From Hollywood to Austin and Beyond: the Rise and Rise of Short Films Online
Just last week, another chapter in the seemingly endless Elián González saga was filed when armed guards entered a Miami home to seize the six-year-old Cuban boy. By the time one particular AP photo was plastered on the cover of nearly every newspaper across America -- Elián and the fisherman who saved him, shrieking at the gun-toting INS agent -- anyone with a shred of decent cynicism and smart-ass sensibility was thinking one thing: When the hell is this going to end? Chicago Web designers Sean Bonner and Chris Lathrop certainly were. Figuring it would be, well, funny, they doctored that and other photos to create a rudimentary short film in which the players in the debacle were now hysterically mouthing the words to the popular "Whazzup?" Budweiser commercial. Posted on a Tuesday night, the film was viewed an astonishing 600,000 times in its one-day stint on a Geocities.com site. After AP official David Tomlin jotted off a cease-and-desist letter to the filmmakers, Bonner took the video down, but not before spamming the URL to kingdom come. Currently, the short is still showing on Playboy.com (which also happens to be where Bonner and Lathrop work) at http://www.playboy.com/digital/inthenews.html, where it continues to accumulate viewers into the millions, a smoking gun that stands as evidence that the Internet and nimble fingertips can be a combination something akin to a powderkeg and a match. America at large may be slow to learn the power of the Internet, but it's something short film site pioneers have known for years. And in case you haven't heard, short films are big business. Capitalizing on our rapidly dwindling attention spans and increasing need for distraction, short film sites help fill the void left when desktop solitaire becomes just too tedious to stomach. For office workers and bored teens everywhere, short films are the perfect distraction; they demand little investment for immediate gratification. Primarily because technology on a grand scale has yet to catch up with this trend, short film sites haven't scored numbers as big as, say, Internet porn, but their viewership is climbing -- and from all accounts, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Think of music videos, circa 1983. Then think music videos now.
One of the industry's leaders, AtomFilms.com, currently boasts over a million hits each month for its 1,100 titles, including seven of the 10 Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts, like Barbara Schock's "My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York." Started in 1998 by Finland native Mika Salmi, AtomFilms now receives 200 submissions of short films a week and makes the Don Juan-type claim that it is capable of "satisfying any viewer at any time, no matter where they are." Currently, the AtomFilms staff is suiting up for Cannes, where they will bid on short films with the hope of eventually selling them to airlines and cable networks. Imagine, shorts filmmakers, once the redheaded stepchildren of the festival circuit, are now at the center of it all. Slamdance has even opened a wing devoted exclusively to short films, dubbed "$99 Specials." Although these nods of encouragement point to a day when short films are just as legitimate as their feature-length counterparts, so far the most popular shorts online have been primarily crass, off-color comedies like "Micro-Gerbil 2001," an animated short in which a foul-mouthed rodent gets nuked in the microwave. Popular parodies like "Saving Ryan's Privates" or the Star Wars goof "George Lucas in Love" have been joined by films like the Stanley Kubrick homage "Pies Wide Shut" (see sidebar for review). For now, these adolescent offerings are the kings of the castle on most short film sites because their viewership is a mostly young, mostly male crowd. But as innovations in technology make watching a short film online as easy as (easier than!) stepping outside for a smoke or walking down the hall to chat with officemates, the potential audience just explodes.
For that reason and others, there exists a fierce competition to capture viewership now. Recently, short film start-up AntEye.com sparked local interest by driving into town in a van with a contest to award one Austin filmmaker up to a hundred grand to fund their film project. In 12 days, over 400 Austinites entered their short films, and after the shows were voted on at AntEye, Kim Flores and Mike Swenson's "Maid! Madonna! Whore! The Latina in American Cinema" nabbed the prize. A fun, marimba-scored short, it currently ranks No. 14 on the Web sites' comic offerings. A slew of other sites are clamoring to hold onto their own audience (and seize others') -- iFilm.com, TheBitScreen.com, BijouCafe.com, Yahoo!'s Broadcast.com/video, and 01Films.com, to name just a few.
But everything as we know it might change (once again) when the big league suits up to join the game. Already, Oliver Stone and Jerry Bruckheimer have signed on to create short films for Z.com, a start-up whose only current offering follows the Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour. Most impressive, however, is the imminent collaboration between Dreamworks SKG and Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment on Pop.com, a short film site set to launch later this spring. In the press materials, Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg is quoted as saying, "Just as MTV introduced a new entertainment forum for music videos, we think this new enterprise will offer a new form of entertainment for the rapidly growing population of Internet users."
MTV for the next generation: fast, cheap, and easy to load.
"It's so hard for new filmmakers to even get their foot in the door," explains Andrew Hindes, vice president of data service at iFilm.com. "We can be a bridge." iFilm is joining the ranks of the slew of magazines, festivals, television shows, and cable channels all currently catering to and dedicated to helping struggling filmmakers (with so much support, you wonder if "independent filmmaker" might soon become an oxymoron). Hindes calls the site "more like a film festival," and unlike their online competition, iFilm has an open policy for posting films. Each film's fate is decided by iFilm users, who rate the new additions to decide, like Top 40 radio, which to make and which to break. Unlike Top 40 radio, however, the site attracts a variety of tastes, which is clear on the movie review boards, where film professors' jargon-laden critiques share space with those of AOL-addled teens, who offer such criticisms as "not enuf tits n ass" or, quite simply, "hi." Currently, iFilm receives between 60 and 100 submissions of these new short films per week, although that number is steadily swelling with the site's popularity. Since its launch in October of 1998, iFilm has received so much publicity that it didn't even need to advertise, and the site has already hatched success stories like David Garrett and Jason Ward, who landed a television development deal with Fox after their short, "Sunday's Game," hit it big on the site.
Austinite Dorian Ramirez currently has a short on iFilm called "The Albatross," a trippy, experimental stop-motion video made as part of a Cinemaker Co-op project to provide filmed accompaniment to an album by the Golden Arm Trio (sort of the reverse of the Alamo Drafthouse's popular "films with musical accompaniment" series). On iFilm, "The Albatross" is currently rated 5.36 on a 10-point scale, and user reviews run the gamut from "This is fine art" to "All the possibilities have been used up in the first half, and it loops after that."
For Ramirez, a David Lynch and Atom Egoyan fan who recently moved to Austin from Corpus Christi, the exposure is gratifying, but what it means for his fledgling career is harder to decipher. "Who is reviewing these things?" he asks. "And who is viewing these things? I don't know."
He's not even sure about the many e-mail requests he's gotten from film groups asking to include "The Albatross" on their Web sites or in festivals. Are they legitimate? Should he be flattered? Have they even seen his film? Or are they just another start-up, scrounging for any content they can find?
"That's how the Internet goes," he says. "You don't know who's for real and who's not."
Ramirez, like so many others, is excited about the short film craze and the digital film revolution, except for one thing: Do we really need more filmmakers in the world? Ramirez groans when he thinks about it. "Now everybody and their grandmother has got an XL1 and a Power Mac G4 with Final Cut Pro doing their own films. Which of course makes it harder for distribution channels because it just starts to glut. There's so much product out there."
"But Jean Cocteau had a quote," Ramirez adds. "He said, 'Film can never be a true art form until it's as accessible as pen and paper,' which I guess makes sense."
Filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner may not have the industry buzz of AtomFilms or the Oscars of Steven Spielberg -- but they still make damned funny animated shorts. David and Nathan, 26 and 24 respectively, are among the many struggling filmmakers with loads of creative energy, not much money, and a fair amount of technical savvy in between. Like thousands of others with talent -- not money -- to burn, they are taking their projects online, creating short animated films and other comic riffs which they post on their Web site, Points of Interest, or, simply, POI (http://www.poi.cc). Tagged as "a juggernaut of vital information for the masses," POI offers easily digestible bits of pointless comedy for those short of attention and smart of ass -- all sprung from the twisted brains of the brothers Zellner. According to David, this is a great way to vent in between larger film projects, like their previous collaboration, the feature film Plastic Utopia. Of course, if you ask David on another day, he might just claim he and his brother are merely acting on the orders of 12-year-old wunderkind Bernard Claymore, King of POI and resident of the Cocos Islands, who is currently laying low while weathering a messy divorce from his parents. Regardless, in a year and a half, their site has spawned such comic classics as "Holiday Tyme," a scrolling collection of increasingly absurd family portraits, backed by David's breathy, strained soprano. Or the "Stephen Hawking" series, in which the brilliant physicist tackles not questions of the universe but adventures like a booty-shaking, tequila-soaked Spring Break.
"We love Stephen Hawking," David is quick to explain. "He's like the smartest man in the world, so it's okay to make fun of him." He leans back in his chair. "Isn't it?" He looks at his younger brother, grins, and then they break into a loud, shared laugh. They do this a lot.
The two work out of their East Austin home, filled with movie posters and messy with boy clutter and costumes from their upcoming digital movie, which they'll start filming this summer. To pay the bills, they do freelance Web design for their company Fortified (http://www.fortifiedweb.com). Like most film fans, they're well aware of the remarkable boom of short films online. But until recently, they were beset with an outdated 28k modem, which downloads short films at a gratingly slow, almost unbearable pace.
What they could use -- and did -- was Flash, a low-memory plug-in that allowed them to combine 2-D images and music in small, easily downloadable files (not surprisingly, it's the same technology Bonner and Lathrop used to make the Elián parody). Unlike live-action shorts, animated shorts are far easier to download and watch online, and as such, are enjoying a healthy renaissance on the Web. Shorts like those played at "Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation" consistently rank high on short film sites. Dotcomix (http://www.dotcomix.com) features popular comic shorts from Doonesbury and Dilbert, as well as technology that renders cartoons that seem to move in three-dimensional space, like the foul-mouthed, smoking nun, Sister Randy.16color.com, which recently won a SXSW Web Award for Best Online Community, is an ingenious application which teaches users to make their own homemade animated videos.
The day I visit them, David and Nathan are putting the finishing touches on their redesign for POI, which includes a more "user friendly" design and builds on previous POI outings like Ghetto Rainbow, the posthumous greatest hits album from the first openly gay rappers. Like most things on POI, Ghetto Rainbow started out as a small joke and ballooned into something more.
"Well, first we had the cover," explains Nathan.
"You know, like Master P albums," David chimes in, "the photoshopped images, the gold lettering."
"And then we thought, if we have the cover, we might as well have some songs."
David nods, grinning, with the memory.
"And then we thought, if we have a few songs, why don't we just make a whole album?"
Which is what they did, creating a 14-song collection even posting some of them on MP3.com, where they enjoyed fairly regular play.
Maybe when you think filmmaker, you think something different. You don't, for example, envision two guys jacking around with found photos and goofy fake songs. But these days, the sky has cracked open for filmmakers -- the old rules simply don't apply anymore. With no money, and a little pluck, one person can create a story that is watched across the world. Just ask Elián.