Spring 2007

Volume 2, Issue 1's_note.htm



Brave New World:
Popular Culture and the Creative Writing Curriculum

Or, Some Thoughts on the Short Dramatic Form

Last year, I directed the creative writing program at Pepperdine University and taught a course called Creative Writing for the Professional Market. These experiences led me to examine what was going on in American popular culture and the professional marketplace in the context of the opportunities for creative writers and our curricular requirements. What I discovered was a burgeoning market for the short dramatic form – a form we had not been emphasizing in our curriculum.

One example of what I had found came in a film festival spotlight email from For those of you who rank Los Angeles, filmmaking – even if it is independent – and the film festival circuit – the whole lot of it – somewhere between having your gums scraped and stepping in your puppy’s poop at midnight as you make your way from the bed to the bathroom – IN YOUR BARE FEET (not that I have any personal experience with that), is the website through which most of us – I am co-principal of a small production company – submit our films for consideration. In other words, they have the forms and the payment methods for most of the film festivals.

“In the Spotlight this week” the email announced, “is the Canadian Film Centre's WORLDWIDE SHORT FILM FESTIVAL (WSFF), an Academy Award and BAFTA-nominating fest held in the vibrant city of Toronto, Canada's film mecca.”

“The WSFF,” the email continued, “boasts the biggest marketplace for short film in North America making all 3000+ submitted entries available for viewing by international buyers, distributors, programmers and broadcasters during the six day festival each June. Dedicated to the short film format, the WSFF has set itself apart from other film festivals that may screen a mix of both. The WSFF is also committed to paying artist fees to films selected to screen at the festival.”

The email continued, “The Festival opens with a gala party and screening of award winning shorts from around the world, and the next five days are a whirlwind of parties, networking events, screenings and symposium sessions. There are networking events every day of the festival and the friendly festival staff will facilitate meetings with the people you need.”

“In 2006,” I read on, “over 400 films were picked up for distribution or signed sales agreements as a result of being screened or available for viewing in the marketplace library. WSFF organizes a four day symposium that runs during the festival entitled ‘Short Film BIG IDEAS,’ a gold mine of useful information on everything about short film from finding funding for a project to selling your completed film.”

“As one of only three festivals in Canada accredited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences®,” the email bragged, “winners of the Best Live-Action Short and Best Animated Short are eligible for the Academy Awards®; and Canadian award winners are eligible for the Genie Awards. Presenting over $125,000 in cash and prizes, the WSFF offers one of the largest prize packages for short film in the world.”

While short films used to be about as welcome as a neo-conservative at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser, they have become more prominent, more featured on the film festival circuit. For example, the screenings for shorts were squeezed between the more “important” feature film or documentary screenings in a wing far, far away. Or shown before a feature to “warm up” the audience. Now, not only are they more prominent on the festival program, some festivals have actually devoted the week before or after their feature length screenings to a shorts fest. In other cases, like the Worldwide Short Film Festival, the shorts have broken away from the main festival to form a festival of their own.

For the first time, this past January after the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the Sundance website featured select shorts that could be downloaded on iTunes for $1.99. Last November, the mobile phone association GSMA sent out a press release. The headline: Robert Redford Announces Sundance Film Festival Short Film Project for Mobile. The press release read, “Sundance Institute, a champion for independent filmmakers for over 25 years, announced today that it is joining forces with the GSM Association (GSMA), whose members serve more than 2 billion mobile phone customers across the globe, to create the Sundance Film Festival: Global Short Film Project, a groundbreaking pilot project that will showcase and extend the reach of the independent short film genre to mobile users worldwide. Unveiled at a press conference at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York, the organizers of the Sundance Film Festival in conjunction with the GSMA, have commissioned six independent filmmakers to create five short films, crafted exclusively for mobile distribution. All of the filmmakers participating in the project have screened films at the annual Sundance Film Festival.” Robert Redford was then quoted as saying, “Cell phones are fast becoming the ‘fourth screen’ medium, after television, cinema and computers,’ We feel this experiment embodies fully, our quarter-century dedication to exploring new platforms to support wider distribution of independent voices in filmmaking.”

The press release went on to explain, “While cell phones have previously been used to deliver film and entertainment content, this pilot project is believed to be the first to commission high calibre independent filmmakers to create original stories specifically for the mobile environment. The project presents creative challenges to the filmmakers who will be working with a limited budget, time and resources to make a 3-5 minute film for a small mobile screen.” John Cooper, Director of Programming for the Sundance Film Festival and Creative Director for Sundance Institute and head of this new project, then stated, “The Global Short Film Project takes us into the realms of a uniquely intimate new medium, one which holds tremendous promise for maximizing the impact and international reach of the short film genre, and in doing so serving the artists.” Plugging the revolutionary aspect of this partnership, Bill Gajda, Chief Marketing Officer at the GSM Association was quoted as saying, “The emergence of mobile as the fourth screen is already changing the way people are educated and entertained. This project will explore the potential of the mobile medium to deliver compelling, cinematic entertainment to a global audience on an unprecedented scale.”

Last November, I read a paper at The International Digital Media and Arts Conference in San Diego. One of the plenary speakers had just hosted the first Third Screen Film Festival – obviously he had not conferenced with Robert Redford who considers cell phones the fourth screen – indeed Jon Katzman joked that he might have to change the name of his festival now that TV, film, and computer had been named as the first three screens by the Sundance icon. At any rate, Katzman made the argument during his Q & A that the new media – especially the computer and cell phone – required short form dramatic works, AKA short scripts. He told us that he was able to acquire major Hollywood players to judge the contest and the winner was being courted by an MTV executive.

Just recently, YouTube announced it may begin paying for original content. In a recent AP wire, I read the following, “Chad Hurley, co-founder of YouTube, said Saturday that the wildly successful site will start sharing revenue with its millions of users. Hurley, who along with the site's co-founders sold YouTube to Google for $1.65 billion in November, said one of the major innovations the site is working on is a way to allow users to be paid for content.” The wire then quoted Hurley who then was at the World Economic Forum when he announced this change, “We are getting an audience large enough where we have an opportunity to support creativity, to foster creativity through sharing revenue with our users…So in the coming months, we are going to be opening that up.”

As a result of what I have just recounted, I have seen the need to emphasize the short script in our curriculum. Responsible creative writing programs, it seems to me, must prepare their students for the current marketplace which places an increasing premium on just such a form. (I should add that our undergraduate majors cannot choose a genre. They are required to take courses in poetry, fiction, playwriting, and screenwriting.)

One way in which I have done this is to take five weeks at the end of Creative Writing for the Professional Market to work on short scripts. (We already have playwriting and screenwriting classes in which students write full length work.) Upon first assigning readings from the text with which I chose to inspire my students in this new endeavor – Take Ten, a collection of ten minute plays – and then assigning the writing of said short scripts, one of my students greeted this segment of the course with skepticism. “Is there really a market for this?” she asked me while flipping through the book.

I was surprised that a twenty-one-year-old senior would ask me such a question given the fact (she later confessed to us) that she was often on her laptop and cell phone, far more than she was in front of the television or seated in a theater. “YES,” I assured her, them, the class, “there is definitely a market for this.”

After some cajoling, comforting, and explaining on my part, the students proceeded to embrace the assignment and ended up writing some pretty amazing ten page scripts, some of which were performed in our end-of-the-semester showcase WordFest. Although poems and short stories were also read at the event, the short plays were the most exciting for the students to perform and for the audience to receive. In other words, the short plays created the most buzz – if you’ll allow me to use a Hollywood term – after the show. Indeed, I might also add before I close, that I have noticed theaters in Los Angeles moving to shorter one-act performances with no intermission. I have also read the words “An Evening of One Act Plays” off many a theater marquee while I have been stuck in traffic.

Webisodes, iPods, YouTube, and cell phones, all popular culture toys of youth, need content, and the content they are looking for is short. No doubt, this trend explains the increasing attention and prominence accorded the short film on the festival circuit – and the emergence of fourth screen film festivals – even if at least one is called third screen – at least for now – I have a feeling Robert Redford may win out on this one.

Although I realize some undergraduate programs have already been encouraging students to work in the short dramatic form, I would encourage all of us to include this practice in our curriculum thereby preparing our students for the realities of creative writing in the twenty-first century.

Leslie Wilson, Editor


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