Several generations of cinema-goers can probably still remember a time – and it is not even all that long ago – when short film, although still very lively, had almost disappeared from view because there were just a few screening opportunities left: It had been replaced in the cinemas by advertising and completely ignored by TV. And there were just a handful of festivals where it could really find an audience. In the last twenty or thirty years this situation has changed immensely: The numbers of productions and the screening opportunities are constantly increasing and there are more and more events worldwide dedicated to short film.
Today short film has to a certain extent become a victim of its own success. The interests and the stakes have increased, which however also reveals the other side of the coin. Now that we let short film play in the top league, it must also accept the rules prevailing there, especially the demand for exclusiveness required by several festivals – even if this does manifest itself in different forms.
This can simply mean that the film may not have already been screened in the region where the festival is being held. Or there may be various more or less restrictive variants through to the strictest conditions whereby the film may not have already been screened beforehand either at a festival or on TV.
In turn this also causes a dilemma for directors and producers: Should they entrust their film’s career to the more or less promising speculation that it will be selected for one of the few A-festivals? How do you decide on the “right” festival? What if the decision for one festival means deciding against another one? This is the main reason why many films are first submitted one year later to those festivals they have initially foregone in favour of others that require premieres. And to some extent by then they have already won prizes at other festivals. But can you accuse those selecting the films of preferring more recent films that have not yet won a prize anywhere and are clamouring for attention?
In fact the demand for exclusiveness creates competition between the festivals, one that does not even exist among the viewers. The professional audiences, and especially the trade press, are represented at the major feature film festivals, but beyond that they are quite rarely present at short film festivals. Thus it is hard to judge whether being labelled a “world premiere” or a “national premiere” really influences the festival audience’s opinion of the film and the value of the festival as a place to encounter film art. Like numerous other ones, the festival in Clermont-Ferrand has always taken a stand against the principle of exclusiveness.
While it enhances the status of those festivals which apply the principle consistently, at the same time it makes the timely circulation of a film far more difficult. Yet for that, the wide circulation of short film was one of the essential points among others in the “Code of Ethics” adopted by the European Coordination of Film Festivals (with 230 member festivals of which 40 are German). At the symposium on the subject of “How to Sell a Short Film” held in November 2009 at the International Short Film Festival Winterthur, Switzerland, Reto Caffi explained that his film “On the Line” had won 50 or 60 prizes after it had been screened at 150 festivals. However it is also easy to imagine how many or indeed how few festival screenings the film would have achieved in an exclusive festival scene.
Feature length films are constantly moving in a competitive environment, one in which the market is fixated on new discoveries and enormous financial gains. Here the festivals primarily function as a media-driven stepping stone to commercial success for the film. By contrast to date, short film has mostly not been subjected to this profitability principle. Short film reaches its audiences at festivals and partly also via television and the internet.
For this reason it is essential that short film can move freely and without any restrictions especially there where its audiences can also be found.
Christian Denier is a member of the selection Committee of the International Short Film Festival Clermont-Ferrand and team member of La Jetée.