The Reeler


May 31, 2007

Coming Up Short in Brooklyn

Sundance at BAM: Programming boss Cooper on the past, present and future of Sundance shorts

Maggie Gyllenhaal in High Falls, one of more than two dozen films screening this weekend in Sundance at BAM's shorts programs (Photo: Andrew Zuckerman)

As far as odds go, the prospects of getting a short film accepted to the Sundance Film Festival rank somewhere between such time-tested long shots as "striking gold" and "dating a supermodel." Take the Class of 2007 for example: 71 admissions out of 4445 applicants, a 1.6 percent success rate that makes the Ivy League look like community college. Factor in the international competition (nearly two dozen countries are represented in any given year), and conventional wisdom suddenly acquire the dimensions of mythology.

For the moment, anyhow, John Cooper wants you to forget about all that. Or at least try to.

"We have weird tastes at Sundance," said the festival's director of programming, in town for the 11-day Sundance at BAM series launching tonight in Brooklyn. "We're looking for a little sort of everything. I think people sometimes try to peg us into one thing or another, and we just really want to (say) that if you're making a short film, it's open. There's a chance. Big films and small films -- and you don't have to know somebody."

More than 18 years after Cooper spearheaded the festival's original shorts programs in Park City -- roughly 20 titles over three slates (plus a few more prior to features) -- the present-day range of Sundance shorts occupies a full day of programming June 3 at BAM. An animation sidebar features this year's Jury Prize-winning short by Don Herzfeld, Everything Will Be OK, plus acclaimed work by New Yorkers Alex Weil (One Rat Short), Martha Colburn (Destiny Manifesto) and others. Documentary diversions are on the rise as well, with The Fence (El Cerco), Scaredycat and I Just Want to Be Somebody among the notable selections set for Brooklyn. Some have played exhaustively on the worldwide festival circuit (Happiness, the staggering Motodrom) while others, like Andrew Zuckerman's moody, terrific High Falls, are having what amount to their New York premieres.

Combine the programs' scope and success with advances in the medium itself (the festival partnered with iTunes this year to sell shorts online), and you can spot traces of a evolving institutional mission. "There seems to be confusion in the world now about what a short film is," Cooper told me. "Is it a video clip? There's YouTube, and everybody's saying, 'Short films are in.' But there's still an art to making a great short film, and people who've been doing this a long time start bringing some attention to short filmmaking as well. It's sort of a whole separate genre from other independent filmmaking, so it just seemed like a logical time. And for the possibility now for them to have some revenue at the end of the process is really exciting."

One of the stunt drivers in Joerg Wagner's brilliant Motodrom (Photo: HKP 9/Hamburg)

Furthermore, Cooper added, he and his colleagues have watched styles and techniques adapt away from the "calling card" proving ground to more visionary levels of filmmaking along the lines of Todd Haynes, Tamara Jenkins or Paul Thomas Anderson. The form is no longer the exclusive province of hungry film school alums; more first-time directors are making films for themselves, often migrating from other fields in and out of the industry. Fashion photographer Carter Smith, for instance, shared the Shorts Jury Prize in 2006 for his harrowing gay gothic Bugcrush; Zuckerman, another established photographer for more than a decade prior to making High Falls, broke into Sundance last January with his 33-minute short starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard as a married couple vying with each others' secrets during an out-of-town weekend with a friend (Ebon Moss-Bachrach).

But while Zuckerman relished the opportunity to screen at Sundance, he also emphasized the difference between selectivity and quality. "First of all, you shouldn't give any power to Sundance," he told The Reeler in an interview this week. "I think you shouldn't ever give any power to festivals at all unless you need to sell (your film), and that's a required power. But as a short, you go make a film you're interested in making, and you do it the best you can and you use every resource you possibly have. Then if it gets into Sundance, great. If not, who cares? Because it's not going to make your career with a short. It's just not. There are other ways of getting out there."

Easy for him to say, right? Not necessarily: He noted his leads' high profiles likely worked against him in applying to other festivals (Cannes, Berlin and New Directors/New Films all nixed High Falls), and God knows from glancing at the other shorts that the Sundance overlords aren't exactly starfuckers of the Tribeca variety. That said, what does make a Sundance short? Is there an edge one can attain -- creative, genetic or otherwise? Cooper and his colleague Trevor Groth will attempt to answer that question at another event on Sunday titled "The Long and Short of Sundance Shorts," as close to a Rosetta Stone as anyone has for scoring an invitation to Park City.

Which is to repeat, of course, that it's a crap shoot -- but one you can theoretically load in your favor. "We're looking to point out some common pitfalls, maybe, but also let them know there's no mystical way that you get into Sundance," Cooper said. "It's a process, and it works. There's a lot of hints, too, that we've collected over the years -- things like how you conceive of a short film that's a little different; accelerated plot development and what that means to a film. And also letting them know that if you're looking to launch a career, just make the film you want to make. Don't make it for other people. It's pretty much common-sense stuff, but people still need to hear it. And other things like making sure you have all of your rights cleared; you never know what's going to happen to your film."

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