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Big Names in Short Films: The Spotlight We Need or an Establishment Takeover?

The short film is probably one of the most important and underrated tools in a filmmaker’s tool bag. Not only does a short film allow filmmakers to find their unique storytelling style, but it also serves as a platform for them to build connections and find their feet in an extremely complex and competitive industry. In the past, there has been an assumption about short films as they have been known to have small budgets and feature a cast and crew still learning their craft. While there is truth to this in many cases, short film has also long been the domain of truly boundary-pushing filmmaking and world class performances. In recent years some of the biggest names in the international film industry have set out to demonstrate exactly that. 

While creatives across the filmmaking landscape, including the likes of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Sofia Coppola routinely start out making short films, some, like Wes Anderson and Benedict Cumberbatch, seem to be returning to the short art form and winning Oscars in the process. So, we ask, is the presence of big names in short films the recognition we need? Or an establishment takeover? Let’s look at it from both angles. 

Big Names in Short Films: The Recognition We Need 

Let us start with the exploration of Wes Anderson as he, a Hollywood Auteur who has been nominated for eight Oscars previously, finally won an Oscar – not for a highly anticipated feature as expected – but for Best Live Action Short Film at this year’s Academy Awards. And as well as The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Anderson also has four short films adapted from Roald Dahl stories coming out soon, in connection with Netflix, of course. All of which feature an ensemble cast that include Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley and Richard Ayoade. 

In a recent interview with IndieWire, Wes Anderson reflected on short film and why he loves the freedom that comes along with it. While he may have had the stylistic edge over his fellow Live Action nominees (and of course the Netflix budget helped), Wes states that shorts give filmmakers space to experiment, play and steer away from the commercial confines of big Hollywood movies. 

Anderson also reflects on how short films give you the opportunity to play around and see what works in terms of special effects without worrying too much about Executive Producers and time constraints. He says that all the lighting tricks in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, specifically when sets are lifting or sliding apart, were done on camera rather than in post-production and this gives the short tale a personal touch that everyone involved can take great pride in. This is something he wouldn’t necessarily be able to explore in a feature as time is so precious and everything is fast paced. 

Following the release of queer-themed western short Strange Way of Life, directed by Pedro Almodóvar and starring Ethan Hawke, an article in El País described the film as telling a “compelling story” in 30 minutes, and labels it a “worthy addition to Almodóvar’s filmography”. Co-star of the film and the Mandalorian himself Pedro Pascal said of the experience “He [Almodóvar] absolutely opened up an entire world of storytelling, color, culture, rebellion, and sexuality that was just absolutely intoxicating, dangerous, hilarious, heartbreaking, and encompassing the whole spectrum, but with such a signature style.”

Strange Way of Life received a theatrical release via Sony Pictures and to date has earned a worldwide box office cume of $1,064,830. This may seem small next to the numbers we are used to seeing, but few short films can boast hauls of that size. 

When exploring short films with big names, a film well worth your time is drama Roy, directed by Oscar winning directors, Tom Berkeley and Ross White. This film follows a reclusive widower who accidentally calls an adult hotline worker, and an unlikely friendship is born. Any Harry Potter fan will see the poster for this film and will watch as it features none-other than David Bradley, who plays Argus Filch in the Harry Potter franchise. 

David Bradley is a huge name, and short films aren’t typically his thing, but in a recent interview, Bradley reflects on the themes of loneliness and isolation many older people feel when it comes to communicating online. He states that what interests him about short films is their ability to ‘pack a punch in telling a story’, and this is exactly what this film needed as it reflects real issues that impact a large percentage of our population daily. If you haven’t seen Roy, be sure to check it out (a box of tissues is advised!).

So, it seems even big directors and stars love the creative freedom when it comes to shorts. The above examples alone demonstrate the creative and commercial possibilities that lie within short film, when dedicated artists are allowed to fully explore their visions. The box office haul of Strange Way of Life also suggests the audience reach that the short film medium is capable of when utilising the clout (and talent) of established stars, not to mention its ability to get the kinds of films into cinemas that studios are backing less and less in the feature film space.

Short Films: An Establishment Takeover

Marquee names can serve to legitimise the short film medium to audiences not used to seeing shorts on the big screen. But does the presence of companies like Netflix in the short film landscape make things even more difficult for grass root filmmakers? 

Making a short film is the easy part. Finding an audience is the challenge. So, what would happen if streaming services and big names in Hollywood continued to make and distribute short films? Come awards season, whose work will we be celebrating? The emerging top-tier talent that has traversed the festival circuit or will it be the names we already know? 

Currently, Netflix, Disney and Amazon only accept short films with a big name attached. Additionally, with anthology series like Solos (featuring stars like Anthony Mackie, Helen Mirren and Anne Hathaway), Cabinet of Curiosities (exec produced by Guillermo del Toro) and Love, Death & Robots (from directors Tim Miller and David Fincher), one could argue that the rise of short film seems to be occurring absent the emerging talent that the medium has traditionally introduced us to. 

Don’t Panic Yet!

At present, it is highly unlikely that these streaming services will take over the short film landscape completely. Short film festivals remain out in force and popular online platforms like Alter, Omeleto, Dust and Short of the Week continue to draw huge international audiences. Perhaps the real threat of takeover lies not within the popular access platforms but in the awards landscape, specifically the Oscars. This year, all three of the short film winners were backed by big names and streaming services. In 2022, Netflix’s The Elephant Whisperers took the short documentary gong, while the BBC/Bad Robot backed The Boy, The Mole The Fox and the Horse voiced by Idris Elba and Gabriel Byrne took home the award for best animated short. The Riz Ahmed, starring The Long Goodbye, took home the live action short award that year and the Netflix-backed Two Distant Strangers snagged the same award the year before.

So, if this trend continues for the next five years, what kind of grassroots accessibility might we be seeing in the short film space? Is it possible that the presence of big names in front of the camera might open doors for the lesser known name behind the camera, or vice versa? Or might we see short film categories become a refuge for filmmakers and stars being pushed out of the theatrical wide release landscape by franchise juggernauts? Only time will tell, but for now, grassroots filmmakers should make that short film, submit it to festivals and have it compete with the best and brightest. If nothing else, they may well find themselves nominated alongside the biggest names in the game. 

What do you think? Is the presence of big names in short films the spotlight we need or an establishment takeover? Let us know in the comments! 


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