A Tale of Two Shorts Festivals

Robert Avila August 10, 2006

Short subject films, if not quite the abused bastard stepchildren of the festival circuit, definitely spend Thanksgiving dinner away from the table at a TV tray in the den. For a long time now — ever more since the advent of the YouTube era — there’s been no shortage of worthy short subject work being made and even distributed in small, semi-private, or out-of-the-way venues. But there’s still precious little space of the big-screen brick-and-mortar variety where they enjoy pride of place and the kind of recognition accorded feature-length fare.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that it took four filmmakers to put together two Bay Area short film festivals, both of which are opening, by sheer coincidence, this week. As the San Francisco International Festival of Short Films launches its inaugural season and The SF Underground Short Film Festival celebrates its fifth, it’s worth asking how such festivals see themselves fitting into the lay of the land in a city burgeoning with film fests.

When friends and fellow Bay Area-based filmmakers James Kenney and Mike Coyne decided to organize a festival of short films, they were hoping for maybe 500 submissions. They got almost twice that number, and deciding among them became an unexpectedly time-consuming task.

Going against the theme-centric approach of most smaller film festivals, SF Shorts promotes diversity of subject and style as its central concern. Watching all those films was revelatory, though. “We both learned a lot, for ourselves as filmmakers, about what you need in a film to stand out, to communicate, to grab someone,” notes Kenney, a former title designer in Hollywood who later moved to the Bay Area to design titles for documentaries through his own company. He met Coyne while teaching a film class within the design program at California College of the Arts.

Kenney claims the impetus for SF Shorts grew naturally out of their day-to-day activities, interests, and connections with the larger film community.

Coyne was looking to showcase the short films he loved watching and saw being made around him, though rarely given the prominence they deserved. “I think it’s a little bit of a harder scale, like a short story versus a novel. So I just thought it was a great opportunity to show more of these films that I saw a lot of my friends making, or that we saw (Jim and I both teach) coming out of the school.

The success of the inaugural year of the San Francisco Shorts Festival will suggest the soundness of that vision. Kenney points to the documentaries as the strongest element overall. It’s also the most ubiquitous genre. In addition to a documentary program, SF Shorts includes documentaries in all four of its mixed subject programs. “We feel that our documentaries were really the best of the films we received this year. And along with that there’s what I’ve been calling, there’s been a weird play with actuality in the films we’ve received. So we have this mix of actual docs and fake docs throughout the whole program, and I think they’re by far the strongest films.”

Meanwhile, across town in the inner Richmond, Joshua Grannell (a.k.a. Peaches Christ, of Midnight Mass fame) and fellow filmmaker Vinsantos prepare to launch the fifth annual night of their San Francisco Underground Short Film Festival. An unabashedly trashy, tasteless, and tantalizing fest that boasts a live rock show, while inviting you to meet the filmmakers and “stalk the stars,” SF Underground is coasting along happily, according to Grannell.

“I would say that it’s still growing strong, based solely on the amount of submissions we now get. Every time we’ve held a festival and put a submission call out for new films we’ve received increasingly more.” This year’s count was a few hundred or so, according to Grannell.

“It isn’t that there are more and better underground filmmakers, it’s just that it’s taken a while for people to figure out and understand what we’re trying to do.” Still, Grannell says he still has a lot of explaining to do. “I’m having to explain it because there are so many film festivals in San Francisco, and why would you create a new film festival? So our mission statement is really specific. It’s that Vinsantos and myself are filmmakers in the Bay Area who had trouble screening our own films in our own city. We didn’t have any trouble finding venues, but they were often bars or basements or someone’s backyard. [We wanted] to really have a movie theater with a big screen, with popcorn, and a full audience –

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