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Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.

 

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SilverDocs Report - ITVS and the Short Film

ITVS AND THE ART OF THE SHORT STORY

A workshop with Richard Saiz, Senior Programming Manager

I attended a very engaging and thought-provoking workshop with the ever eloquent and incisive Richard Saiz. It was an interactive session where Saiz posed the possibility of the short form documentary taking on more prominence in the near future because of the streaming video audience. His theory is that the traditional ½ hour doc is a hard length to program on television, but a perfect length for online viewers, whose online attention span has grown from 2 minute YouTube videos to actually viewing films and programs up to 25 – 27 minutes in length at an average sitting. And he added that online viewers are beginning to seek richer content and better produced material as well.

“Nobody’s an expert when it comes to this new landscape,” Richard said. “But it’s clearly not all about ‘appointment watching’ or the TV grid anymore.”

“When I look at the ITVS catalog, the overwhelming majority of projects are one hour (56:40). The reality is that we’ve funded very few ½ hour films, but we’ve always been supportive of them”.  Meaning that you could always apply for a short film to be funded, but in actuality very few are awarded licensing agreements. “My thinking is that ITVS needs to support more ½ hours…I want to see more ½ hour project submissions.”

Saiz is clearly committed to the idea that shorts could be a bigger part of the future of ITVS and CPB programming. “We have to start thinking and being really nimble in a world that’s changing. You need to think ahead and look ahead to what people are consuming on the other end.”

For new filmmakers, Richard advised, “If anyone here is applying to ITVS and hasn’t been making films for more than a year, seriously think about the ½ hour doc. It’s really hard to get funded for an hour-long program.” As if we needed more convincing, he urged us to think about the great short stories. They can have as much impact as a novel.

As for content, even with the short form, ITVS’ dictates and preferences still apply. Though they do fund diverse types of shows, for the most part they are seeking narrative, character-driven documentaries. These films must have multiple layers of meaning and go beyond the literal plane to the metaphorical plane. In other words, what makes the film universal, and larger than just the obvious story? How will a large audience connect with a small, or specific story? A character goes on a literal journey of some sort, but what is the larger meaning of that story? These are things a filmmaker has to be able to articulate and portray in the application and the film.

After this introductory discussion, Richard showed 2 examples of short films that he thinks work well for ITVS, “Smitten” by Nancy M. Kelly and “A Son’s Sacrifice” by director Yoni Brook. He suggested that perhaps rather than the 3 Act structure, that short films have 2 acts. “Smitten” seemed to fit into this model, with character development deriving the first 17 minutes or so, and then some plot complication and resolution in the 2nd half of the film. A Son’s Sacrifice seemed to follow more of the 3 Act structure.

Richard offered that in a short doc, you need to quickly establish character and motivation – in the first few minutes. The first half can be set up, but then really something needs to happen to move the plot forward in the second half. We’re ready at that point for some conflict and tension. But, he added, “The beauty of the ½ hour doc is that the audience doesn’t have to wait very long for the answer”.

Saiz handed out an outline of the parameters of a ½ hour documentary which looked basically like this:

  1. Single, character-driven plot line
  2. 2 Act structure – 1st act being character and motivation, 2nd act being “golden moments” and plot points
  3. Agelessness (the film should be evergreen, with a long shelf-life so it can be programmed with 90 minute films to complete a 2 hour time slot if necessary)
  4. Other forms are good too – Essay, Animation, etc.

But one thing that these films are NOT, are portraits, Saiz warned. So, stay away from just character profiles, and make sure that there is story, some action and plot development, along with resolution.

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For more advice from one of the top documentary film festival programmers, listen to the archived Doc Talks interview with Caroline Libresco, Senior Programmer Sundance Film Festival in the DocuMentors members area.