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On the short circuit

Special to The Times

FESTIVALS of short films are so abundant these days, you could spend an entire year attending them around the world, like a surfer chasing the big one. Except in this case, it’s all about the little ones.

Hermosa Beach was two weeks ago. Palm Springs ended Wednesday. Los Angeles starts next week. Sao Paulo is right now, so you’ll likely miss it. But there’s always Greece in late September, or Rio in December. Clermont-Ferrand, France, in January. Aspen in April, Toronto in June, and Spain right after that.

In all, there are more than a hundred short-film festivals worldwide. And if you figure in the feature festivals that include short-film competitions, the number could be in the thousands.

But to get your short-film fix, there’s no reason to leave Southern California just yet. Beginning Tuesday and running through Sept. 14, the 10th annual Los Angeles International Short Film Festival -- or L.A. Shorts Fest, for short -- hits the ArcLight in Hollywood, with more than 600 films. Next, the Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival gets going Sept. 13 to 17, with 120 movies, 80% of which are short films. Come Oct. 7, Tarfest -- held at the La Brea Tar Pits and adjacent to Museum Row -- will present three programs of short films as part of its festivities. And that’s not even including the fact that you can sit at home and spend a very long time watching shorts on your computer screen.

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“The attention to this genre is everywhere,” said Peter Ignacio, director of content acquisitions at Atom Entertainment, whose AtomFilms presents short films online. “It’s what people have time for, what they’re watching when they should be working. This is a really good time for short filmmakers.”

Ten years ago, L.A. Shorts Fest founder Robert Arentz was holding monthly screenings of films he and his friends had created. “After a while I realized Los Angeles has a couple of film festivals, but no short-film festival, and there was a niche we could fill,” he said. “Our first year we screened about 70 films over the course of three days.”

Since then, the festival has grown to include more than 400 films in competition, with an additional 150 in an L.A. filmmakers’ showcase. In addition to panels and awards, the festival will hold an opening night gala honoring Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (“Crash,” “Million Dollar Baby”), with shorts by George Hickenlooper, Grace Lee, Joe Nussbaum, Jason Reitman and Adrian Grenier, all of whom will be in attendance. (The L.A. fest calls itself the world’s largest short-film festival, though it’s not the only one making that claim.)

Arentz estimated that he receives about 1,000 submissions, which means the chances of getting into the festival competition are high -- about 40%. “It’s always been my goal to make the festival all-inclusive,” he noted. He sees at least the beginning of every film that comes in. Taking the best and leaving the worst, he then hands off the middle lot to his other programmers for them to decide.

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Good films come in from individuals and film schools all over the country. This year, as with other festivals, Chapman University in Orange County, Florida State and USC were some of the schools whose students had strong showings. And as with other festivals, some of the best films came from other countries.

“I hate to say this, but it’s true: On average the international films are better than the domestic films that were submitted,” Arentz said. One possible reason is that foreign governments often subsidize short filmmakers. At present, the art form is much more respected internationally than domestically.

But that may soon change, with the increased attention and with technological advances that have put filmmaking within the grasp of anyone with access to a DV camera and a computer.

In addition, with the ability to stream video seamlessly online, on iPods and on cellphones, the market for short films has grown enormously. And that means distributors are looking for all that content at all those festivals.

FILMMAKER Nancy Kelly has been making shorts since 1977. Back then, everyone knew the festivals, because there weren’t many. These days, she needs a consultant to help her figure out where to submit her film. Her short documentary “Smitten” -- about a man who’s amassed the world’s largest collection of Northern California art -- was accepted at more than 20 festivals this year, including the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and the L.A. Shorts Fest.

Many film festivals include shorts programs, and winning at some of the more prestigious of these -- Cannes, Berlin, Sundance and Tribeca among them -- is a huge career boost.

However, the audience, the industry and the media are primarily there to see the features, and short filmmakers tend to get, well, short shrift. But in the world of short fests, the filmmakers are the center of attention.

And unlike their longer-winded brethren, short fests have a refreshing absence of bitter competition. A visit to last week’s Palm Springs festival found no studio executives threatening bodily harm while jockeying for films.

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“The feature film industry doesn’t even know there’s a short-film industry,” joked Shane Smith, a juror at the Palm Springs fest. In addition to jury duty, Smith is also the director of programming at Channel Zero, which owns Movieola, Canada’s short-film channel. “Most of our films come from contacts made at festivals,” he said.

Atom Entertainment’s Ignacio estimates that about 50% of AtomFilms’ online short films come from the festival circuit. Shorts International, which distributes films to traditional markets as well as mobile phones and iTunes, finds most of its content at festivals, according to Linda Olszewski, head of North and South American acquisitions.

How all these emerging markets are affecting the work at the festivals is not as clear. Darryl Macdonald, Palm Springs’ festival director, has noticed an increase of 15% in the festival submissions over the last two years, to 2,400 this year. (Out of that, 333 were chosen for competition.)

Macdonald believes that sites such as YouTube, with its huge array of user-created content, may be kindling interest in the short-film format for both viewers and creators. “More and more filmmakers will jump into the field, because they can just feed it into a site and have it for everyone to see,” he said.

The downside to the ease with which one can pick up a camera and make a short film is that the quality often suffers.

George Eldred, programmer for the acclaimed Aspen Shortsfest, has noticed that phenomenon particularly in the documentary format. “A lot of people have become accustomed to American reality television and to the stuff you see on the Internet, which is personal and really amateurish -- not in a bad way,” he said. As a result, they’re less daunted by making a documentary about their cat or grandmother than creating a scripted film. That may work for YouTube, but not for a paying festival audience.

“I find it a little harder to weed through those entries to find people who actually learned how to make a movie.”

Fortunately for distributors, the festivals do much of the weeding for them. Arentz of the L.A. Shorts Fest is philosophical about the increase in amateurish submissions.

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“I’m originally from Chicago. When I was growing up, Hollywood seemed so foreign to me, I never thought I could have any type of career in it. Now a kid anywhere can pick up a camera and shoot a film, without money,” he said. “On the downside there’ll be more crap, but the good thing is you’re going to have filmmakers coming from all over.”

He likens the emerging markets to the Wild West. “Nobody really knows what people are going to want,” he said, adding that he’s working with Google to create a site for watching shorts from the festival.

“There’s definitely a feeling that big things are happening for short film, partly because of MySpace and YouTube, but also because of the mobile platforms,” said Smith. “We’re very much behind Asia and Europe in terms of downloading mobile content, but the potential is huge.

“It almost reminds me of the Internet gold rush of the late 20th century; there’s an element of that, along with the hope that there’s a revenue model in this, that filmmakers won’t be burned like they were with the dot-com rush.”

A tiny sampling of filmmakers in Palm Springs revealed an attitude toward the new markets ranging from wary to eager to savvy.

Nancy Kelly, a veteran of short filmmaking, has been approached about online distribution for “Smitten,” but she’s not sure it’s worth it.

“There’s no money upfront, I’d have to get the international rights,” as well as negotiating and writing up contracts, she said. “So you have to believe that 100,000 people are going to download your film, in order to make up the costs of delivering it.” She noted that PBS already aired the film in July, with 550 airdates nationwide.

Like many dedicated short filmmakers, Kelly says she’s never been in it for the money. “When I told my mother I wanted to be a filmmaker, she said, ‘If you die we won’t have the money to bury you.’ ”

Camille Thoman was thrilled to be at her first festival with her film “Falling Objects,” about a tenuous relationship, and excited at the prospect of exposure for her work. “The primary concern is to get the film seen by as many people as possible, and to try to sustain the life of the film for as long as possible, for the film’s sake and for my sake,” Thoman said.

Jason Reitman, director of “Thank You for Smoking,” started out making shorts and never stopped. A juror this year at Palm Springs, he remembered back in January 2000, when the dot-com companies threw parties at Sundance to rival the Miramax shindigs. He sold his short film “In God We Trust” (which will screen opening night at L.A. Shorts Fest), and the sale made the news. Then came the bust, and the parties were over. Sites were still up, but there were technical limitations. Then, “six months ago, I got an e-mail that had the first clip that I ever watched on YouTube,” Reitman said. “It played instantaneously, and it had over a hundred thousand viewers -- and that changed everything.”

Reitman’s interest in short films hasn’t been affected by his feature success. “Short film is the most exciting motion picture art form,” he said. “Feature films are made to make money. Writers actually go and ask their agents, ‘What should I be writing?’ People make short films because they come from their heart. That’s why some of them are really strange and unwatchable, and some are unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

He sees short films on two tracks -- those amateur videos of the cat and the grandmother, and the produced films at festivals. “The question is: Are they going to meet in the middle, or continue on separate tracks?” he posited. Perhaps “the online community will draw the produced short films into that style of filmmaking, and the cats will get more sophisticated, and we’ll end up with something between cinema verite and artist-driven content.”

Meanwhile, technology progresses, and the pictures keep getting smaller. But before an audience at a festival built just for them, the shorts still stand tall.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Quick and handy

If you can’t get to a fest, and the amateur auteurs of YouTube don’t tempt you, here are some alternative short-film viewing options.

AtomFilms has been providing short films online since 1999. In Internet terms, that’s comparable to Henry Ford. atomfilms.com

Milkandcookies is neither soothing nor particularly suitable for children. Don’t let the name fool you. milkandcookies.com

ifilm offers short films among the TV clips, games and “viral marketing” videos. ifilm.com/shorts

Sundance will present dozens of shorts online when its festival begins next year. The selection will be available Jan. 18 to June 18. sundance.org

iTunes is one of the few places to find the five Oscar nominees for live-action short film, as well as the winner, in a deal with Shorts International. Pixar, Lucas and Disney shorts can also be downloaded for $1.99 each. apple.com/itunes

MySpace has been a boon for independent musicians to present their work to the public, and now filmmakers are following suit. myspace.com

The Third Screen Film Festival offers a short-film fest through your cellphone (for Sprint, Cingular and Treo users), via NanoTV. You can also watch and vote for films online. thirdscreenfilmfestival.com


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