Aspen Shortsfest wields prestige in battle for visibility

April 3, 2016

Aspen Shortsfest wields prestige in battle for visibility

By John Wenzel, The Denver Post


Once upon a time, short films outnumbered full-length features at movie theaters. Serials and cartoons preceded prestige dramas, entertained kids and padded out less-substantive fare. They dangled viewers off narrative cliffs, instilled patriotism in times of war, and set implicit rules for how comedy, animation and action should play out on screen.

Outside of film festivals, however, they’re all but absent at movie theaters these days — minus the occasional Pixar flick.

“Shorts rarely get the same kind of spotlight or respect from the press and industry,” said Maggie Mackay, artistic director for Aspen Film. “But there are filmmakers who are now getting involved with making shorts — like Sean Baker, who’s made a string of celebrated features — and it’s opening up this space to play and experiment with storytelling in ways they can’t anywhere else.”

Aspen Shortsfest, Aspen Film’s celebration of all things brief and cinematic, is arguably the best laboratory in the world. It’s one of a handful of events exclusively dedicated to shorts, and one of the most prestigious.

Recent Shortsfest programs — which define shorts as anything under 40 minutes — have included titles like “Bear Story,” which in February won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and “We Can’t Live Without the Cosmos” and “Shok,” which were Oscar nominees.

As an official qualifying competition for the Academy Awards, this year’s 25th annual Shortsfest, April 5-10 at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House and Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre, is also a place for artists, industry and fans to mingle amid the juried competitions.

“They really fostered a feeling of community and made it known as a filmmaker-friendly fest,” Mackay said of former artistic director Laura Thielen, whose position she filled last year, and program director George Eldred. “We’re not embedded between galas and celebrity tributes at a much bigger event, so it allows the films to shine and for people to forge these lasting relationships.”

Shortsfest also gives the public access to the 40-something artists flying into Aspen for its Q&A sessions, panels and post-show drinks at the Hotel Jerome’s famous J-Bar.

“For the ‘Après Screenings,’ as well call them, you don’t need a festival pass to meet a director from South Korea or Australia,” Mackay said. “It’s totally open to the public.”

Of the 3,200 films considered for this year’s event, 56 made the cut for competitive programs, including Sean Baker’s “Snowbird,” a 12-minute piece commissioned by Paris fashion house Kenzo. It’s the first short for Baker, director of 2015’s acclaimed indie dramedy “Tangerine,” which followed transgender sex workers in Los Angeles and was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S.

“I’ve been particularly interested in shorts lately because of platforms like Vimeo, which has that wonderful staff picks section,” Baker said. “I haven’t been to a shorts-specific fest before, but Aspen is one of the leading, if not the top, shorts fests in the world, so that was immediately our first choice.”

Thanks to the explosion of cheap, readily available digital video in recent years and sites like YouTube, shorts have made an online comeback as business cards for young directors and workout rooms for technology and ideas. They lack the high-stakes production and marketing budgets of features, and therefore much of the commercial pressure.

“On top of that, if it turns people onto my features who haven’t heard of me before, that would be great,” Baker said. “As a filmmaker, especially in today’s world, you have to be a salesman. This is a way of keeping myself in the public awareness between my other features, which can take two to four years to finish, and gives me the opportunity to keep working in between.”

The format of Shortsfest, which is based around programming blocks with anywhere from four to eight shorts, last year attracted 5,725 people, according to Katie Shapiro, marketing and publicity director for Aspen Film.

This year features 13 world premieres and entries from filmmakers representing two dozen countries, including “Good White People,” which follows the gentrification of a historic Cincinnati neighborhood, the black-and-white animated film “I, Destini,” “Seide,” a Kyrgyzstan film about arranged marriage, and “Bacon and God’s Wrath,” Sol Friedman’s quirky documentary about a 90-year-old Jewish woman trying bacon for the first time.

“It’s much easier to have the resources to make shorts, so you’re working with a more diverse group of filmmakers,” Mackay said. “And we’re bringing them here. You’re not just watching a Taiwanese or Brazilian film, you’re getting to talk to the director in person.”

John Wenzel: 303-954-1642, or @johnwenzel

25TH ASPEN SHORSTFEST.25 This six-day showcase (April 5-10) — and competition — provides an avenue for filmmakers to qualify for the Academy Award and film fans to see exciting new work. Venues include The Wheeler Opera House in Aspen and the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale. Tickets, $7-$15, available at, 866-449-0464, the Wheeler Opera House box office (320 E. Hyman Ave.) or Bonfire Coffee (433 Main St., Carbondale).

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