Sundance film shorts’ online slot carries big risk

Long laboring in obscurity, independent filmmakers are getting a chance to have their short films seen by a global audience through a new distribution agreement with YouTube. But to do so, they may sacrifice the chance of winning an Oscar.

Kat Candler was delighted to learn on Thanksgiving morning that her film “Black Metal” was among 65 shorts selected for exhibition at the Sundance Film Festival and one of a dozen handpicked by Sundance’s curators to be featured on YouTube, the online video site whose worldwide audience exceeds 800 million.


“The life of a short film is at the festivals,” said Candler. “So when Sundance asked us this year [to be featured on YouTube], we were like, ‘Hell, yeah!’”

Short films at Sundance: In an article in the Jan. 18 Calendar section about short films at the Sundance Film Festival being shown on YouTube, a second mention of the film “Black Metal” referred to it as “Dark Metal.”

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But in agreeing to be showcased in YouTube’s special Sundance screening room, Candler disqualified “Black Metal” from Oscar eligibility.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has strict rules governing eligibility for short film awards. They exclude from consideration any short that appears online, on television or home video before appearing in a paid screening in a Los Angeles theater or securing a prize at one of 75 qualifying festivals — including Sundance.

In this latest iteration of the conflict between institutional Hollywood and emerging digital media, filmmakers are being forced to choose between garnering awards and the admiration of a few moviemaking peers or having their work shown on billions of small screens worldwide.

The Oscar-qualifying rules have resulted in notable omissions. “The Last Seduction,” a 1994 film that earned actress Linda Fiorentino critical acclaim, wasn’t among that year’s list of nominees — because it was shown on HBO before it opened in theaters. “Life in a Day,” a documentary produced by “Blade Runner” director Ridley Scott, was excluded from Oscar consideration because its 2011 Sundance premiere was streamed live on YouTube, where it attracted nearly 38 million views.

The academy views its awards as recognizing theatrical achievements, not films on smaller screens, but according to a spokesperson, “Discussions are ongoing about how to best evolve this process.”

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Sundance’s own festival director was unaware the YouTube screenings would disqualify shorts from Oscar consideration.

“Is that true?” John Cooper asked. “I think it’s a little weird in this day and age to have that as a requisite or a rule.”

Veteran film industry executive Zach Schiff-Abrams, who for years oversaw production for Scott and other filmmakers, said he first encountered these antiquated rules as executive producer of digital startup Fourth Wall Studios.

“We produced a ton of short-form content with traditional film talent and found out that none of it was really eligible for short film awards from the academy because we had a distribution platform that premiered online,” Schiff-Abrams said.

A YouTube executive said the Sundance partnership reflects a shared appreciation for the independent creator as well as an opportunity for filmmakers to reach audiences under age 35, who increasingly consume media on their smartphones, tablets and computers.

“As a filmmaker and storyteller, what more do you want than to get a broad audience?” asked YouTube chief marketing officer Danielle Tiedt. “It’s unfortunate that currently it’s hard to have your story be heard and also get awards. It’s unfortunate that we make people make that tradeoff.”

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Sam Ford, co-author of the forthcoming book “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture,” said the academy is caught in the middle of the dramatic changes in how people make and distribute content. The time-honored ways of thinking about reaching audiences don’t apply in the same way today, he said, especially for independent filmmakers or with emerging creators who are unknown in Hollywood.

“What we’re seeing happen, more and more, is great content that is made by people who don’t have traditional distribution deals in place,” Ford said. “The rules … may punish those folks. That content wouldn’t have been seen at all if they relied on striking a distribution deal and getting it on a theater screen first.”

Keri Putnam, executive director of Sundance Institute, said the YouTube partnership represents another way to elevate the profile of filmmakers whose narrative short films, documentaries and animated works showcase at the festival. It’s similar to earlier efforts to make short films available online through Sundance’s own website and Yahoo, as well as digitally through Apple Inc.'s iTunes store, on Netflix and through the Xbox 360 game console.

“A lot of filmmakers who make short films are really interested in getting their work seen by as many people as can see it, because they’re proud of it,” Putnam said. “Obviously, the numbers of people who can come to Park City are limited by the size of the city — so the opportunity to share that work more widely is exciting.”

Some short-film producers say Oscar consideration might be overrated.

One of these is Alicia Van Couvering, a producer on the short “The Apocalypse” and on the Lena Dunham features “Tiny Furniture” and “Nobody Walks.”

“‘The Apocalypse’ is a super insane freak-out comedy whose audience is Internet fans, not Oscar voters,” said Van Couvering. “Our goal was always world domination via the Internet, not validation from the few thousand members of academy. Not that we would turn down a statue.”

Another was stunned to learn he might be out of the Oscar running. Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote and directed “Broken Night,” said he was thrilled to be part of the festival and the YouTube series — until he found out about the disqualification clause.

“Sundance should know about the eligibility,” Arriaga said. “They wouldn’t cut the wings of the eligibility of the shorts.”

For Candler, whose film “Dark Metal” explores the human toll on the lead singer of a metal band whose music has been linked to a grisly crime, it was easy to forfeit the long-odds chance at an Oscar statuette in favor of online distribution.

“I just want to make it and have people see it,” Candler said. “Honestly, being able to get it out there to so many people — that’s really the reward.”

Times staff writers Mark Olsen, Amy Kaufman and Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.