Saturday, February 6, 2016

What's the Deal with Shorts in Theaters?

I have had yet another sleepiness night.  I should be trying to at least sleep during the day, but the last round of Oscar nominated shorts are showing today, and I need to do my civic duty as a critic to go see them.  I was in this situation last week when my mom pointed out that many of the shorts could be streamed online for free, so why bother going to the theaters to see them.  My response is the same one I have for feature length films: Because they look better in theaters.  Look, I know shorts aren't the big deal they used to be, so let me clue you all in on why they were a mainstay in cinemas in the Golden Age of Hollywood.  See, shorts, despite their lack of big budgets, served several very practical functions.  It was a good way to discover potential stars in the making.  You could test out new directors and get an idea of how they managed a small project before putting them to work on a bigger project (AKA: Movie).

They were a great way to test new visual techniques and figure out how they could work before using them in a feature film.  In the case of animation, shorts was a way to create new cartoon characters that could be spun off into TV and merchandise later on down the road.  In some cases, certain characters were so poplar, that putting the right short before an uncertain movie could help raise the interest of it to millions of people who otherwise wouldn't have paid to see it.  There are probably a few other advantages to shorts, but I think you get my point.  So the first question that is raised is why discontinue the shorts?  Well, shorts have never had a way to be financially successful on their own terms, so there was always a question mark attached to whether or not these things were financially stable.  Also the more popular TV got, the more companies realized that making shorts for compilation programs would be much cheaper on a TV budget than a theater budget.

So then the second question that this brings up is why do you need to see them in theaters?  Again, I like to point to theatrical movies as a prime example.  You can see "The Departed," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Frozen," and... alright, to be frank you can see anything that comes to theaters on home video (with the exception of "Song of the South").  Yes, these movies can be entertaining on a small screen, but they were made for the big screen and lose something when you take that away.  The same can be said for shorts.  While some are being made for the internet, the vast majority of them are still made with a big screen in mind.  The creators know that they won't spread very far in terms of how many people they will reach, but for the people who do see them they want an impression to be made.

Again, shorts are largely elaborate resumes for studios.  They are being made to prove that they have visual, acting, or writing talents to offer the big studios.  They may not be able to afford a feature film, but they may just be able to make a short.  Studio executives screen everything on a theater screen.  EVERYTHING!  If the short looks terrible on a blown up screen, the purpose behind it is completely meaningless.  So they make them with the big screen in mind.  Now that they are making these for a big screen, they figure they may as well go all out with them.  So they start to film/animate the short to be most effective when seen on the big screen.  Soon little details that are difficult to spot on a regular TV get put into the picture.  There may not be any money to be had in these things, but they are given the same amount of care and attention that the more profitable feature films receive.

For these reasons I am going to take every chance I get to see shorts on the big screen.  I would much rather lose half the previews we get for a short before every movie.  I think studios do themselves no favors by largely ignoring these (you'd think the success Pixar has had with shorts would prove just how valuable they can be).  And in a way, shorts CAN make big money!  In 1990 Disney released a movie called "Dick Tracy," which become a $100 million dollar grossing film (a much more impressive cum in those days).  The movie (which I want to mention I like) fell out of peoples memories pretty fast.  With mixed reviews the movie was targeted to lose a lot of money.  However...

...thanks to a Roger Rabbit short that was placed before the film, some industry experts believed a lot of people went to see the movie just because of the short before the feature film, and without it the movie might have struggled much more at the box office.  There are other examples like this.  Maybe we'll discuss them in a future article.


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