Jon Korn has been a Sundance Film Festival shorts programmer since the 2009 Festival, and he’s now in his third year with the team. We wanted to introduce you to one of the six people who are currently deciding on the fate of literally thousands of submissions.
Tell us a bit about your background. Outside of the Sundance Film Festival, do you have another job? If so, what is it?
I grew up in bucolic Concord, Massachusetts, and then fled to California to attend Pomona College. While there, I majored in Ancient Mediterranean History, as is natural for someone looking to enter the entertainment industry. When not at Sundance, I have also worked for Outfest, AFI Fest, and CineVegas. I’m also the co-creator of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a convenience store for time travelers. Check me out on twitter at @kornlock for nuggets about film, baseball, and cakes my girlfriend has made.
What is the role of a programmer, in your opinion?
To me, programmers serve a curatorial role similar to the one filled by DJs or the best blogs. Only instead of music or hilarious cat photos, we wade through thousands of films every year to find the ones that we find most successful, then act as cheerleaders as we release them onto the world. There’s a big difference between a programmer and a critic, in that we have the privilege of only dealing publicly with the movies we love. It’s a pretty sweet deal. I have great respect for critics, but I’m psyched that I get to focus on championing the work I like best.
What attracts you to the short form?
The variety, for one. It’s like tapas, or dim sum, you get a wider variety of tastes than you would with features. Also, a short film can literally be or do anything, without the constraints of having to sustain itself for a hour plus. I’ve seen successful films that have no cuts at all and ones in which the shots were less than a second each. Finally, shorts are often the realm of emerging filmmakers. There’s something utterly thrilling about seeing real talent in its first stages of development.
What advice would you give filmmakers who are about to put their film out on the festival circuit?
Be realistic. Find films like yours and see which festivals they’ve played. Not every short film will play at Sundance, Toronto, and Clermont Ferrand—and not every one should. You’ll have more success and fun if you find the audiences your work needs. And don’t stop making films! You can get lost on the festival circuit for a year, collect giveaway luggage, and drinking free vodka. It’s fun (really fun—I’m there too!), but it’s not going to get your next project done any quicker.
What’s been your best festival experience?
I’ve been incredibly lucky when it comes to festival capers, hijinks, and monkeyshines. But my favorite experience came at the late, great CineVegas Film Festival, during a screening of Eraserhead with David Lynch in attendance. I was running the theaters that year, and just after the film started, I got a radio call from one of my staff inside. Baffled, she informed me that a patron “had inflated a balloon” and was “breathing from it.” Simultaneously bemused and annoyed, I had to go in and find this guy, who, as you might have guessed, had BYO’d some N20 to the screening. When he saw me, the guy knew the jig was up and started sucking hard on his balloon, to the point that I was worried he might pass out. I finally escorted him out of the theater, then delivered a lecture on how what he had done was wrong. I mean, seriously, bring that sh*t to Blue Velvet! (Also, later on, I told all this to Lynch. He loved it.)
What’s the biggest pet peeve when it comes to your shorts screening experience?
Please understand this comes from a place of love for all big-budget genre films. When not watching shorts about nuns with blood disease, I’m as into car chases, alien invasions, and shit blowing up as the next guy. But please, make sure your budget is up to the scope of your film. Homemade action and sci-fi films work when they embrace their limitations rather than ignoring them.
What are your thoughts on shorts distribution? How has it changed? What is the future? Who is doing it right and who isn’t?
I think it all depends on an individual filmmaker’s goals. If you want to break even—or even make money—from your short, you need to be aware of what the market looks like and what has sold recently. Alternately, find sponsor to offset your costs. (And not to be a pessimist, but very few films are able to actually make money.) That said, if you just want to have your film seen, I think the internet is an amazing tool. Those cats from above aside, the online world is one in which quality work finds an audience. Often more can come from the right people seeing your work than from any possible distribution revenue.