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Short Films Get Online Boost

Thanks to a few hot websites, short films are more popular than ever–and HOLLYWOOD is taking notice. Sometimes smaller is better.

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Something trippy is going on here. Don’t short films — those rarely seen efforts by students and wannabe directors — exist solely to provide us with the hardest pick in the Oscar office pool? Then why does DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg sound like an all-night raver when he gushes that shorts are part of ”a completely new canvas…a new form of entertainment, a new medium that is going to be born of this world and this culture”? Why is former Universal Studios CEO Frank Biondi Jr. saying that shorts have become ”the vogue in entertainment these days”? What are these guys on?

They’re online, of course. Formerly the snack food of art-house connoisseurs and insomniac cable viewers, short films have this year become available en masse and around the clock at sites like iFilm (www.ifilm.net), MediaTrip.com, Reelshort.com, ShortFest.com, NetFest.com, and the leader of the pack, AtomFilms (www.atomfilms.com), which has Biondi on its board. So many folks are getting in — even Leonardo DiCaprio will hold his own mini-festival at http://www.leofest.com — that an industry-wide glut has been created. ”Eight months ago nobody cared about short films,” says Jeremiah Newton, the NYU film school’s industry liaison and Reelshort.com director of acquisitions. ”Now people are crawling under my door.”

Unlike some Internet phenoms — that Turkish Web stud Mahir, for instance — the popularity of shorts actually makes sense. They’re easy to download, they squish the plot of a feature film into a few minutes, and you can watch a new one for free every day—at work! ”The technology makes it available,” says Warren Littlefield, ex-NBC president and AtomFilms adviser. ”What you’re going to see is extremely popular characters on much more of a recurring basis.” Case in point: the current cult following for AtomFilms’ Joe Cartoon, in which a crudely animated animal is mutilated each week in ever-sicker ways.

Even more amazing is that these digital micro-hits are launching big-screen careers. Like other Hollywood hopefuls (and as an exit strategy from hellish UPN sitcom staff writing jobs), David Garrett and Jason Ward planned to spend a year submitting Sunday’s Game to film festivals. But first their tale of a group of elderly ladies who meet for a friendly game of Russian roulette appeared on iFilmPro, an industry-only preview area of iFilm. That same week, they were tapped to write and produce an animated series for Fox; now they’re negotiating a feature-film deal for a corporate update of The Caine Mutiny. ”I don’t think anyone in Hollywood thought a website could have this kind of impact,” says Garrett, 30. ”It just cut through all the bulls — -.”

That’s why Tinseltown hotshots are suddenly so interested in becoming pixel pushers. This spring will see the opening of Pop.com (www.pop.com), a site that will showcase the work of unknown filmmakers alongside humorous ”pops” by stakeholders Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Katzenberg—and a Rolodex’s worth of their pals who are likely to sign on. ”Eddie Murphy, he has hundreds of ideas,” says Bowfinger producer Grazer. But the real goal of Pop.com’s comedic shorts, he says, ”will be fusing new talent with edgy concepts that ultimately form a new narrative.”

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