Mike Plante Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer for Short Film

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This year’s Sundance 2022 includes 59 short films plus 40 films of the “From the Collection anniversary program. The Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize was awarded to “The Headhunter’s Daughter” from Filipino director Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan. Sundance Festival Juror Blackhorse Lowe said of the decision, “We were entranced by this poetic and dream-like film, which follows its character’s intimate journey with gorgeous cinematography and direction and acting, capturing a unique sense of place.” Following the award ceremony CineVino virtually connected with Mike Plante, Senior Programmer for short films at the Sundance Film Festival to discuss the diversity of this year’s Sundance Film Festival shorts program while gaining insight into how films are selected with some treasured advice for filmmakers looking to submit a short film for future Sundance Film Festivals.

Wesley Marsh: The earlier 2000’s is when you started so basically twenty years now at this point right?

Mike Plante: Don’t remind me. (Laughs) Yeah, I think this is.. I always have to redo the math, I guess this is my twenty first festival.

WS: So you started with three programmers with the shorts and now you are I think, up to eight, is that true?

Mike Plante: Yeah, this year it is nine. Eight of us watch the submissions and then Heidi Zwicker, she comes in later and does both. Yeah so nine of us pick the films to play the festival.

WM: So how many films were submitted this year and how many were selected?

Mike Plante: A little over ten thousand three hundred were submitted which seems ridiculous. I should send you a screenshot, it really did happen. But we take six months to watch them so we do get through them all. And normally we have I guess the freedom to show up to eighty shorts. So we cap it at eighty we usually between seventy and eighty depending on the run times. This year because of the pandemic we were a little bit smaller, we did fifty nine shorts this year but hopefully next year we will be back up to seventy five or so.

WM: Very good, still a lot of shorts. choose from. So after last year’s festival and going to this one, how did the programming team alter how they went about selecting films or the criteria for the short films?

Mike Plante: Not at all. You know the good part about the process is our job is to find good films and interesting filmmakers and show the movies. And we would love to do that in a movie theatre obviously (laughs) but it didn’t impact us too much other then that the fact that we are showing less it just means more great film. We never have enough room for all the great films we see. So unfortunately we showed less but it didn’t really impact what we did. We make a program and you know, we try to find a film that will be the great anchor that will show last. What kind of good short will show at the start. What will open it. And we make each program do a little bit of a roller coaster ride. So you will have drama, comedy. We do have a couple of programs that are only documentary. Some thing, you want some heavy stuff and some light stuff. Some things may look super slick like they cost a lot of money and other things cost less than a hundred bucks. You know, we like to show a lot of variety of what is being made. So we stuck with that. Even though we are showing less at the time we picked them, we thought we’d be in person, so nothing being in virtual really changed what we did thankfully.

Dorothy Oliver appears in The Panola Project by Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
 “Just because certain things that are very mainstream make money, that is not necessarily what we are interested in. Tell us your small stories, tell us your regional diverse stories” – Mike Plante

WM: So would you say that the pandemic influenced the styles of films that you watched this year?

Mike Plante: Not really. Of course we had a lot more shorts that had something to do with the pandemic, or COVID or isolation. We usually see stuff that is influenced by what is going on in the world though so that didn’t seem unusual. I feel like some, just personally I think some genre-films were hurt pretty bad. Some films that you might need a bigger crew on set for. That you might need special FX, bigger special FX and practicals, I feel like we saw less of that which is too bad.  and I don’t know if we even saw that many Sci-fi themes, something that might need a big set and people to construct it. I feel like that got impacted.

However our archived documentaries are thrilled by the pandemic because you can sit around and edit with all the footage that’s already done. So we saw a lot more of that. And you know in good way, we saw a lot of films, subjects and themes that are about reassessing character situation. And it wasn’t always about COVID at all. It was more about you know you see films now with two main characters instead of seven and a lot of characters, even in the documentaries had a positive spin. They were like okay this is my life right now this is what I am forced to do every day, how can I make that more of my own. How can I have power over what is going on in my life. And sometimes it was really heavy and other times it was very light, just what you can do in the every day.  So I am guessing that the it might have influenced and it might have influenced how I look at it too. And I just see themes that are not really there. We saw a lot of positive stuff that was enlightening, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Not worse than usual.

WM: Yeah, I understand. Definitely. So tell me how the Sundance shorts program aims to be an inclusive program for diverse forces of storytelling?

Mike Plante: Well you know, part of our job has always been to find unheard voices. And right from the start when Robert Redford started the labs and started the festival there has always been a focus on indigenous storytellers and movies, and writers and everybody that works behind the scenes. And since then we have been lucky in the shorts program because we get so many films in general there are less barriers to making a short film. A feature often costs more money, it takes more people and then you start getting into people who have to improve and give you permission for what you do and that is where things get messed up in this industry and with a short some people do spend a lot of money but for the most part you can get it together and make a short without somebody’s permission and so we see so many more diverse people in front of the camera, behind the camera and it is really.. were lucky, getting ten thousand films we have more to choose from. When it gets down to it, there is still the same problem as always there is always more good films that we could possibly show but for the most part you start with what are the best films, the best stories and you end up with a very diverse program and we double check ourselves at the end like I okay what are our numbers and what do we have here and who is telling these stories that we like, is there someone else telling the story is and is it a similar story and what is each filmmakers connection to the story. We start to look at things like that as best we can with the information we have and you make sure that you have a really diverse program.

Mike Plante: You know we are an American festival and we want people who are coming to the festival to see what America really is. And that is a really diverse population. All kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of social stature just around American and then we try to show a lot of stuff from around the world and you hope that you are seeing everything that is being made. So part of it is that. Making sure that you’ve got the best and the diverse from what is being submitted. And it is difficult because it takes some time outside of our usual schedule but then we make sure we go to regions especially in America but also outside of the country and make sure people just know what we are doing. I think part of it is they don’t understand are rules. We have no World Premiere status. We want to make sure you can show somewhere else and still show at Sundance. I think a lot of folks don’t send their shorts to us because they are worried about that rule. You know we will show something if it’s online and then I think it is also just scary. Before I work here, I came here one year and it is really big, it’s really expensive and you are like, I don’t if I can make something like this. So we spend a lot of time not just talking to film schools but just going around to as many community centers as we can just saying  “we want to hear your story”. Don’t feel like you have to be what Hollywood is representing for us to the interested in you. Just because certain things that are very mainstream make money, that is not necessarily what we are interested in. Tell us your small stories, tell us your regional diverse stories and we want to try to help as much as possible. So we try to do that outreach too as much as we can.

The Headhunter's Daughte
Ammin Acha-ur appears in The Headhunter’s Daughter by Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan, winner of the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

W.M.: So that being said, how has the short film audience demographic change in recent years and how does the Sundance Shorts programing look to serve the filmmaker and connect them with the industry?

Mike Plante: I think the audience has gotten wider and diverse and just bigger because of the internet and which is a good thing. It’s a messy thing trying to find something on, especially that you’re just searching for titles that are similar. But, you know, I think the fact that people can see shorts easier now, whether it’s through paid websites, paid streaming services or free websites. The more people realize you can make a short film too and like maybe hey, maybe my story.. You know, all the indigenous shorts we show? Oh, maybe that’s me too on screen, I can also be making a short because this person made a short. And if you didn’t come to the fest before, you couldn’t, you might not know that. And maybe you didn’t have a regional film festival that was good wherever you live and you could know that. And so the internet’s help that and I think, you know, everybody has at least got 10 15 minutes to watch something. So I think the internet’s really made the audience bigger. For us, serving the filmmaker in general, you know, our job is to put on a great event and have show the best films we can find have a good program that has a lot of mix of styles and stories and voices. And if you come to the festival, you’re going to see really great stuff presented with great projection, great sound, and it’s going to be a fun event. So beyond that, all we can really do is we connect the industry with all the shorts we show. So, you know, I have about 300, 400 like true industry members that I’ll sit in the shorts too, that are with companies that are agents, managers, some producers that are looking for talent. And then all the streaming websites from the New Yorker magazine to Netflix to Aeon magazine, you know, a lot of all different kinds of sizes. And often they’ll pick stuff up the license it and then some websites are looking for talent to work with. Obviously, the big websites like like Hulu sees all our shorts and they don’t buy shorts, but they want people to work with. So you hope they make these connections? The best we can do is just tell everybody, Hey, these films are really cool. You should watch them. And, you know, often it does help because sometimes they’re looking for the storyteller, but also like, Oh, I like how this was edited. I like how this was shot and people can find jobs that way. Of course, actors, it’s great to be in a lot of shorts. We see so many people do still do shorts, even if they’re into TV shows or they’re in movies. Zachary Quinto is in a short this year, and I think I think actors really just want to work, so hopefully we can help. As long as the industry can see these films and understand these voices exist, we hope that then the connections can be made after that.

W.M.: So would you say that the industry demand for short films has changed in recent years?

Mike Plante: Yeah, probably the last, definitely in the last decade because of the internet and in the last five years with ah the craziness that’s going on like how many websites do I gotta buy now? It used to be like I grew up with video stores and you go to a video store anywhere like, OK, I can get all this stuff. Now it’s like, Oh, I want to watch this movie so I got to drive an hour because that one video store is the only one that’s got that videotape. You know, it’s kind of nuts. And I get it. The competition. But on the flip side, I hope I think that’s going to be good for short short films and short filmmakers, because if you want something good, you should be paying for it. The stuff you know, you shouldn’t be getting good movies for free if you’re a very giant company hat’s charging people to watch them, you should pay for what the best is out there. So I think the demand has definitely gotten bigger because of that.

WM: So do you think that the industry demand for short films influences how Sundance selects films that are submitted to show?

Mike Plante: Nah, we couldn’t care less I got a job either way. (laughs) No, we’re lucky again because this has been the standard, you know, I’m showing a short. I think it’s great. Or maybe we’re showing a short that we think is difficult, but we think there’s something to be said. We’ll also show a short that’s like it’s messy and probably should be two minutes shorter. Maybe the camera, it’s not perfect, but there is such there’s something about it. And usually it’s in the the meaning and in what it’s conveying to audiences. And it’s not super slick, and that’s fine. We’re going to show that anyway. And people can see it. That’s our job, we’re nonprofit and that probably helps. And and I don’t know what the filmmakers really want to do. A lot of filmmakers we support teach for a living. And then they tell the story they want to tell. They don’t ask for permission to tell it. And other folks would like to jump right in the commercials, jump right into features or streaming. And that’s cool, too. We can make that connection and hopefully it works out. So we’re super lucky where people will come to see films we show we have sponsorship so we can exist, and we hope the industry can interact with the people that we find as well. However, they choose to do so.

WM: OK, tell us a little bit about the “From the Collection” anniversary shorts. Do you have a personal favorite from the collection?

Mike Plante: The anniversary shorts, it’s the 40th anniversary of the Sundance Institute, our summer labs and the festival started a few years after that. We thought it was just a nice crossover. Especially because, like we’re saying, the last ten years, short film audiences have blown up and kind of figured out they existed. But I don’t think people know that, you know, short films, it was the first type of film made, and it goes away for a little while and TV kind of becomes the version of short films for a while and then it comes back in in the 60s and 70s with film schools and with film festivals that have been around ever since. So we thought it’d be a fun way to show the history of shorts. Also, it was just kind of hard to find a lot of old stuff because people don’t have quick time of the shorts even before, like 2010, so you’re like, Oh man, OK, we’ll try to help you get a transfer. So it was great and we did the same thing we always do, like so many great, diverse voices, so many different styles. I don’t have any, you know, I like all of them. Honestly, I am not lying. I really like all of them. And because we only had to do 40 it makes it good. The ones that pop in mind are Greetings from Africa by Cheryl Dunye. which is really funny, a very small personal film from the late nineties. I’ll say the wrong year, but it’s late 90s (1996) and really feels like a 90s film feels like like, you know, she is a filmmaker. She did all of this herself, and it’s her story, and it’s funny. That was a really great one. From 2001, there was a short called the Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, which is about when graffiti gets painted over and over again and it becomes sort of like a Rothko print. And so it’s a documentary, but it’s a fake documentary, but it’s kind of real. This new art form that’s made when cities, cities and a secret agenda to make Rothko art over other people’s graffiti. That was a really good one.

“Solo Un Cargador (Only A Porter)” part of the Sundance From the Collection” anniversary shorts.

Mike Plante: And then another one from the mid 2000s is “Solo Un Cargador (Only A Porter),”. It’s a it’s a really beautiful 16mm portrait of a porter that carries luggage up and down Machu Picchu made by this Peruvian filmmaker. I’m picking all films made on film, which is, of course, nostalgic. I don’t think you have to make a film on film, but it’s it’s nice. It’s interesting to see the different eras of that film, that filmmaking now.

W.M.: OK, so quickly, tell us some advice you would give to filmmakers for submitting a short film?

Mike Plante: Two things. Work from your backyard. Like, what’s a story you know inside and out that you can tell somebody in two minutes and entertain them and it can be happy or sad, it can be real or fake. That’s the story you should be telling. Don’t jump on the bandwagon of whatever’s popular. You can always get work later because you made something good. But do something you know inside and out. And then also for the production, like, literally, what’s your backyard look like? We’re doing a film that’s great this year called Hallelujah. He had his backyard. He made in the backyard, and it looks nice. Do you have a friend who has a cool place? Do you have a friend who has a nice car? Do you have a friend who’s a standup comedian and can remember lines and not mess up and do the same thing over and over again in front of a camera. That person should be your actor. So things like that, what’s the backyard? And then nobody is waiting for any of us to make a film. I make documentaries, and no one’s waiting for me to make another film. Nobody. People aren’t waiting for Redford to make another film anymore. So nobody cares what unless you’re one of like ten people in Hollywood. Nobody cares what you do. So that is great. You can mess up. You think something took what was going to take one month? It took a year. Fine. Who cares? There’s no pressure on you to make other people happy. Take the time you need. Do what you want to do. The short didn’t work out, Alright, make another short. There is no wrong way to go about this. Like, keep, trying and keep failing, go at your own pace and do exactly what you want to do and don’t worry about other people’s opinions.

Hallelujah Sundance
Bruce A. Lemon, Richard Nevels, Stephen Laroy Thomas and Mariah Pharms appear in Hallelujah by Victor Gabriel, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

WM:Excellent advice. So last question here. Tell me what excites you the most about the future of short filmmaking and the Sundance shorts program?

Mike Plante: I think really not to keep harping on the internet, I hope most people see short films in a theater. But I’m just happy that people can see films easily, see short films easily. It was such a mysterious, weird thing that you had to do in school, and you had to prove you can make something so you can make something else. And I think it’s become its own art form. The way someone’s a poet and someone else writes a novel, the way somebody writes an opera. When somebody else writes a two minute song, you know, short films finally being seen as its as its particular art form, and it’s become an easier and easier to watch it when they’re in the theater online. And, you know, even with it becoming a competitive space for how you find stuff, I just think it’s it’s the best era ever for short films to be made and found and seen, and that’s really exciting, even if I wasn’t doing this gig. It’s pretty exciting. I’m pretty happy about where we’re at for this.