Brian Petsos in "Sundays" (Vimeo/PostPanic)

Short film "Sundays" goes viral, sparks Hollywood's hottest bidding war: The age of the tiny movie with big ambitions is here

Don't sleep on these shorts -- the latest mini-film could turn into tomorrow's blockbuster or hot new show UPDATED


Gary M. Kramer
April 4, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)
This story has been updated.

The most recent high-stakes Hollywood bidding war was over a short film? Believe it. Director Mischa Rozema’s visually stunning short film "Sundays" was just sold to Warner Brothers. The Dutch commercial director described his five-year project in a Kickstarter pitch that raised $50,000 and caught the attention of studio executives. Rozema’s pitch imagines a young man (Brian Petsos) who is “searching for truth. Everything he’s ever known or thinks he’s experienced turns out to be a lie.” The filmmaker continues, “It takes place 50,000 years into the future, which sounds far away, but it isn’t; it’s basically a copy of the world we know now that we placed into the future.” Then he adds slyly, “Now the fun part begins.”

"Sundays" is part love story, part futuristic/post-apocalyptic drama, all filmed in Mexico City — because the filmmaker has been “having a long love affair” with the city. Rozema created the 14-minute “proof of concept” short with his creative team at PostPanic in Amsterdam, and should soon be developing his idea into a full-length science-fiction feature about “redefining what it means to be human.”

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While not all shorts are as ambitious as "Sundays," the short film is becoming a hot commodity as actors and/or directors want to showcase their talents in a digestible format that can land deals, win awards and lead to features. The catch is: they just don’t make money.

Viewers don’t need a short attention span to enjoy short films. While shorts are usually relegated to film-festival screenings or the annual program of Oscar nominees in cinemas, there are an increasing number of outlets for interested viewers to see shorts. In addition to popular sites like YouTube, Vice, Vimeo, Funny or Die, Fandor, Distrify and Shorts HD, among other channels, provide showcases for short films and their filmmakers.

The beauty of a short — be it a dramatic slice of life or a simple joke eloquently told — is that they are brief, intense snippets of a larger life, such as Sam Jaeger’s “Plain Clothes.” Like a good short story, they can often be more satisfying than a whole drawn-out narrative.

Shorts are often used as calling cards for filmmakers to make features. Boman Modine, the budding young director of “Merry Xmas” explained, “The goal is to show what we can do. I think shorts provide all of the filmmakers involved a real window into what kind of professional they want to be and what kind of person they are.”

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Many filmmakers, including Shawn Christensen and Chris Modoono, have expanded their shorts to feature length. Others, such as “The Sinner” director Charles Wiedman, have tried to make a short into a TV series.

As Modine indicates, “the goal is not to make money back, but take the next step.” Regardless of the outcome, what makes a short great is the economy of its storytelling. This is most evident in Canadian filmmaker François Jaros’ “Life’s a Bitch,” which edits together 95 scenes of 2-5 seconds in length into a snappy and satisfying 5 minutes. The best shorts can have a short, sharp shock that can resonate. Ask anyone who saw Nash Edgerton’s brilliant 9-minute thriller, “Spider.” Warning, it’s intense:

Spider from Nash Edgerton on Vimeo.

Sam Jaeger, who starred in “Parenthood” and “American Sniper,” wrote, directed and stars in Plain Clothes,” a short about a cop with PTSD. In this potent 10-minute drama, Jaeger plays a man struggling with the duality of living as a police officer and trying not to let his difficult work life affect his home life.

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“It was the story that struck me,” Jaeger said via Skype. “It lived as a short and I didn’t have the idea for it to be a feature. Here’s a story that needs to be told in the format I’m thinking of it in. This film is meant to be a conversation starter.”

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Jaeger likes the immediacy of the short film format. “It didn’t take four years to make ‘Plain Clothes.’ I came up with the idea, wrote it, and shot it in four months. It’s more gratifying. I like the challenge of doing something like this, giving everything to the audience immediately to pay it off immediately.”

“Plain Clothes” was filmed in Jaeger’s back yard and in a nearby park. He had friends help out with recording sound and getting props, and even had a stunt coordinator from “Parenthood” bring five guys out on a Saturday to choreograph the film’s tense fight sequence. A casting director helped find an actor for a one-line role.

“I’m humbled that these people give themselves up for this short,” the actor/director says. “No one is getting paid. They are doing it because they are generous.”

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Jaeger put his film on Vimeo for free to share it with the world. The outreach has been, as he explains, “better than any festival you could hope for,” indicating that a police officer trainer in San Francisco has used the short as part of her training.

“Merry Xmas,” by Boman Modine, will make its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. This 7-minute comic short is a one-joke movie, but it is an amusing (albeit corny) joke, buoyed by the performances from its all-star cast, which includes Dick Van Dyke, Valerie Harper, Glenne Headly, and the director’s father, Matthew Modine.

The celebrity factor certainly helps garner attention for short films. “It offers a validity,” Modine said, via Skype, adding, “Dick Van Dyke is in our movie, so folks are inclined to see the whole five minutes.”

He continued, “The format for a low-budget short is beg, borrow, steal. We sent Dick Van Dyke the script. He knew the joke and liked it. My dad said he would be one character. Glenne was available. We didn’t have to do much to get folks on board.”

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“We chose the joke format because it follows the traditional way of telling the story — the rule of three: set up, suspense, and delivery,” said Modine. These qualities are what make “Merry Xmas” in particular, and short films in general, so captivating — they cut to the chase and keep viewers engaged.

“It’s important to make your point very quickly. There’s no need for developing characters. It’s dad, son, daughter, punchline. But this kind of a story belongs in the vignette format. My generation requires a lot of cuts. YouTube videos need to keep us there for three minutes,” he said.

“Life’s a Bitch,” by François Jaros, brilliantly, seamlessly tells the aftermath of a breakup in just five minutes. This jaunty short, which played to considerable (and deserved) acclaim at the Sundance and Telluride Film Festivals before debuting on Fandor in March, took 18 months to make.

While Jaros said the shoot was “20-something days long,” which is the time it take to make some indie features, the filmmaker had to be extremely resourceful because “Life’s a Bitch” consisted of 95 scenes each lasting 2-5 seconds.

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“We had so many days and things to do!” he recalls with both shock and relief. “We borrowed other people’s equipment and crashed other people’s film sets, shooting a hospital sequence while the crew was at lunch. We shot in total mayhem.”

But he demurred, “The short form made the idea exciting, and the film interesting. Without the short form, ‘Life’s a Bitch,’ would have been a feature. It would be long, it would be boring, and it would be pretty sad. The humor comes from the mash-up of it all. That speed gives you a distance, and a point of view. You, the viewer, have a glimpse of it so you are objective, which is what makes the comedy of it. If you played each of the scenes in their whole length it would be pretty dramatic, and tragic.”

While festival exposure has been beneficial, it is also considerably expensive. “The film had a great career and is still going on.”

But, Jaros notes, “the bigger the festival career, the bigger the costs. We haven’t made one cent back. We’ve won some prizes, which cover some expenses, but the submission fees and price for DCPs make me wonder when and how a short can actually make money?”

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As for distribution, Jaros acknowledges that there are some options in his home country, but mostly it’s “the wilderness of Vimeo and YouTube, where you post your film and hope people see it.” As such, he is honored that it is available on Fandor, acknowledging, “They have the infrastructure to promote such a film and it’s been a blessing.”

Shawn Christensen won the Live Action Short Film Oscar two years ago for his short film “Curfew.” It certainly validates why anyone would choose to make short films. He explained, “When you are in the short film world, you take risks. You have the ability to do that. No one is telling you what to do. It’s your passion project.”

Christensen’s previous short, “Brink,” got him on the radar of short film curators like Sharon Badal of the Tribeca Film Festival, who hosted the New York premiered of “Curfew.”

One of the things the filmmaker did to make his short stand out was use anamorphic cinematography to give it a more “filmic” look, in comparison to other filmmakers shooting with iPhones, Canon 5d or 7D, or RED or ALEXA digital video cameras. “Any way to stand out is to your advantage,” Christensen emphasized.

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That said, the filmmaker admitted that he didn’t think “Curfew” would “go anywhere." “I aimed for the festival circuit because I liked watching a film in a theater with an audience more than seeing it online. The byproduct of that is that certain fests are Oscar qualifying.”

He recalled, “We submitted the film because we qualified. They don’t inform you of anything, and then you are on this shortlist of 11 films. That day before the nominations was the most nerve-wracking — you have a chance to be nominated, but only five films are. Being a chronic pessimist, I thought for sure we’d not be nominated. When we were, it became a fun ride. The academy nurtures the nominees in the ramp-up to the ceremony. At the Oscars, the shorts are the more pure category. There is no lobbying and little press. You cross your fingers.”

Christensen acknowledges that short films cost more money than they make, and claimed, “My wife forbade me to make any more shorts after the money I spent on ‘Brink’ and ‘Curfew.’ When I won the Oscar, I said, ‘How about now?’ And she replied, ‘Nope!’ She’s right, I did pour a lot of our money into those films. But unless I get a grant, I don’t know that I can finance it myself.”

While Christensen said that even without the Oscar, his film was a personal and professional success because the cinematographer got a job after “Curfew” had some festival exposure. The director also went on to make a feature, “Before I Disappear,” that expanded “Curfew” to feature length.

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Chris Modoono expanded his 2012 short, “Teacher of the Year,” and called it “Tenured. ” The feature is making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival (where the short also played) this month. This dark comedy concerns a bitter, caustic elementary school teacher, Ethan (Gil Zabarsky), who talks very bluntly to his students after his wife Lauren (Emily Wilson) leaves him.

While the short, which takes place over one day, did not feature Lauren (except in name), the film needs to introduce her as a main character. This is because, Modoono explained, “the key to a short is to work in archetypes. You need the audience to identify with the characters quickly. In the feature, we had to communicate how and why Ethan and Lauren’s relationship didn’t work out and how he filters his unhappiness. That gives ‘Tenured’ extra texture.”

While both Zabarsky and Kathleen Littlefield, who plays Abigail, Ethan’s fellow teacher, returned from the short — in part because Moodono felt they had such great chemistry — other characters, such as Assistant Principal Gruber, were recast, because Rachel Dratch from the short was unavailable for shooting. Kate Flannery (from “The Office”) took the role and makes it her own. The filmmaker also changed the students from third grade to fifth grade, to make the school play in “Tenured” a more viable dramatic device.

Modoono is not overly concerned that people who saw “Teacher of the Year” will be critical of “Tenured” for its changes. The short and feature are connected in spirit and form, down to Modoono using the same overhead shots, and featuring many of the same comic one-liners.

He explained, “When we wrote ‘Tenured,’ we wanted to play off the things we did in the short. But we had to make those scenes tonally different and change things around so we were serving the story in the feature.”

Fox Digital Studio executives saw “Teacher of the Year” on the website “Funny or Die,” and greenlit a feature as a result, according to Modoono. The comedy website gave the film greater exposure than the Tribeca Film Festival, where it premiered, and the United Airlines in-flight channel, where it also played. Moodono indicated that the Shorts HD reached out to them for distribution, but “Funny or Die” made “the most sense to us.” It seems to be working in Modoono’s favor.

Sometimes shorts can have a tough journey. “The Sinner” is a short film about the title character Fisher Rood (David Christopher), a good guy doing bad things and dispensing justice. Austin-based writer/director Charles Wiedman originally conceived the film to be a 10-minute short. However, viewers, along with some of the producers, urged the filmmaker to expand it. Now “The Sinner” clocks in at 46 minutes, which proved to be a catch-22. “It doesn’t fit into film fests. It’s not a short or a feature. It’s difficult for programmers,” Wiedman lamented.

Moreover, because he made the film in 2012, when distribution options for shorts were not as broad as they are now with all the platforms and social media, getting visibility for the short was a challenge, requiring time and marketing dollars.

He put up a website and partnered with Distrify, a Glasgow-based company that takes a percentage of his sales. He described the process, “You have to reach millions to generate any income. Click-through is 2-3 percent. They gave you a widget to put in your website as your storefront, so if a blogger posts it, both parties get paid. It incentivizes people to share your movie.” [Folks have to register with Distrify to participate.]

Wiedman also noted other wrinkles in this process. “When we put the film up, they only processed American dollars/credit cards, which restricted international audiences.”

He eventually tried to interest networks in “The Sinner” as a pilot for a TV series. While he did not have any face-to-face meetings (because he lives in Austin), a representative he used had meetings with AMC and STARZ. “We didn’t have Netflix funding series then. If I got in a room with them today, I might be able to get a deal because people are more open to original content.”

Wiedman emphasizes that the biggest hurdle for shorts filmmakers is how to monetize their films and return an investment. “There are costs involved in everything. I can’t demonstrate to a private equity investor this number of views over this amount of time will return a $10K investment. It’s an expensive proposition. In the current marketplace I don’t know how to return without a giant audience. I run into this time and time again. It always comes down to investors not caring about the concept, but about how to get my money back in x days/months/years. It’s a tough sell.”

Wiedman, who rejects the idea of turning his short into a webseries, still has hope, and believes “The Sinner” has legs, but if nothing else happens, he still wants people to learn from his experience.

“An early note I got making ‘The Sinner’ was: This may wind up being a really expensive film school.”


Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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