Short films can be a shortcut to Hollywood success

When Barbara and Andres Muschietti, two television-commercial veterans with little movie-making experience, decided on a lark to make a short horror film last year, they didn’t exactly have a larger plan in mind. “We didn’t even have an outline,” says Barbara Muschietti. “We just wanted to do something scary.”

But a few months later, the Muschiettis, who work mainly in their native Spain, had done a lot more than that. With their short film “Mama,” a sparkplug of a tale about two children in a Gothic haunted house, the Muschiettis secured a deal from Universal Pictures to turn their short into a feature. And they won the admiration of a Hollywood A-lister who has just a bit of name-recognition: Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Hellboy” and upcoming epic " The Hobbit,” who liked “Mama” so much he decided to join the project as a producer and even write a draft of the script.

To many movie fans, the mention of short films conjures some dusty notions. If the form registers at all, it’s as a film-festival afterthought or a quaint anachronism, a reminder of the moviegoing era of a half-century ago when the main theatrical event was sandwiched between cartoons, newsreels and other filler.

But to contemporary Hollywood, shorts are serious business — or at least a serious fad. The massive success last year of the shorts-derived “District 9" — and the power of YouTube to spread word quickly — has transformed how Hollywood views these mini-movies. “Studios and financiers have always said they’d like to see as much of the movie as they can, figuratively, before they develop it,” says the veteran Hollywood producer Douglas Wick, who has been behind mega-hits such as “Gladiator.” “With shorts, they literally can.”

In recent months, shorts from filmmaking neophytes have seized the imagination of some of the town’s biggest names, who see them not just a calling card for new talent, as they previously did, but the basis for hot, multiplex-worthy material.

Sam Raimi’s production company was the envy of many in Hollywood last year when it outmaneuvered several players to acquire the feature rights to “Panic Attack,” an apocalyptic tale evoking “The War of the Worlds” from a Uruguayan unknown named Fede Alvarez. Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company optioned a science-fiction short from a Dutch physics student named Tim Smit called “What’s in the Box?”

Top producers have expressed interest in turning “Alma” — a dark, impeccably executed short with Tim Burton overtones from an in-the-trenches Pixar employee named Rodrigo Blaas — into a big-budget animated feature. Patrick Jean’s “Pixels,” a playful ode to classic video games, is also attracting attention from industry players who want to turn it into a theatrical film.

And over the last few weeks, heat has swirled around Ricardo de Montreuil’s “The Raven,” a story about a man pursued across a dystopian downtown Los Angeles, where the film was shot over one weekend. “The Raven” is the most current example of a short gaining buzz in real time, as stars, producers and agents send links to one another with an air of conspiracy and discovery. It’s basically Hollywood’s version of pursuing unassuming bar bands in the hope of turning one of them into the Rolling Stones.

“It was a little insane. I don’t know how it became viral so fast,” says “Raven” director de Montreuil, who previously directed dramas that played the likes of Sundance but never before gotten a fraction of the attention. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”

The profit motive and creative template for nearly all these efforts stems from the short “Alive in Joburg.” Several years ago, no one had heard of the modest nine-minute science-fiction film or its rookie director, Neill Blomkamp. But under the tutelage of “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson, the short was honed and chiseled into “District 9.” The rest is film lore. Backed by the muscle of a studio marketing campaign, the film became one of the biggest hits of last summer, an Oscar nominee for best picture and one of the best-received films of 2009.

“A good short tells you that a filmmaker can handle a story, that he has vision and that he has the ability to convey emotion, which are all things we saw with Neill,” says Sony president of worldwide affairs Peter Schlessel, who helped spearhead “District 9.” “You can never take something like that and build a business plan around it. But if it worked once, it could work again.”

Yet it’s more than just a lone hit that has so many Hollywood power players going shorts-mad. If graphic novels became the rage a few years ago because they offered nervous studio executives a tangible representation of a story idea, shorts do graphic novels one better: They show how a finished film might actually look. And with traffic so easily measured, it can reassure focus group-minded studio executive of an audience for a filmmaker’s work (at least a nonpaying one).

Meanwhile, for the creators, the low barrier to making a short has democratized the medium of cinema. “Animation is a producers’ medium. This is a way to take the reins back,” says Blaas, who should know about the difficulties of imprinting one’s vision on a film – he holds a day job at Pixar, where hundreds of animators sometimes work just to create a single frame. (Blaas took a five-month leave from the Disney-owned company to work on “Alma,” which he financed himself.)

Or, put another way, it means everyday Joes, with little more than a handheld camera and software they picked up at Best Buy, can win the lottery, landing six-figure development deals and going almost overnight from their basements to the corridors of Hollywood power in the manner of an “American Idol” winner. “Panic Attack,” for instance, generated more than 6 million YouTube hits and secured Alvarez representation at CAA and Anonymous Content, in addition to the Raimi deal.

Packed with homemade videos showing teenage karaoke and silly pet tricks, Web video has long had little relevance to serious filmmaking. But these days, it’s being seen as a shortcut through the Hollywood system; where outsiders to the movie business would once have to work their way through the torturous world of music videos or commercials, inexpensive cameras and Web exposure now drastically cut down on the time it takes for newcomers to get noticed.

It’s also no accident that many of the hot shorts directors come from outside the U.S. as filmmakers use the Web to shorten the distance between themselves, fans and executives. (Plus, insiders say, foreign sensibilities often seem fresh to jaded Hollywood eyes.)

But as the trend has caught fire, some point out there are limits to what even a good short can prove. A five-minute movie, after all, is shorthand. It’s a far cry from a well-paced, three-act story that even the most rudimentary screenwriters turn out. And even when it’s done well, only certain film categories lend themselves to shorts. One could hardly begin to lay out the building blocks of an emotional drama in a few minutes. “With a genre movie, it’s about feeling and sensation,” admits Andres Muschietti. “I don’t know if a short works well for other types of movies.”

The shorts wave has also grown intense enough that it has provoked a backlash — in many ways before it even has had time to prove itself. The Hollywood Reporter ran a story last week proclaiming that the trend had already passed. “Hollywood feeling shorts fatigue,” the headline announced, even though no film from this new crop of shorts has gotten close to becoming a finished feature.

Like other Hollywood trends, this one will probably mint a few more overnight stars before it’s all over, as well as churn out a number of cut-rate copycats. “Shorts remind me of how Esquire used to put the image of a monkey typing on its cover to show how easy everyone thought it was to write a screenplay,” Wick says. “But it of course wasn’t that easy.” He pauses. “The idea of creating a good short is much easier than the actuality.”