short film, investing more than $1m in short film programs each year.
Martha Coleman, head of development for the organisation, says: “Short films are where film-makers find their voice and to a degree have the luxury of failing. I would love to fund more. They are very important. However, if we were to do so, it would have to come out of somewhere else in our budget.”
One of Screen Australia’s short film initiatives is the Springboard Program. It helps film-making teams produce a short film related to a prospective feature project with the aim to ready film-makers for work on a feature set.
Producer Liz Kearney and writer-director Zak Hilditch recently wrapped These Final Hours, a feature which came from their multi award-winning Springboard short Transmission.
Similarly, Maras’ short The Palace acted as a calling card and has led to him directing the forthcoming feature A Country of Strangers.
Shorts are also a vital part of the film school process with institutions such as the Australian Film Television and Radio School using them to teach students the tricks of the trade.
And for those who choose to make their own way scraping together their budget, film gear and editing software has never been more affordable.
Polson says the budget of an average Tropfest film is $1,000, well within the reach of most up-and-coming filmmakers. On the flipside, he has seen films that cost in excess of $100,000 miss out on making it to Tropfest’s big screen.
When it comes to audiences, budget is clearly irrelevant if the number of people that turn out to watch Tropfest is anything to go by. More than 150,000 people show up each year across the country and this year SBS will broadcast the event for an even wider audience. Similarly, another festival, Flickerfest, which calls Sydney’s Bondi home, is currently touring the country with its program of shorts.
And festivals are not the only place where short films are getting a run. Maras’ The Palace last year screened ahead of Kieran Darcy Smith’s feature Wish You Were Here at selected cinemas. Maras says feedback was positive for the experiment and he believes more shorts should be given an opportunity to accompany features provided there is a suitable pairing.
“As a cinema-goer, you feel like you’re getting something extra,” he says. Nash Edgerton’s short Spider also screened ahead of his feature debut The Square at some American screenings last year.
Online, YouTube and Vimeo have helped film-makers extend the life of their shorts further still. While Edgerton’s Spider has had more than 1m online views, its sequel Bear recently appeared online as part of youth publisher Vice’s shorts series and has already clocked up more than 150,000 views.
There’s certainly an appetite for short films although there isn’t much of a market, with few short film-makers making a decent buck from their output.
One of the only revenue streams for shorts is festival prize money which can help to offset the cost of production and the fee to enter the film in the festival.
It’s little wonder few feature film-makers return to short-form projects once they graduate to larger films although they may, as John Polson suggests, reminisce wistfully about the years of creative freedom.