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ShortsLab: NYC Wrap-Up

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Todd Luoto

“Every time you make a short, it will never be in vain. It’s a win-win situation,” said Debra Granik to a full crowd during an early Saturday morning at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “The short may never come together the way you want it, but look at all the things you just learned.”

With this, there were nods, smiles, and notes taken, proving that these words rang true to many. Many in the audience—mostly New York filmmakers, a temporary transplant or two from LA, a handful of New Englanders, and many in film schools both in and out of Gotham—had been there and done that, and knew exactly what Granik was talking about. With countless projects in their rearview, the crowd zeroed in on the very reason they came to be here today: To be better. And they simply wanted to learn how.

ShortsLab: NYC marked the second of three stops for the traveling symposium and workshop created by Sundance Institute. Approaching its one-year mark, Director of Programming Trevor Groth, who led the day as an emcee of sorts, noted that this was an event that made sense to host in New York due to the great success of many locally based filmmakers who have been an essential part of the Festival.

Granik, who won the Grand Jury Prize with Winter’s Bone in 2010, was one of them. Joining her on a panel about story were Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson), and all three swapped stories, shared insights, and focused on the conception stage of creating short films in a discussion moderated by Scott Macaulay (Filmmaker Magazine).

“I don’t think there are any rules [to writing shorts],” commented Fleck after showing Gowanus, Brooklyn, the shorter, somewhat stiffer, and Ryan Gosling-free version of the Half Nelson story.

“Whatever your intention is with the short will help guide the questions. For us it was always getting Half Nelson made.”

“I feel when you see a short that rings that bell, you feel it,” commented Granik, who spoke of her love for short stories and how that influenced her own desire to work within the parameters (or lack thereof) of the short form. “With shorts, there are seeds created that can germinate and grow roots and branches.”

After a long, insightful, two-and-a-half hour conversation, and a rather quick lunch to follow, the audience was let back into the theatre to watch the first of three programmer’s picks, led by yours truly. I chose the 2008 film Spider directed by Nash Edgerton—a favorite of mine for its specific construction of characters and plot, and its ability to pull off into something quite fantastic and super fun (don’t believe me? click here).

After the film, we started our Production Block, a series of panels and presentations about one of the more challenging moments of a film’s creation. First, Yancey Strickler (co-founder of Kickstarter and a ShortsLab staple so far) led the crowd in a stellar presentation about crowdfunding. Exploring the do’s, the don’ts, the success stories, and the what ifs about his website, Yancey proved that Kickstarter is a truly fantastic tool for the independent filmmaker.

Next, local filmmaker duo Josh And Benny Safdie, who screened their latest short film John’s Gone, shared their amusing stories and struggles of shooting in NYC, and let the crowd know it was better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.

Jonathan Gray (Senior Partner of Gray Kraus, Des Rochers LLP)—who was quite unique in his ability to give both the legal perspective and a less rigid, artist-friendly viewpoint—gave a thorough presentation about entertainment law, and how it ultimately affected (or would affect, if proper precautions had not been taken) someone making movies. Next, Reed Morano (Director of Photography, Frozen River), Alan Oxman (Editor, Storytelling), and Carter Smith (Filmmaker, Bugcrush) spoke to their preferences and pet peeves in regards to the collaboration process. Finally, Michael Sladek from SAGIndie presented just what the SAG union was, how it started, and why it should help rather than hinder the independent filmmaker.

Shorts Programmer Katie Metcalfe presented the second programming pick, The Hunter and The Swan Discuss Their Meeting (watch it here).Metcalfe was quite candid in her retelling that the programmers all thought the 8-minute film was about two minutes too long when we deliberated last November, but it was the ‘magic,’ originality, and humor of the film that ultimately kept it on the board and won over a Park City crowd. She remarked that as programmers we’re looking for something special, not necessarily something that is perfect.

Next, Bob Moczydlowsky (VP Product & Marketing at Topspin Media) and Matt Dentler (Head of Content for Cinetic Rights Management) had a very friendly and extremely informative face-off about the pros and cons of the decisions filmmakers face regarding distribution or self-distribution opportunities. While Matt focused on more successful ways filmmakers have worked in the digital realm using aggregators, distributors, and more industry muscle, Bob spoke of a new frontier that enabled filmmakers to choose how and to whom their work is distributed. Neither side was really the winner, per se, but together they showed the audience that multiple choices exist for various types of filmmakers.

Programmers Katie Metcalfe, Jake Perlin (BAMcinématek), Sharon Badal (Tribeca Film Festival), and Mark-Elijah Rosenberg (Rooftop Films) were put in the hot seat and ‘forced’ to answer difficult questions generated in advance from the audience. From ‘What short do you regret passing on?’ to ‘Is there even a need for film festivals anymore?,’ the audience demanded nothing short of honesty, and programmers were happy to show filmmakers both their work and thought process when choosing their festival lineup.

Shorts Programmer Lisa Ogdie ended the day showing the 2011 International winner, Deeper Than Yesterday. Ogdie noted that Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman created a world in which atmosphere was key to believing in a story where a group of Russian submariners start losing their cool (and their minds).

We ended the day with a three-hour reception at the BAM café where attendees swapped cards, stories, and questions, and helped to expand their own creative network. At the end of the day, ShortsLab: NYC seemed to be as valuable to people as we hoped it would be. We learned a lot, met a ton of great and enthusiastic people, and we hope you did too. Thanks to everyone who came out.

Now, onward to our first Comedy ShortsLab happening August 6 right here in LA. Should be a fun one – can’t wait!

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Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

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A singular force within the documentary film world with a global reach, Diane Weyermann passed away at age 66 after battling cancer. Over the course of her 30-year career as a funder and an executive, her work elevated the documentary form and expanded its cultural impact.

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