Here at S/W we’re always interested in trading ideas with those who select the short films for film festivals. Talking to these programmers allows us to not only give consideration to our own curatorial process, it offers essential insight to our filmmaker audience.

Often when submitting to festivals you’ll never find out why your short wasn’t selected, so that process can be see as a little secretive. I’m sure most curators will agree that this certainly isn’t the case, but in the hope of shining a helpful light on the way things work, in our ongoing Meet the Gatekeepers series we’ll be interviewing those who hold the key to acceptance in the world of film festivals, while also speaking to distributors and online programmers.

First up from the festival scene in Jean Anne Lauer, current Director of Shorts at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre festival in the US. Eager to find out more about her experience working in the short film arena, how to get a film screened at their festival and what they look for in their curation, Lauer kindly gave up a large portion of her day to provide insight into her work:

Thanks again for joining us today Jean, I’m excited to learn more about Fantastic Fest and your role. With that in mind, for those who are unfamiliar with the festival can you give us a brief history of the event and how you’re involved.

It really boils down to a festival that was started by film lovers for film lovers, specifically in the genre vein. Fantastic Fest has its own character as every festival does, where the guiding vision of the founders meets the current programming themes, current direction, etc.

I know that might seem vague, but part of what makes it a little hard to describe is that, of course, we have what people think of when you say genre film festival – slasher films, horror movies, SF, or the like – but we also have a special love, particularly in short films, for the weird and the oddly creative, that voice that you just can’t get out of your head once you’ve seen the work that they’ve produced. So in the shorts, where it’s easier to program this kind of work, we have some very experimental work including a section we internally refer to as the WTF block, the films you just can’t unsee, for whatever reason that might be.

As for my involvement, it’s multifaceted. Currently, I’m the director of short film programming and 2023 is my first year in that role. During the past few years, Peter Kuplowsky was the director of short film programming and I was a co-director. He programs TIFF Midnight Madness and has a lot of “Irons in the Fire” including as a producer now, so when he needed to step back to balance his commitments, I was happy that first I had the nod from the team and also that I had the time to do it, as it requires a good deal of time.

Prior to that, I actually started watching short films with the festival I think in 2012, as I knew people on the programming team and they asked if I could watch some and let them know what I thought. Then I worked with the festival for a few years in an area called Fantastic Market, which we were trying to build so we could have more of an industry presence around support for genre film in pre-production, production, and possibly distribution. That started out with a Latin American theme, Mercado Fantastico, but then it morphed and ultimately it turned out it was the type of event that wasn’t a great fit for what Fantastic Fest was doing, given the overall organization of the 8-day festival. 

I’d love to revisit that sometime if it’s possible. That’s also one of my favorite things, alongside short film programming, getting to know films in development. So I was a little bit bummed that it didn’t quite work, but those types of programs take a lot of financial investment, time and input. I’m hopeful that something like that can come back to Fantastic Fest.

When Fantastic Market ended I worked for a few years in booking, helped reorganize behind the scenes and then I started co-programming shorts. Now that’s all I do. This year I get to just be a short film programmer and I’m super happy to be.

Fantastic Fest Jean Lauer Photo

Lauer (L) poses for a photo at Fantastic Fest.

As you mentioned, you’ve been watching short films for quite a long time now and I’m sure, like myself, you’ve seen some changes over that time. Looking back at how things were when you first started watching shorts and how things are now, what would you say have been the biggest changes in the short film arena?

Even before Fantastic Fest, I first really began to love watching short films at a festival in Mexico called Expresión en Corto. It has since changed its name to the Guanajuato International Film Festival. I ended up volunteering there in 2004 and, in between shifts, I just sat in the movie theater and watched short films, as it was primarily a short film festival, with a few documentaries of all lengths and a few retrospective programs. I could literally sit for hour after hour in a theater and I thought that was incredible.

So, that was how I came to love short films. I’ve always loved short form fiction and non-fiction, including prose, poetry and even journalism. It’s just so inventive, and purposeful and it has to have an economy. I loved being able to watch them, but then I didn’t get into programming until 2009 and that was for a festival here in Austin called Cine Las Americas, where I initially worked as director of programming for the whole festival selection, including shorts and features.

Coming into Fantastic Fest, the thing that I was excited about and the reason I’ve attended and worked behind the scenes at the festival for well over a decade, is my love for international cinema. My specialty is Latin America, but I love world cinema and I love all the things that happen in the independent spaces in the US. It’s just really fun to see what things are coming out of people’s brains and making it to the screen.

“I think there’s a more accessible production model, in terms of more people having access to the means to make short films”

To come back around to your question, short form remains a vital part of the film festivals that want to make it be a vital part of their festival. And there are audiences for it, we’ve cultivated one at Fantastic Fest. I think that what has changed has been more on the medium side, how films are being made. I think there’s a more accessible production model, in terms of more people having access to the means to make short films.

From the early 2000s, we’ve also had a complete shift in formats, where films are now presented in a digital format. When I started programming, we would literally sit in the projection booth with boxes of professional grade tapes and canisters of films and we had to rent players for all the formats, including PAL. There’s little to no mailing or UPSing for Fantastic Fest, everything comes to us as a DCP file. Submissions have also changed radically. When I started, we got VHS tapes, DVDs or CDs with files. Then we got Withoutabox and now we have FilmFreeway. I like to think that because of these changes we’ve been able to open up our pre-selections and programming to more voices.

For me, that’s one of the great things about short film, the fact that these voices are getting a chance to have their stories told, stories that might not have been told if it wasn’t for short film. I think short film is vital when it comes to increasing diversity, both in front of and behind the camera, for the whole filmmaking industry.

There are still barriers though, especially with US film festivals, as most operate with a model based around a submission fee. Every festival has its policies when it comes to working with filmmakers from countries where bank transactions are restricted or economies are decimated. Most festivals want to help with submission fees, but I will say that these submission fees are important, as festivals depend on that revenue. It’s part of their income stream. Hopefully a lower cost of production helps these filmmakers budget to get their films submitted?

That’s definitely something we’ve given a lot of thought to at Short of the Week, and something we tried to address with our Unsanctioned competition. But as you say, that submission fee really does keep things running.

Definitely, there’s a labor to the screening of films that I think some people, who aren’t behind the scenes, don’t always understand or appreciate. It takes time, it takes expertise and that is labor that should be valued.

I know! I certainly put in the time, a lot of it unpaid, to get where I am today and now my kids always joke that all I do is sit around and watch films all day. I don’t think they really understand that this really is a job. Coming back to your submissions for a minute, how has the quality changed over the 10+ years you’ve been screening/programming and what about the quantity as well?

The quantity has absolutely gone up. When I first was watching films at Fantastic Fest, we had under a thousand short film submissions and this past year, official submissions were well over 1700. Then of course, when you add scouted submissions or scouted films, we’re looking at a few thousand to get to our final program.

Here’s something that I’ve noticed, which has been great. When I first was watching short films, this was in the Withoutabox days, and I mention that because I don’t know if it had to do with the platform or the outreach that was available, it was a lot more difficult for festivals to get the word out about how to submit to them. It’s much easier to find that information out now and to become aware of the aggregated festivals you might consider.

With Withoutabox, I would watch a hundred short films and out of those, a good chunk of them, like a quarter or more, had really made a misstep by submitting to Fantastic Fest. They just weren’t aligned with our mission or selection history at all and you could tell that the filmmakers were just like sending out to as many festivals as possible.

“Filmmakers, or their advisors, are definitely doing a better job of really being judicious with their festival submission fees and doing the research.”

The quality wasn’t necessarily terrible, they just were films that didn’t fit our programming mission or tastes. This year, as director of programming I still take a chunk of the pre-screening titles so that I have a sense of what’s coming in, there were maybe a couple in a hundred where the submitters didn’t seem to have understood who or what we are. Filmmakers, or their advisors, are definitely doing a better job of really being judicious with their festival submission fees and doing the research.

In terms of quality, I don’t mind that filmmakers are making films that aren’t great films. How else are they going to develop in order to make better films? However, I would advise they consider whether a film is good enough to have a chance at selection before submitting. If they think it has a shot, that’s fine and I respect that. My taste and other people’s taste might be different. We’re certainly seeing a lot less poorly made films submitted to us, and I think that’s great, right? That means that filmmakers are doing the work to make the films, they want to make better films and then they’ll get selected with good reason.

Fantastic Fest Jean Lauer

Lauer (2nd from the right) after a Shorts with Legs screening at Fantastic Fest.

We can certainly echo that at S/W. The amount of short films being made now, compared to when we started, has increased exponentially and the quality of the filmmaking has followed a similar path. Back to Fantastic Fest and what makes your festival special, I’m interested to know more about what it’s like to be a dedicated genre festival, what role do you think you play in the landscape and how important do you think it is that events like this exist?

I think there’s a couple of parts to this answer, and speaking for myself, as a fan of film festivals, Fantastic Fest is a different character to the other festivals I’ve attended. It’s a geeky space. Geek might not be exactly the right word, but it’s that kind of scene, with people who watch weird movies and want to talk about weird movies with other people who love watching weird movies. It’s still a space of films of quality, but with the edge of cultivating and attracting particular types of super fans.

In terms of programming, what we’re really looking for are those films that we can geek out about, in the moment, on the ground at the festival, together. That’s Fantastic Fest. You know how you go to many festivals and just the headliners are full? Fantastic Fest has full theaters throughout the festival because people are there to see the movies and talk about the movies. So we’re programming for that. Genre film fans tend to be among the most avid film watchers, and love talking about movies, and it all comes together at Fantastic Fest. The screenings are very well-attended and then they’re complimented by zany parties and events for film-lovers, like Maltin on Movies, Fantastic Feud, and more. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that.

A History of Fantastic Fest in Short Film

Lauer picks some of her favourite short films from recent editions of the festival.

Sounds awesome. Hopefully, I’ll get to attend one year and experience it for myself. You’ve already covered some of this in your previous answers, but I think what a lot of people will want to know is what do you look for in a short film that makes the selection at Fantastic Fest? What are the qualities you look for?

In a nutshell, we look for well-executed short films, with a vision that we think will resonate with our audiences. Aside from that, we then try to diversify the selection as well, in terms of what types of stories are being told, what regions of the world they’re coming from.

We have the strands that developed over the years. We have Short Fuse, a short film block that’s all horror and within that, we look for traditional horror, psychological horror – where the horror is, say, the result of human nature – and full-on slasher films. We have this horror block because we know our fans are going to want to go see a bunch of different kinds of horror together. We have the animation block Drawn and Quartered, we have the WTF block we call Shorts with Legs, and then we have the Fantastic Shorts block, which is a catch-all. You want to see a bunch of fun shorts this year? Well here you go.

We also program shorts in front of features, where, again, we look for short films that are executed well and that fit our mission. There also needs to be some sort of sensibility around the pairing, so that people aren’t kind of jarred between the two. Then this year, one of the things that I brought to the table that I’m really excited about is a selection of Indigenous genre short films, some retrospective and some new. I’m looking forward to seeing what audiences think of that. That was co-curated by Daniel Northway-Frank from Isuma TV, who’s a First Nation advocate for First Nation filmmaking and storytelling.

Again, this is something you’ve already touched on a bit, but I’m interested in how you find the films for your program. Do they all come through your submission system, or do you have other avenues for finding the films you program for Fantastic Festival?

The majority do come from submissions, and it’s a great way to discover films. That’s why we have them, right? Not only is it a revenue stream, but more importantly, a submission platform gives you a space where you can promote and say “please submit to us”. You don’t know who that’s going to reach and you end up getting films from all over the place. We’re often surprised by what we get through submissions, and that is the backbone of the program.

In addition to that, we keep an eye on other festivals programming shorts and we’ll keep in touch with other short film programmers. Our assistant director of shorts programming, Varun Raman, is networked well as he programs and prescreens for other festivals. The other shorts lead programmer, Shannon Wiedemeyer is networked especially well in the horror circuit. We never pull any title from a festival that hasn’t already been either turned down or shown by them. Festivals do not poach from each other, at least they shouldn’t and we definitely don’t. But if a film gets turned down by a festival and we become aware of it, or if we see it at a festival and think it should come to Austin, those are avenues where we can support films because the truth is a lot of films get turned down elsewhere that we would love to show.

That happens at other festivals too. So why not share them amongst programmers? We can be advocates for those films. We can find them a home at a festival that we have a good relationship with by saying “you might be interested in this” and that also works in return. We all keep an eye on those types of things constantly and share them with each other. It’s fun to see what’s out there and one reason we do that is that not everything’s going to come through submissions.

Additionally, I have a really strong personal mission to try to diversify programming wherever I work, especially the country representation in our selections. That’s a long-term process and not everything can happen in a year, as there just might not be great films from X or Y this year. Another reason to scout is to identify if you’re completely missing films from a certain part of the world. If so, we then work to make connections with festivals or other institutions who have access to those films and those filmmakers and see what we can do.

“Genre doesn’t look the same everywhere . . . So what does it look like around the world?”

And that’s part of why this year I sought a co-curator for the Indigenous genre block. I’ve been a little bit out of that circuit for a few years, and the films coming through the Fantastic Fest submissions aren’t necessarily Indigenous made. We receive a few each year for consideration, but how do we demonstrate that we want to program more films by Indigenous filmmakers? We demonstrate it by programming with purpose, scouting, finding a selection and programming it this year, and hopefully that will get the word out that we are hungry and interested. Hungry and interested in programming more films by filmmakers from various backgrounds. Not just Indigenous backgrounds, but other backgrounds too. 

The only way to do that is to actively seek what’s not coming to you and build those relationships, so we’re doing that and it’s become our mantra. Where are our blind spots? How do we address this? And how do we get the word out to filmmakers that we’re supportive of seeing diverse filmmaking? Because, with that comes expanding what genre means. Genre doesn’t look the same everywhere, even within the US. So what does it look like around the world? What does it mean to tell stories that have a genre element from the variety of perspectives of the people that are making them? I want to continue working to diversify what we offer by diversifying where our call can reach and what comes to us.

It’s easy to see that this is something you’re really passionate about. I know from the work we do at Short of the Week, it’s always really exciting when we get a film from a certain region, one we haven’t featured before. They don’t all just drop in your lap though, you have to go and search for them and then make sure they hit the levels of filmmaking you’re looking for.

Yeah. You do have to go and find them and at the same time you also want to avoid tokenism. Showing a film just to hit some quota doesn’t do anyone any good. We want to show a film from a specific country because we think it’s good, a film that we can champion and welcome into the Fantastic Fest family. We want filmmakers to have the benefit of being part of Fantastic Fest, knowing you’ve been selected for the right reasons.

I’ve championed films that haven’t landed with other people, but I know why I programmed them. I’ve also had members of my program team suggest things that don’t speak to me, but that certainly speak to them. We don’t agree on all the shorts and that’s okay, but we also want to make sure that when we champion a film, there’s a reason we’re championing it, it’s not picked solely to meet some benchmark metric.

Fantastic Fest Team

Lauer (centre of the back row) and the rest of the team at Fantastic Fest 2022

Exactly, and I really like the fact you talk about the importance of your team. On S/W I’ve championed films that others don’t really get, but we trust in one and another and trust in our experience. If someone on my team fights for a film, I know there’s a reason behind it and am often happy to admit that maybe I just don’t get it because of my own specific background.

Those varied perspectives are so important. We have an age range difference amongst the three leads, we have gender difference, we’re from different countries and we have a difference in interests, all of which is complementary. We’re in this together.

This year was also an experiment in another way, in that we brought on six pre-screeners with different backgrounds and experiences, who had never pre-screened for Fantastic Fest. They also bring their sensibilities to the pre-screening process and help us figure out who we are as a programming team. It takes all of us to do that. I think it worked well and hopefully we can do it again, as it definitely helps to not have only about four people to watch all the submissions, as has been the case recently, this year we had nine.

That’s a big difference! That had to feel nice. I also think it’s really important to welcome new people to the programming team as we talk a lot about how we can help emerging filmmakers, but what about helping emerging programmers? Getting more people interested in curation. Anyway, I could go off on a bit of a tangent and talk about that for hours, but let’s get back to Fantastic Fest. You’ve mentioned your short film strands quite a few times now and I’m always interested to know about the themes that they’re built around. When do you start thinking about those? Are they defined before submissions or do you get your selections and then build your themes from there?

The former. We have programmed to the themes, not the other way around. We’ve always talked about making changes if something comes up, for example, this year we had discussed whether we would finally get enough doc or doc adjacent submissions, to have a dedicated strand. As that’s been an area we’ve struggled with and we haven’t quite figured out how to communicate to documentary filmmakers that if you’ve got something with genre content or a genre edge, then please send it to us.

We’ve had the four traditional short film blocks for years, and every year we’ve talked about whether we switch it up? And the answer every year has been, no, because they worked and because we’ve built fans around them. People come to Short Fuse because they want to see the horror block. They come to Shorts With Legs because they want weird films and I just love it.

I love discovering things. I love just seeing what comes to us. We do try to find homes for those films we love, even if they don’t fit the more specific strands then maybe they go to Fantastic Shorts, the catch-all, or we put them in front of a feature. We figure it out.

It sounds like there is flexibility then, if you need it?

I really do have full autonomy to program shorts with the team and that’s one of the reasons that I took the job at Fantastic Fest, to program the shorts. We decide what we program and we include what most speaks to us each year.

With the flexibility though, there has to be some limitations right? You can’t have a screening going on for hours. So what kind of limits are you working with?

The first limitation is, as you note, overall screen time. We don’t have infinity time, and as much as I have been discussing the ways we work hard to be gate “openers” for short films, it’s true that at the end of the day we also can’t program everything.

Then there’s the limitation of individual short run time. We officially accept films up to 30-minutes long. In Europe, there’s more of a tradition of medium length but in the US, especially at festivals, it’s pretty tricky. I’ll be honest, at Fantastic Fest, it’s hard to fit in anything over 20-minutes, although we have quite a few in the 20-24 range every year, including this year. What you need to consider is that every 20+ minute film potentially takes the place of two other films and again, that’s an economy thing. In terms of time as opposed to money.

“I’m not going to have our audience sit through a short that should be shorter”

Every film has to be really great to make that final cut. I think 67 was our final number this year and that’s a lot, but it’s not a lot when you’re thinking that easily two thousand plus short films were touched by somebody on our team this year.

It’s a heartbreaker to have a short that you really respond to, but it’s just too long. Often that 24-minute short could be 18 and then that’s a problem, right? I’m not going to have our audience sit through a short that should be shorter.

Exactly and that’s something that you have to know as a programmer. With those longer films there’s more pressure on them to maintain that level of quality the longer they go on for and that’s not an easy thing to do. If you’ve got a 90-minute program and you’re thinking of selecting a 30-minute film, then really it needs to be as good, and as entertaining as the three other films that could take its place.

We’re asking our audience to come to see our shorts and I want them to leave the theater elated, transformed, maybe sometimes even disgusted, which might surprise some readers of this conversation. I want viewers of the selected films to have experienced something memorable and I want them to be able to share the memory of that experience with others. So whatever the length, it comes down to whether we want to see this on a big screen. Whether we want to see this with other people. We want to be there to see them jump or cringe or unable to contain themselves laughing, that’s amazing.

Thinking about it, that was one of the things about COVID that was amazing, the accessibility, allowing people to watch the films from afar like what you do with your platform. Anyone can come to your platform and watch movies and that’s wonderful. I’m so glad that we have the technology that people can now watch amazing films from all over the world. However, as long as I’m able to, I want to be in the theater with those other attendees.

Of course and although Short of the Week is an online platform and we champion the idea of screening short films directly from your home, we also recognise that it’s very difficult, maybe even impossible, to recreate that feeling of a shared experience you get from watching films together in a dark room.

We got a little close over COVID. I was really proud of us the year that we were online, we had almost 300 people for our opening night of the shorts block. But it’s not the same as going into the theater, kicking up your feet, ordering your beverage and watching the short films with everyone.

I’m so excited to do that again this year and we’re so close to the festival!

Fantastic Fest Jean Lauer Interview

Lauer (3rd from Right) passes the mic during the Shorts with Legs Q&A at Fantastic Fest

I can tell! Well hopefully, one of the things that COVID did show us, is that there are ways that the worlds of online and festivals can work together. In the past there has been some friction between those two worlds, but at the end of the day, I think they both have the same goal. To share the films we love, share the films we’re excited about and help support emerging filmmakers.

Okay, so final question now. Looking at all your experience in the short film industry and thinking about what makes a good short, if you had one piece of advice for an emerging filmmaker what would it be?

Don’t be egotistical. You need to be proud of your work. You need to know why you’re making what you’re making. But you also need to assemble a team and while creative vision is important, so is leadership.

When you make your short film, it’s not all about you. I find that the better films are those built around truly collaborative efforts. So set the ego and the ‘I’ aside and make an amazing short film with the people that you bring on board, who are also invested in making an amazing short film. Be passionate about that,

Ego undermines a lot of projects and that’s different than pride, different than self-esteem and knowing that you’re making a good film. Let the ego go.

I mean, that’s good life advice, isn’t it?

Yeah, I think so. Life advice and industry advice, it’s all a collaboration.

Basically, Just be a good person?

Exactly, and it can be a lot of work. I also have advice for programmers watching films, and I say this to everyone who pre-screens and screens with any team I’m on – every film is somebody’s baby, it’s somebody’s creative life. They’re putting it all out there and sharing it with you. I don’t care how bad it is, treat it with the respect that art and creativity deserves.

That’s sometimes hard to get across to the filmmakers though. We’ll reject your film if it’s not good enough, but that rejection comes from a good place. We’d love to feature everyone’s short film, but that’s not how curation works, and it then wouldn’t mean anything if your film was selected for an online platform or a festival. There wouldn’t be the same sense of achievement. That’s why I also think it’s really important that filmmakers do their research into the festivals they’re submitting to and into the platforms they’re submitting to.

Anyway, I’m really aware that I’m taking up a large chunk of your day now with this conversation, but it’s been amazing to talk to you. Your passion for your work is really infectious.

Thank you. I love what I do and for me this is a dream gig. As long as it’s a good fit for both parties, I’ll be thrilled to continue doing it.