Dec 5, 2017

In Defense of Longer Movie Shorts

Olaf's Frozen Adventure

The odds are that if you have gone to see Coco over the past two weeks, you'll notice that everyone seems to be talking about the short that played before it, Olaf's Frozen Adventure. True, it is part of the ongoing adventures of Disney's most financially successful film ever, teaching a generation of kids to not let the cold bother them. However, it isn't necessarily because of the short's actual quality, but its quantity. Audiences have complained that due to the short being around 23 minutes, it has become a hindrance of their enjoyment of Coco. As a result, there are mere days left until this Friday when it will be pulled away. In a sense, we should be celebrating, but it also has raised a worthwhile debate: how long should movie shorts be, and should they be in front of every movie? I personally think there's nothing wrong with a double feature, if the circumstances are fair.
Every year, the Academy Awards hands out several awards to short forms of entertainment: Best Animated Short, Best Live Action Short, and Best Documentary Short. The odds are that with limited exceptions, you haven't seen them. For every Piper, there is a dozen The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.  While YouTube has made shorthand program more accessible, the idea of a short film hasn't become as prevalent in the theatrical experience. It makes sense, since the logistics behind showing them are a bit difficult. Who would pay to see a 15 minute short? It's almost not worth driving to see it. Since most short film directors aren't household names, the reliance on word of mouth would need to be Lady Bird-level huge in order to make it a worthwhile venture. 
But I contend that short films are important, and they're the hallmark of Pixar. If you've seen any of their movies, you'll know the joy about seeing a five or seven minute short that conveys a fully formed story in a compressed space. It's an art form, especially given that Pixar's style usually avoids dialogue driven narratives. It's great that they inspired Disney to follow suit, but it's unfortunate that few others have. With exception to films like Ice Age: Continental Drift showing The Simpsons short The Longest Daycare in front of it, it seems like the idea of shorts is relegated to limited space in front of family movies. It's a disappointing reality given the unlimited potential of a short that could be geared at more mature audiences.

World of Tomorrow

Consider something as provocative and abstract as director Don Hertzfeldt's World of Tomorrow, which uses mash-ups of animation techniques to present a complicated and philosophical debate on life. It's melancholic and, to put it bluntly, weird. It's also a film worthy of being discovered by an audience. Hertzfeldt is currently touring theaters with his follow-up short, which continues the journey of these characters. Imagine how wonderful it would be if the film managed to jump from niche, out of the way theaters and was placed in front of complimenting art house cinema. Maybe then it would get further appreciation, possibly on par with Pixar's excellent work. After all, shorts like Piper and Sanjay's Super Team mostly benefit from this double feature format. Most other filmmakers likely would get the same bump if they appeared in front of something like The Shape of Water.
Financially, it also makes sense to have a double feature. In a society that craves Black Friday bargains, the idea of a double feature should be presented as a bargain; a chance to see more entertainment without any cost change. At best, it would surprise audiences and find new talent to introduce into main feature territory. The idea may seem bizarre now, but think of the potential if more films followed in the shoes of something like Logan from earlier this year. While the accompanying Deadpool segment qualifies more as a teaser, it's a revolutionary idea that a comic book movie would piggyback off of itself with a side adventure from another character. Deadpool was always part of Wolverine mythology, but tonally he wouldn't have fit the dreary narrative. If superhero movies invested in the pregame short, then it could expand the universe by introducing new characters without muddying the existing narrative. In fact, Marvel has been doing something similar with Marvel One-Shots, such as Item 47. The only difference is that those appeared in home video releases. While it's great to have it as optional entertainment, reducing it to a Blu-Ray extra seems derivative of getting a short noticed.

Scene from Deadpool: No Good Deed
This is of course a broader debate because it's impossible to encapsulate all the potential that putting shorts in front of movies could do. The main issue is in part the other realities of seeing a movie in 2017. The average set of movie trailers is 15-20 minutes (and in some places higher), so adding Olaf's Frozen Adventure on top of that would create a 45 minute wait time. This is an inevitable issue, and the one strong counterargument to putting on a longer short. Disney's one saving grace is that the short was heavily advertised alongside Coco. Even then, Frozen's reputation is different than the average film school director, and thus brings with it an overbearing presence in pop culture. Add in the established belief that the short was intended as a TV special, and it immediately becomes a cynical marketing technique. Sure, it's smart to cash in on Frozen's success, but not at the expense of appropriating something to a different medium.
It also doesn't help that the idea of a short movie is selectively determined by those who use it. Pixar and Disney have created the understanding that shorts are meant to be under seven minutes. It's a fair enough argument for family entertainment, especially as children eagerly await the movie that they came to see. But beyond that, it feels like there's a great market to explore double features in more traditional entertainment. Art house would seem most easily equipped to handle the experimental nature of shorts, though even then blockbuster movies could have action-related shorts to entice audiences into discovering something new. Again, length is a controversial issue. For mass entertainment, it may be best to start small. For movies less geared towards big box office, it may be safer to go longer.

Scene from Piper
I would love to imagine that something like The Shape of Water could have a macabre and silly little short from some film student influenced by Tim Burton. Maybe it could be an abstract tale with rich German Expressionist imagery. If the industry does this, there's risk of a backlash to making the pregame entertainment longer than it needs to be. If shorts are seen more as an art form, then maybe that conversation would change. It would help artists get their work out there, as shorts have, at best, only film festivals and viral luck to go off of. If they get their work out there, then maybe it will create an interest for stories outside of two hour structures. I personally am of the mindset that a half hour short is more than reasonable - in the right circumstance. It can't be force fed onto audiences like Olaf's Frozen Adventure. It has to have some heart and ingenuity. Maybe that's what people leery to longer shorts need to realize. There's potential not explored on a mainstream level that could improve the movie experience. It just needs to be given a chance first. 

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