by Marilyn Lester
By the early 1980s it wasn’t easy to find any kind of venue playing short films. Commercial movie houses mostly stopped showing them, TV outlets were marginal, and the internet, YouTube and Vimeo weren’t even concepts. This, despite the fact that shorts have always been a bona fide art form with a consistently healthy and devoted fan base. This year’s Asbury Shorts Concert, a festival of mini-films and more, will prove that point as fans gather on November 6th at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) auditorium in Manhattan.
Asbury Shorts began in 1980 in that milieu of scarcity. Doug LeClaire, head and director of the Asbury Shorts show, was then a film student at the Long Island campus of NYIT when he and a couple of pals decided to put together an impromptu short film festival. The location was a church basement near Westbury’s Asbury Avenue – and thus the “Asbury Shorts Festival” was born. “We basically gathered shorts from student filmmakers from a bunch of Long Island colleges,” LeClaire remembers. “It was such a hit we decided to keep going with it. We added films from various festivals and ramped up the content as much as we could every year.”
LeClaire stayed with the festival and became its head. As the show grew in scope and popularity, he moved it into the Haft Auditorium of Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where it morphed into “The NY Short Film Concert” presented by Asbury Shorts. Touring to locations outside New York City came next. “We call the show a concert,” LeClaire says, “because it’s not strictly a standard film festival.” There’s no competition, no speechifying and no Q and A sessions. “We’d rather have malaria,” he jokes. Instead, under the fanciful eye of guest hosts, there’s a fast-paced stream of music, comedy and curated shorts to be enjoyed for their own sake. “The hosts do this gratis. They want to support short film,” LeClaire states emphatically.
So what’s the big deal with shorts, and why should we care? To some, this is a category at the Academy Awards that draws yawns or blank stares. LeClaire begs to differ. “Short film has a strong market. It’s extremely valuable and very challenging,” he says. “The filmmaker has to tell an entire story in maybe 10 or 20 minutes – sometimes less. It’s not easy, and it’s difficult to gain success. There’s a lot of competition.” And, because, for many, short films are like an audition reel – filmmakers use this work to get noticed and to get bigger jobs with major studios or independents – LeClaire is committed to supporting the work.
This year’s Manhattan concert is being hosted by Leonard Lopate. The selection of shorts totals eleven across all genres: comedy, drama, documentary, experimental and animation, each carefully selected for maximum enjoyment. “We have an ongoing call for submissions,” LeClaire reports, “but we also research what films are playing the festivals and make selections based on that.” What LeClaire is most chuffed about (along with the longevity of the festival) is an aspect of the selection process that gives new life to older films. “We are extremely proud of that,” he says. “These are great films that are beyond their festival life and otherwise might not ever be seen again.”
Currently, Asbury Shorts tours in 25 to 30 cities a year. It’s become a full time job for LeClaire, who would like to see the show grow exponentially in the future. “We reach maybe 5,000 people a year,” he says. “There’s plenty of room for growth, especially now with a festival practically on every street corner. There’s the Sundance Channel on TV. So, with more outlets, the awareness is there, and also the potential to reach a bigger audience.” Gauging the success of Asbury Shorts, LeClaire notes the show is almost always asked to return to the venues it plays. “Our audiences just love it,” he says with pride. “We give them the opportunity to experience great films on a big screen the way the films were meant to be seen. It’s something fans normally never get a chance to see.”
In truth, the video scene has exploded in an increasingly digitized society. Video now more frequently replaces the written word in communicating ideas and information. It’s in this milieu of visual abundance that LeClaire and Asbury Shorts are provide a win-win to filmmakers and fans alike.