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Although they don’t get the recognition of features, short films are still a key expression of cinematic arts and are recognized at many of the world’s most prestigious events, such as the Short Shorts Film Festival (SSFF) & Asia, which will run in Tokyo on June 4–24 with the theme “cinema smart.”

The ACCJ Journal spoke to Linda Olszewski of Movies That Matter and ShortsTV–The Short Movie Channel’s acquisitions and programming, who is one of the jurors of SSFF & Asia 2018, about the industry and its growth.

Olszewski with Punkrobot Animation Studios’ Oscar-winning filmmaking team from Bear Story

Tell me about yourself and why you love short films?
I have worked in development, production, and distribution for both the short film and feature film industries at studios such as DreamWorks, Universal Studios, and Hanna-Barbera. This has included various feature and short film productions as well as film festivals.

In 2001, I was working on a picture with Luis Mandoki and Piotr Sobocinski, and one week into the picture Piotr died in his sleep. He was such a young man—early forties. A couple of days before he passed, he and I had one of those rare conversations that idealists have about film, the state of the world, dreams, wishes, and the best moments of our lives. When he passed, I went on hiatus and decided I wanted to crack the short film market.

I started in short films as a development assistant with Hanna Barbera, where we found character designs by talented artists who had an idea for a story. These became Johnny Bravo, Powerpuff Girls, and Dexter’s Laboratory. We got the greenlight to go into short film production with these, which later became TV series and franchises. Family Guy was seen at this time as well and, although it wasn’t right for the time, it became a success later.

My love for the format continued as I made shorts while at DreamWorks so that I would have something to add to the DreamWorks Short Film Festival. Hollywood veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg came every year to introduce the festival, and the first year Steven Spielberg allowed us to show his short, Amblin. It was a time when dreaming worked!

Eventually, I worked for various film festivals and, in 2006, brought the idea of the Oscar Shorts release to Shorts International’s ShortsTV–The Short Movie Channel, and I was hired to lead the Oscar Shorts launch on iTunes and in theaters. We partnered with Magnolia Pictures and have grown this Oscar-nominated short films release from 13 theaters to more than 600, with a global box office of more than $3.5 million this year. These nominees can also be found on Amazon, Google Play, Verizon, ShortsTV, and airlines.

What is the Short Shorts Film Festival?
Japanese actor Tetsuya Bessho founded the Short Shorts Film Festival in 1999 to introduce Japanese audiences to a format that many people in Japan are unfamiliar with. The first festival was held in Harajuku and 30 films were screened over three days. Twenty years later, the festival receives about 10,000 film submissions annually from around the world.

In 2001, the event became officially known as SSFF & Asia, and in 2004 was accredited as a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards—meaning the winner of the festival’s Grand Prix is eligible for nomination in one of the short film categories at the Academy Awards the following year.

The Short Shorts Film Festival Asia—or SSFF Asia—was established with support from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2004 to introduce new Asian video culture and nurture young filmmaking talent in the region. To this day, the two festivals are held together as Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of SSFF & Asia, we launched Brillia Short Shorts Theater Online so that people in Japan can enjoy watching short films from all over the world even if they cannot attend the film festival.

What qualifies as a short film?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines a short film as a work shorter than 40 minutes. SSFF & Asia calls for short films to be under 25 minutes. Ideally, it’s a complete, well-executed standalone film that wows the audience and stays with you long after you’ve left the cinema.

What are your views on commercial tie-ups?
I think it’s a great opportunity for filmmakers—especially branding opportunities such as Lexus Shorts, which doesn’t focus on the brand and doesn’t necessarily have the brand in the film. These opportunities are well funded and are a great training ground for promising directors.

Do you think the short film market will grow?
The short film market has had its highs and lows, just like any other media market. The Oscar Shorts had its biggest box office success ever this year at $3.5 million, so that is a good sign. There’s also ShortsTV–The Short Movie Channel, a 24/7 outlet for short films that is available through carriers such as DirecTV. And heavy-hitters in Hollywood such as Katzenberg of Wndr.Co, are getting into the short film game, so I think the future looks promising.

What is the state of the US short film market?
The Oscar Shorts can be seen in more than 600 theaters as well as on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. Together with ShortsTV–The Short Movie Channel, this has expanded the short film market in the United States. Amazon has also expanded access to short films, and airlines are now featuring them as inflight entertainment.

What are you seeing in this year’s entries?
There are always thematic trends, with filmmakers usually sharing their thoughts on the state of the world through their work. Immigration has been a popular theme, and there are dramas—lots of dramas. I wish filmmakers would focus on comedies! Good comedies are hard to find. When they hit, you get a clever film like The Eleven O’Clock, which was nominated this year for Best Live Action Short Film.

2016 SSFF & Asia Grand Prix winner Kristof Deak, whose short Sing received an Oscar in 2017

What is your most memorable short film?
Bear Story or Historia de un oso. I first discovered this film at Palm Springs Shortfest in 2015 during a weekend of screening close to 100 short films. There was a song that would not leave me all night long, and I realized it was the tune from here. I kept thinking about the short film and started telling my colleagues that I had seen a short I thought would be a nominee and could win an Oscar. I immediately reached out to Chileans Pato Escala Pierart and Gabriel Osorio Vargas and started to work with them on their Oscar journey—and they got nominated and won!

Do you see repeated themes these days?
Too many repeats, unfortunately. So many people are making films about the same thing, copying each other. It’s refreshing when a filmmaker tells a story in a new way. Access to filmmaking tools has made everyone a director, but not necessarily a good director. Also, with the acceptance of selfies, we see a lot of narcissistic selfie filmmaking, which is not interesting to anyone except the filmmaker who made the film.

Are short films to be a stepping-stone to features?
Yes. If a short is a proof of concept, when a filmmaker has a feature script ready it can serve to show that this film, character, actor, or story can work well as a feature.

What are your expectations for this year’s festival?
I am so excited to be coming to Japan to SSFF & Asia. I have heard such amazing things about this festival. It’s a dream come true to be able to go and, since I have never been to Japan, I am very excited to see a new country, a new culture, and a new part of the world.

Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia 2018 June 4–24

Venues: Andaz Tokyo Andaz Studio, Omotesando Hills Space O, Roppongi Hills: Hills Café/Space, BASE Q, Laforet Museum Harajuku, Shidax Culture Hall, Itscom Studio & Hall, Futako Tamagawa Rise

Most programs are free and shown in English and Japanese. Some programs charge an admission fee.

Maxine Cheyney is a staff writer at Custom Media for The ACCJ Journal.
If a short is a proof of concept, when a filmmaker has a feature script ready it can serve to show that this film, character, actor, or story can work well as a feature.