Movies may not be better than ever, but they often seem longer than ever.
Popular films like "The Patriot" and "Gladiator" clock in at way over the two-hour mark - and then there's the megahit "Titanic" at a whopping 194 minutes, proving that audiences will sit still for hours if they like what they're seeing.
It seems like a clear-cut trend. But as occasionally happens in Hollywood, events are steering in the opposite direction at the same time. Short movies are also in style - and with the growth of Internet and DVD technology, we may be seeing even more of them.
This doesn't mean shorts - generally defined as films less than an hour long - will be headlining the bill at your local multiplex. As with other pop-culture commodities, from music-stuffed CDs to doorstop-sized novels, sheer quantity is a selling point for movies aimed at entertainment-hungry audiences who want to feel they're getting their money's worth.
But multiplexes don't have a monopoly on motion pictures, thanks to secondary outlets - such as cable television, home video, and Internet sites - that can afford to be flexible, since they don't ask viewers to leave their living rooms. Moviegoers who wouldn't travel to the mall for a 15-minute movie might be happy to check it out on the World Wide Web or on a TV film channel. Specialized events like film festivals also showcase shorts, boosting their chances of reaching mass-market venues.
A cluster of recent developments is driving the short-film boom. Most important is the growing presence of digital technology that drastically cuts the cost of film production, shrinking behind-the-camera crews and replacing expensive celluloid with compact information chips. Editing equipment has also changed, allowing filmmakers to shape their final cuts on desktop computers.
These innovations have been embraced by established directors, happy to reduce the sway of money-minded producers, and by beginners in film schools and start-up production companies. It's the newcomers who are fueling the current blizzard of short movies, partly because shorts provide a way to make a big impression on a small budget, and partly because brief "calling card films" are useful for introducing yourself to the industry. New technologies allow neophytes to test their ideas and prove their proficiency with less financial risk than ever before.
They also provide fresh ways of getting films before an audience. Chief among these is the Internet, already a powerful force in moving-image entertainment (see "On the Net, 'the force' is with amateur filmmakers," page 16)
The number of online households has almost doubled in the past four years, according to Red Herring (www.redherring.com), a technology-business magazine, which notes that TV and movie-theater audiences are growing at tiny fractions of that rate.
Revenues from e-commerce are also soaring, the Web site reports, and - a crucial point - the same technology that delivers Internet entertainment allows marketers to track exactly who's viewing what, giving powerful incentives for business interests to cultivate the new medium.
Some 'short' answers on success
Why are short movies an important part of the Internet programming mix?
Web-surfing spectators like fast-paced entertainment that allows frequent changes in story and mood - exactly what short films provide, just as pop songs and news updates are kept short for radio listeners.
Another answer is that downloading a long movie takes a lot of time on most computers. Loading a short is quicker and easier, taking minutes instead of hours. Improvements in "streaming media" may soon eliminate this problem, but copyright laws and piracy worries raise serious questions as to when we'll be viewing new Hollywood features on home screens in real time.
And don't forget the small size of computer screens. It's easier to watch for 10 minutes than two hours when your actual viewing area is only a few square inches.
Another reason for the growing popularity of Internet shorts is the eagerness of young filmmakers to exploit computer-based distribution.
New directors Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt unveiled their airport-adventure short "405" on the Web on June 5, according to abcnews.com, and soon found themselves negotiating with top Hollywood studios to direct projects. Web distribution allowed them to reach large numbers of viewers, and other Web sites (devoted to games, aviation, and so on) set up links to their movie, catapulting viewership into the stratosphere.
The short-movie form is also attractive to those with commercial aspirations. This makes sense when you remember that the most commercial films of all are usually shorts: commercials, which have the unique challenge of developing a theme, articulating a message, and prodding viewers to take specific action - buying a product, espousing an idea - all within a 30- or 60-second time span. The best commercials are as creative as their counterparts in "pure" cinema, even if their motivations are more mercenary.
If shorts continue to rise in visibility thanks to Internet exposure, it will be important to remember that their modest length doesn't diminish their artistic worth. Shorts have an honorable history dating to the early days of silent cinema. Until around 1912, all movies were short movies. Features lasting an hour or more received a huge boost from the popularity of D.W. Griffith's epic "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915, but brief two- and three-reelers remained popular, especially for comedy. Short song-and-dance films paved the way for sound cinema in the middle 1920s, and as late as the '60s theater audiences expected at least one short -a travelogue, a newsreel, a cartoon, - to whet appetites for the main attraction.
The long and short of storytelling
Great filmmakers have created shorts in addition to features, moreover, just as great authors have written short stories as well as novels. "Land Without Bread," made in 1932 by Luis Buuel, and "Night and Fog," made in 1956 by Alain Resnais, are shorts every bit as renowned as full-length pictures by the same directors. Another is "La Jete," a 1962 short by French filmmaker Chris Marker, which inspired Terry Gilliam's fantasy "Twelve Monkeys" more than three decades later.
"Some ideas are simply right for short filmmaking," said director Pascal Aubier at the Lake Placid Film Forum in upstate New York this past June, where he participated in a panel on short-form cinema -and unveiled "Lip Stick," a seven-minute comedy filmed in a single shot with the camera stuck under a bed. In addition to features, Aubier has directed more than 60 shorts, finding this format ideal for exploring visual or intellectual concepts without stretching them beyond their "natural interest levels." He has also worked with French master Jean-Luc Godard, who has oscillated between shorts and features during his career.
Moviegoers on the lookout for shorts can check Web sites like Red Herring and Atom Films (www.atomfilms.com); video packages like the New York-based "Cineblast" series (www.cinemaparallel.com/CP.cineBLAST!.html). Video stores carry Hollywood-made anthologies like "New York Stories" and "Twilight Zone - The Movie." A swelling number of film festivals include shorts. And collections of short movies may also show up increasingly on DVD.
Long movies may continue to reign at the multiplex, but as a young filmmaker put it in an e-mail exchange posted recently on Indiewire.com, a daily online publication on the independent movie industry, home viewers "flipping channels or surfing the entertainment Web sites are able to have something today's moviegoers often don't: a sense of discovery.... The Internet is proving to Hollywood that audiences love short films."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society