To watch a movie nominated for the best feature-film Oscar - say, The Wolf of Wall Street - viewers must settle into theater seats for up to three hours. Or, in about half the time, they can catch five Academy Award-nominated short films. For the fifth year, the Gateway Film Center will screen five films each in the categories of animation, documentaries and live action.
To watch a movie nominated for the best feature-film Oscar — say, The Wolf of Wall Street — viewers must settle into theater seats for up to three hours.
Or, in about half the time, they can catch five Academy Award-nominated short films.
“For a lot of people this time of year, art theater is pretty dead,” said Neal Block, head of distribution for Magnolia Pictures. “This is a nice thing to have sometime in late January or February, and people get excited about it.”
Block works with distributor Shorts International to assemble programs of Oscar-nominated short films in animation, documentaries and live action.
“There’s a whole world out there that isn’t feature films or TV,” he said. “There’s a whole genre that exists in a space its own, and it has merit.”
For the fifth year, the Gateway Film Center will screen five films each in the categories of animation, documentaries and live action.
Short films needn’t follow the typical feature-film storytelling narrative, said director Daniel Sousa, whose 13-minute-long Feralwas nominated in the animated short-film category.
“They’re like little poems instead of prose,” he said. “If you respect the audience, there’s a lot the audience can discern from a few clues. You don’t need a lot of explanation to get a story across.”
And animation is suited to brevity.
“The inherent magic of the medium wears out after the first 10 minutes or so if it doesn’t have a strong story,” Sousa said.
Sometimes, the format of a film is evolutionary.
Edgar Barens shot 300 hours of footage for his Oscar-nominated short documentary Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall. He envisioned a feature-length film about a dying inmate’s last days in a prison hospice.
While trying to edit the movie, though, he became bogged down.
Officials at HBO became interested in the project and asked him to submit his best three hours of footage. An HBO editor trimmed the film to its final 40-minute length.
“In retrospect,” Barens said, “I think the short (film) is better because of the issue the film deals with. I don’t know whether somebody could sit through 90 minutes of a prisoner dying of terminal emphysema.”
And the fresh editing perspective helped to create a focused film.
“That’s why it was so powerful,” Barens said. “I was going off on tangents. It would have been dangling and loose and not focused.
“I think the short format is perfect for getting even these big-issue films out there.”
Another nominated documentary, Facing Fear by director Jason Cohen, tells of a gay man who, 25 years after being left for dead following an attack by young neo-Nazis, meets one of his attackers in a chance encounter — in, of all places, the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York.
Telling such a dramatic story in only 23 minutes required discipline.
“In doing short film, part of the challenge is figuring out what stays in, what stays out, what advances the story and what doesn’t,” Cohen said.
“You want to inform the audience, you want them to stay with the film, but you don’t want to give them too much. It’s a little bit of a balancing act.”
The short-film programs have gained a following.
In 2006, the first year that the films were screened, about 35 theaters nationwide participated, Block said. Last year, about 450 theaters offered the program, and he expects similar participation this year.
“The popularity has grown in a way that I’ve never experienced with any other film release,” Block said. “We go up significantly from year to year.”
The growth, in part, can be attributed to the compelling nature of the films, he said.
“I find that short programs that are released theatrically, they don’t do very well, but, because this has a pedigree of being Oscar-nominated, it transcends the short-film ghetto to become something that people really want to see.
“I think that some of the best filmmaking in the Academy Awards is in our program.”
Also, Cohen said, viewers are more conditioned to short films than they once were.
“In today’s day and age, a lot of people are watching movies on computers and cellphones. I think they’re less likely to watch a 90-minute film on their cellphone.”
Even though no big names such as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese can be found among the current batch of short-film directors, both made their directorial debuts in the genre.
“And you always find that people who win (Oscars) get signed immediately to deals to direct features,” Block said.
Although he hopes to shoot a feature film, Prison Terminal director Barens encourages viewers to sample short films.
“They are jam-packed,” he said. “They get to the point. They’re succinct.
“No pun intended, but don’t sell them short.”