When was the last time you saw a short film in the theater? I don't mean an 85-minute animated movie; I mean an actual short, like they give separate Oscars to. Otherwise known as a short subject, defined (by the Academy) as anything with a running time less than 40 minutes. Chances are, unless you attend film festivals, go to see the toured screenings of Oscar shorts, or bought a ticket to Paris, Je T'Aime, it's been awhile since you actually saw a short film on a big screen.
Or, maybe I should specify that it's likely been awhile since you purposefully went to see a specifically timed screening of a short film or compilation of shorts at the theater. Technically some ads for Coca-Cola and other companies, the ones made by novice filmmakers as part of a competition or something, count as shorts. And, I'm fully aware that some arthouse cinemas, such as NYC's IFC Center, run a short film in place of pre-show commercials. But as far as I can tell, such shorts are not specifically advertised as screening at a designated time. Sure, you can go on the IFC Center's website and find out that Erik Rosenlund's Looking Glass is the short currently being shown (as it was this past week when I saw Trouble the Water there), but for most people (myself included), it's a surprise. And I doubt anyone has trekked to IFC just to see that particular film, unless anyone is a huge aficionado of frightening black and white Swedish animation. I'm a little surprised that people aren't more interested in shorts these days. It's no secret that our society is currently known for its short attention span, and plenty of people will tell you they prefer features to be on the short side as often as possible. IFC's program of running shorts before the feature is even called Short Attention Span Cinema, acknowledging the idea that short films are good for people with short attention spans. But they only show one short at IFC, and then it's into the 90-120-minute main event. Although, at IFC Center, it is possible that this main event will in fact be a collection of shorts, such as the annual Media That Matters Film Festival, which features a selection of films, each 12 minutes or less, that address important world issues and topics.
The best thing about going to see such an event/series/program is that it indeed caters to the impatient viewer. If you don't like the film you're presently watching, you only have to wait a few minutes more until another one comes on (And if you realize quickly enough that a specific film is not for you, that's a good time to go to the restroom or concession stand). Nearly every time I've seen a series of shorts, I've disliked a few of them, but I don't think I've ever disliked or been bored with two films played back to back. Maybe this is because of relativity or maybe it's the result of good, balanced programming. Either way, I've never walked away unsatisfied with a screening of shorts. There's always been something that I enjoyed.
Last weekend, I attended an outdoor screening of shorts compiled under the heading "Romantic Short Films: Looking for Love." Presented as part of Rooftop Films' annual summer series of outdoor film events in NYC ("underground movies outdoors"), the screening included 8 shorts, with an intermission in the middle (which was much-needed, as I was sitting on some rocks and needed the stretching time), probably so the audience could buy more beers from the "concession" table. The films varied in length between 3 minutes and 22 minutes, one was animated (Brad Neely's Baby Cakes: Coffee Line), a couple were non-fiction (Beth Stratford's satirical Cheat Neutral and Silvia Gigliodoro's offensively invasive Roman Postcards) and two were up there with the most hilarious shorts I've ever seen (Teemu Nikki's Kaveri and Ian Martin's The European Kid, pictured above). The only problem with the collection was its programming, as the worst of the films was also the last one screened. And at 21 uncomfortable minutes, Roman Postcards clearly left the audience bored and restless, as well as possibly annoyed and dissatisfied.
Obviously a major reason moviegoers don't regularly seek out short film programs is that thousands of shorts, both amateur and professional, may be found on the internet -- on YouTube or elsewhere. All of the films shown at Media That Matters can be seen on the organization's website, and some of the selections in the "Looking for Love" program are available through a partnership between Rooftop Films and IFC on IFC.com (most of the rest can be located in other places). As luck would have it, though, The European Kid, which is the one short I've most wanted to pass on to my friends, is not available anywhere online -- as far as I can tell (it's also been shown this year at SXSW and the Midwest Independent Film Festival, so there's a chance you can locate it at another film festival near you one of these days).
Honestly, I'm not as big a fan of shorts programs at film festivals as I am of events like Media That Matters and "Looking for Love," both of which have a unifying theme. In a way, these kinds of programs have more appeal, because they cater to certain crowds. Activist types will be drawn to the former, while couples on dates will be drawn to the latter. Similar groupings of comedic, science fiction or other genre shorts are also likely more popular than randomly selected films. They work on the same level as portmanteau films (aka anthologies), such as Paris Je T'Aime and its upcoming spinoff New York, I Love You. The only difference may be that portmanteaus typically feature work by popular directors, such as New York Stories' grouping of shorts by Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and which apparently can't qualify for an Academy Award.
Even an anthology of films by the world's greatest filmmakers can feature a mixed bag of hits and misses, though, so principally it's not much different. If you like portmanteau films, it's very possible that you'll enjoy a program of shorts not intentionally produced and edited to be a whole. And if you're an impatient moviegoer or a cinephile with a short attention span or simply a movie fan who wants to experience some variety in your evening's entertainment, look out for screenings of shorts in your neighborhood. You might even get to "discover" the next cool indie filmmaker before everyone else does -- as I'm hoping is the case with my discovery of Ian Martin.