The State of the Short? (Part 1)


Image: Bob Sascha

DOCNYC has expanded their panel lineups this year and I was excited to see that they were devoting a day to short documentaries: “All About the Short.” I’ve been focusing on short documentaries for a while now in my programming.*  I love the short form for its capacity to break new boundaries, to experiment with form, to be able to live outside the art vs. social impact mode that features sometimes get stuck in.  So I’m always pleased to see more attention being given to short films, especially if it means there are more opportunities to watch them and ANY opportunity for filmmakers to actually get paid for their work.  But the first two panels of the day gave me pause about the state of short non-fiction filmmaking and the market it lives in today: it seems to be all about “content” for websites – there was very little talk about artistic approach (and seemingly little interest from the audience either).  I am thrilled that the market is expanding for a form I’ve always championed, but does it have consequences for the form as an artistic endeavor?  And is it elitist to be concerned about that?  After all, I’m not the one worrying about getting paid.

First up was “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Short Filmmaking But Were Afraid to Ask.” The panel, moderated by Jessica Edwards (short filmmaker, producer and writer of Tell Me Something), included two filmmakers (Heidi Ewing and Lucy Walker) who are known for their feature films but have also made many shorts and two people in producer/acquisitions roles (Adnaan Wasey, POV Digital, and Jeff Seelbach, AJ+).

Style and approach were the main topics of conversation, especially as it related to the internet – one of the main platforms for short docs.  Ewing felt that when making a short, the expectation is that there have to be a lot of changes to move your story forward, a pressure to make more turns and twists.  Seelbach noted that the internet is influencing the need for shorts to move faster and have more happen.  This of course leads to a different pacing, more of an attempt to fit a complete story in a short amount of time. Does it mean that you can no longer settle in and get to know someone or something in a short film?  Wasey pointed out that story was still important: “It may not feel like a narrative, the typical 3-act structure, but it still has to be compelling.” Edwards highlighted the ability for shorts to leave the audience wanting a little more, which is more accepted in the short form than with a feature and all its expectations.

There was much talk of making short films from the outtakes of your feature, things that didn’t fit into the final cut but were memorable in their own right.  “Great scenes don’t make a great movie,” Ewing noted, but sometimes filmmakers still want to share those scenes.  The short-feature byproduct also was raised in the context of selling a feature, as an audience members asked if you should make a short as a “calling card” when looking for funding. Ewing warned against this, noting that if you make a great short, no one will want a feature.  Here’s the thing though – in my experience, you can tell when a short is a byproduct of a feature, and it usually means it’s not going to be really excellent because the essence of making that short does not lie in making a short documentary, it lies in making the feature.  It’s a different mindset, a different intention.

Discussions of length yielded wildly different viewpoints, reflecting platforms and audiences just as much as the content requirements. Shorts have always been a moving target in terms of their length.  Festival shorts can be longer, but have little life outside that world (unless it’s 40 min. for HBO and an Academy Award short contender).  Shorter short films are looked at as “that’s for the internet.”  Seelbach confirmed that AJ+ is looking to catch you at your lunch hour or on your phone. Edwards felt 9-12 minutes are the max for a short film, while Walker joked every film should be “15 seconds short of boring.” The main platforms for short form acquisition/commission (NYTimes Opdocs, POV Digital, AJ+, Cinelan) seem to all go for the 3-10 min. range.

One new outlet for filmmakers is branded content as short film.  Brands are expanding and looking for content, but seem to be willing (from Walker and Ewing’s perspective) to keep their hands off the creative process.  Here’s where the line between short filmmaking and “shorts production” gets blurry.  You have talented filmmakers given assignments and budgets to cover 1-4 days of filming.  Again, a very different mindset from “I have a story that I really want to tell.” One thing that Seelbach mentioned about the AJ+ platform is that the app provides the context and facts behind a story, so the filmmaker spends less time on set up and more time on the story and the emotional experience.

Another new outlet is the rise of interactive possibilities. Something that may not have worked as well in the traditional form could work better in an interactive platform.  Because it’s a new genre, there’s no one answer as to what it looks like:  “It will be what it needs to be,” said Wasey.  It’s a very different approach to production – more about post-production, graphics, content management, copy editing, coding, etc… Is the audience the same for interactive content as for short films?  Since it shares similar platforms, Edwards felt that “anyone who’s interested in short form content will be interested.  But people have to find it.”  Seelbach agreed, stressing the key was that people have to start interacting with it for there to be buy-in.

The internet has clearly changed the expectations of short films and vastly widened the opportunities for distribution and financial incentives (more on the business side in the next post).  And as Wasey pointed out, shorts don’t have to reach all people all the time.  “The Internet gives you the choice to have different people find the film at different times.”

As I said at the beginning, one of the things that I love about short documentaries is their capacity for taking risks and approaching things differently, so I was a disappointed by a sense of formula on the part of the discussion (and the desire for it from the audience).  I would have been really interested to see a few more voices on the panel representing different perspectives of short documentary filmmaking – a filmmaker who makes only short documentaries (especially 20 min. ones – totally unmarketable!) or whose approach is more experimental or whose audience is not found on a web platform.  I’m wondering if the questions of content, length, approach and distribution would have slightly different answers and I’d be very curious to see where crossover exists or is possible.

* I curate a traveling short documentary festival (doxita) and was the shorts programmer for True/False for 8 years.

– Karen Cirillo

You can also check out IndieWire’s coverage of the panel here.