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The Fourth Screen: Sundance Launches Mobile Initiative

By Tamara Krinsky

Couldn't make it to this year's Sundance Film Festival? Never fear; you'll soon be able to check out the latest Sundance content on the phone tucked right inside your bag. The Sundance Institute has teamed up with the GSM Association (GSMA) for the Sundance Film Festival: Global Short Film Project, an initiative to bring original, creative short films to the mobile platform.

Six independent filmmakers, all SFF alumni, have been commissioned to create five short films specifically for mobile distribution. The films debuted at the 3GSM World Congress, the world's largest telecommunications event, held in Barcelona from February 12 to15. Congress attendees were able to download the films in a variety of ways and then share them with friends and colleagues. The films will be available to all carriers; no one holds an exclusive license for the content. At press time, future distribution methods for the films were still being hammered out, but plans included downloading from websites and sending videos via cell phone--much like photos are currently passed along.

Diving into the unknown is one of the most exciting parts of the project for John Cooper, director of programming for the Sundance Film Festival and creative director for Sundance Institute. "At the conference, we'll be tracking where they spread," says Cooper. "I'm almost hoping that when we're there, other ideas will pop up. We took the avenue of no exclusivity, so the films can go everywhere. The spread of these little films, these little pieces of art, is going to be, hopefully, fast and amazing. There might be some kid out there who says, ‘Oh, I see what you can do with this. It's not just about selling me a product through a short film.'"

Bill Gajda, chief marketing officer at GSMA, said at a press conference, "It is our intent that these five films will have been watched by more people in the world a year from now than any other form of cinematic entertainment. We're going to demonstrate that mobile is a compelling medium and is able to deliver thoughtful, creative and original content on a scale that's never before been seen."

Cooper was intrigued by the creative challenge presented by the project. Sundance has always supported short film, but the explosion of online video has muddied the notion of the difference between a video clip and an actual short film with an artistic, cinematic touch. This project allows for experimentation with just how that aesthetic can be brought to what Robert Redford has referred to as "the fourth screen."

Says Cooper, "We were very clear that these had to be made for the small screen. We're hoping that through the experiment, it's going to inform other filmmakers who might want to be doing this, and we hope that it creates a dialogue about how this is different." He hand-picked the directors for the project, focusing on those who would be curious about experimenting with the medium and could work quickly and within the budget set by the Institute (approximately $20,000 per film). He also hoped to end up with five very different looking and feeling short films, so to that end, chose filmmakers of varying styles. Participants include Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine--SFF '06), Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow --SFF '02), Maria Maggenti (Puccini For Beginners--SFF '06), Cory McAbee (The American Astronaut--SFF '01) and Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way--SFF '06). Aside from budgetary restrictions, the filmmakers were given free reign to create their pieces. While Sundance may consider themed projects in the future, Cooper says that he wanted the directors to be free to just have fun and be creative, as those opportunities are few and far between.

While independent filmmakers and large telecom companies might seem to be strange bedfellows, the Sundance/GSMA deal is a good example of why content is king in today's media climate. At a press conference, Redford said, "Change is a good thing, it's an inevitable thing. There's always going to be the need for content no matter how diverse the distribution sources are."

Adds Cooper, "It's a wide open field, so why shouldn't independent film be there as well? Instead of waiting for it all to get established and then carving out a niche in it, let's just be there from the start. As corny as that sounds, that's kind of why we're doing this. Let's just say from the beginning that independent film--or at least independent artists and independent thinkers--has a place here as well    

"People think of festivals as being the pure of the pure, but actually we've never really been that," Cooper maintains. "For example, we were the first to use digital projection in our theaters. When you're in the independent film world, you have to embrace everything. To not embrace it, I think you're failing."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.