Short attention span theater

Is the Web the perfect place for short films? Cheaper and easier than a trip to the cinema, it may spawn a rebirth of the 10-minute talkie.

Published July 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Mika Salmi believes the Web suffers from an acute case of attention-deficit disorder. His company, AtomFilms, is one of many entertainment sites hoping to make a living streaming short films, video clips, animation and claymation to a distractable, multi-tasking Web audience. It is part of the transformation of the Web into what Warner Bros. Online executive vice president Jim Banister calls "short attention span theater."

"Here's a category [short films] that has been under-marketed and not seen by a lot of the public," Salmi explains over a burger and fries at the Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, Calif. (The restaurant gained minor fame in the indie film business when, early in his career, David Lynch reputedly had a chocolate shake at this Bob's every day for four years.) We are a couple blocks from the offices of Warner Bros. Online, which recently joined former Universal Pictures chief Frank Biondi and Arts Alliance in London to invest in Salmi's company. "People are in a very active environment on the Web," says Salmi, a tall Finn who was previously a business development executive at streaming media company RealNetworks. "They're leaning forward toward the computer, not leaning back on their couch with a clicker. They want things that are going to be very quick."

The Web may just be the perfect medium for distributing short films. Shorts are brief enough (most on the Web are under 10 minutes) to be interspersed between other activities like answering e-mail or tasks like paying bills. They are accessible on demand. And most importantly, online distributors see greater financial possibilities for shorts online -- where they earn revenues through advertising, sponsorship, licensing fees and e-commerce partnerships -- than in admission-paying movie houses. "Distributing a film over the Web is cheaper by an order of magnitude," says Rodger Raderman, founder of the iFilm Network, an online film distributor and community site. "Where traditionally a film might require 100,000 viewers to realize a profit, by using the Web that same film might achieve profitability with 10,000 viewers."

Back in your grandma's day, shorts were a mainstay of the local movie house -- the preferred appetizer before the main course in American cinemas. (Movie trailers provide the foreplay these days.) But movie shorts, and short entertainment formats in general, were driven out of the U.S. entertainment scene not by changing tastes so much as economics. In the music world, 45s were popular in the '50s and '60s, until record companies realized they could make more money selling albums. Similarly, Hollywood studio chiefs found that feature films were easier to market and drew larger crowds to theaters. "The motion picture model was developed on a feature format," Salmi explains. "There wasn't an economic model for short films."

And, while short films do air occasionally on cable TV, they are practically nonexistent on network television. Shorts are unpopular with network executives, who believe that TV audiences like familiar premises and recurring characters. It's a lot easier to brand a show like "Friends" than a program with new personalities and stories each week. ("Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" are famous exceptions.) While Salmi and others believe we will see more shorts on cable TV in the future, it remains the case that short films have largely been ghettoized on the film festival circuit, less an art form than a calling card for aspiring filmmakers.

Ironically, the fact that short films fail to fit into traditional entertainment business models is the very reason why they have become such a hot item in the emerging online entertainment world.

"Shorts are cheap," says Frank Biondi, who bought "tons" of them for HBO in the mid-'70s to fill up intermissions. In coming years, he says, shorts could quench the ceaseless demand for fresh content online. "Most video is owned by existing and/or producing distributors," says Biondi. Web companies that want to distribute conventional TV and film product have to navigate through a tangle of conflicting distribution arrangements. But there are literally thousands of short films floating around without a home -- and nearly as many short filmmakers eager to make deals.

One of those filmmakers is Jonathan Fahn, whose "Fast Food" is a favorite among visitors to the AtomFilms site. "Fast Food" is an 11-minute Scorsese spoof about a couple of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci types who run a burger joint. ("Are you talking to me?" the drive-through speaker barks. "Are you talking to me?!?!") Fahn sees advantages in the short-film genre. "It's much easier to be good for 11 minutes than for 90 minutes," he says. "I think a lot of consumers see [feature-length] movies and think, 'Yeah, that was good, but it was way too long.'"

The shorter format also makes it easier for people to become exposed to a broader range of filmmaking. The Web may be a way for consumers to "experiment with seeing something outside the mainstream without a huge commitment," Salmi observes. Consumers who might hesitate to invest the time and effort to schlep down to an art house theater to catch a three-hour film about Iran might be willing to sandwich a deeply moving short like "Life in Fog" -- the story of an Iranian boy in a mountain village who raises his siblings after the death of their parents -- between checking stock quotes and deleting old e-mail.

Plus there's on-demand availability. "Where traditional channels are already bottlenecked," says Raderman, "the Internet enables the storage and delivery of a limitless amount of content on demand. So, unlike theaters or television, the viewer can identify and watch what they want and when they want to watch it."

And the Web fosters just the kind of social environment that work best for short films. Shorts are like jokes; whether humorous or dramatic, they all have punch lines. We use jokes to communicate about anxiety-provoking issues like sex, death, politics and in-laws -- and may soon use film shorts on the Web in much the same way.

If there is anything wrong with this picture it's ... well, the picture itself. Streaming video sucks, at least for the majority of us who still have slow connections to the Web. When the action picks up, streaming video images begin to disassemble themselves -- and come to resemble something Willem De Kooning might have painted on a bad day. Everyone in the business is acutely aware of the problem and many are busy testing various solutions while they await massive broadband adoption. The Digital Entertainment Network, which produces its own streaming video shows, has even created a style guide for content creators with tips on working within the medium's limited bandwidth.

Some 60 percent of the visitors to the AtomFilms site already have broadband connections to the Web. (Many visit the site from work.) But for those who don't, the site offers a variety of animated shorts, which consume less bandwidth than video -- especially those created with Macromedia's Flash technology. And AtomFilms is now looking into delivering animated shorts to hand-held devices. People could get a subscription to what Salmi calls a daily "crude and Pokimon-like" animated short that could be downloaded into the Palm VII or similar devices within a year.

Warner Bros. Online is hoping to bridge the video quality problem by offering a Web-DVD hybrid. Consumers would receive a DVD disk containing MPEG 2-quality video and other "fat" multimedia elements. To the consumer, the disk is a "key" which he or she uses to "unlock" a Web show.

Assuming that you can transcend the technical limitations of the medium, is there money to be made streaming shorts on the Web? Salmi, Raderman and others obviously think the answer is yes. Aside from licensing fees and advertising, there is money to be made selling videotape compilations, film subscriptions and what Salmi refers to as "various other e-commerce models" that he isn't ready to talk about.

"Six months ago few people in Hollywood or New York were interested" in online entertainment, notes Macromedia chairman and CEO Rob Burgess, whose company is launching to distribute Flash-based animated shorts over the Web. The industry had watched both America Online and Microsoft launch costly entertainment networks that didn't catch on and were ultimately abandoned. But then Yahoo acquired -- for $5 billion -- and the venture capitalists and entertainment industry decision makers cast a fresh eye on streaming content. "Now," Burgess says, "when you meet executives, they are all over it."

The short film revival -- supported not just by iFilm and AtomFilms, but also sites like New Revue and the Bit Screen -- received the imprimatur of legitimacy when announced that it planned to start selling indie movie compilations through its Advantage program, beginning with a collection of films from students at the USC film school. Observers expect Amazon to begin streaming movie clips in the future.

And Load Media Network in Hollywood has created a video clip business based on a direct-marketing model. Load uses a form of push
(uh, "load") technology to download relatively high-quality short videos to customer's desktops. The catch is that Load's software decides which clips customers get, based on a few questions they answer when registering for the service and on past clips viewed to completion. Unlike the others, most of Load's shorts consist of scenes from feature-length films. The company has signed distribution deals with big studios like Columbis TriStar, Fox and MGM.

With all this activity, you get the feeling that the Web is awash in celluloid. Beyond the money, the Web represents an opportunity for filmmakers to get their films out to people who normally wouldn't go to a film festival. "I think the reason people don't see short films," says filmmaker Grant Hesloff, "is that they don't have access to them ... When art is in the avant-garde, it's harder to get a wide audience for it. That's the great thing about the Web. It's not expensive, comparatively speaking, to set up a Web site and get people to view something."

In other words, once shorts are commonly distributed on the Web, short filmmakers should see a renaissance of their art form -- in all its variations. "Anybody can write anything now and get an audience for it," says Hesloff. "It may be an audience of two."

Salmi says he believes that the Web's entertainment sites will stimulate the production of more short films -- even by people who would not otherwise become filmmakers. Warner Bros. Online's Banister sees things on a grander scale: The addition of streaming video content to the Web is part of a larger phenomenon, he says, arguing that we're seeing the emergence of an "image literacy" movement that is supplanting the written word.

In a paper titled "Garage Cinema and the Future of Media Technology," Marc Davis, a member of the research staff at Interval Research, speculates about a time 50 years hence when "computational video technology will enable  [online] communities to make video a part of their daily communication  a world in which you engage in a daily practice of making movies from parts of existing ones to communicate and play with others."

In the meantime, you can visit sites like iFilm or AtomFilms and while away two and a half a minutes with Joe Byrnes' "Louie the Fly" as he "talks about life at the bottom of the food chain" -- or purie Joe Cartoon's obnoxious animated amphibian in "Frog Bender 2000."

By John Geirland

John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon: How the Geeks, the Suits and the Ponytails Fought to Bring Hollywood to the Internet," to be published Sept. 1 by Arcade.

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