In a world where everything is rapidly digitizing and digital becomes the cultural default, a commensurate backlash arises—a reactionary force that proclaims that real connection only occurs in person. The truth is in the middle, but we on the Short of the Week team have jokingly observed that every film festival is seemingly racing to become relevant online, while every online platform is simultaneously in a rush to establish a beachhead in events. Nobody is happy solely in their own domain—the grass is always greener I guess—yet because of the mismatch in skills and organization required to succeed in on the other side of the divide, the results of these initiatives are usually pretty underwhelming.
The logic of it makes undeniable sense though, and so festival and online platforms will keep trying, and their success, or failure, is worth examining. Today, in the midst of selection announcements for the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, we’re analyzing one of the most hi-profile and interesting examples of an events/digital mashup, the recently concluded TIFFxInstagram Shorts Festival. A partnership between two titans of their domains, we want to dig deep into how it works, what the two sides are looking to get out of the partnership, and, most importantly, ask the question—is this creating something of value? Are we glimpsing the hallowed “future of content”, or is it all just marketing? I chatted with the team at TIFF earlier this month to get the scoop.
WHAT IS IT?
TIFF x Instagram is a joint venture between the two orgs, combining their mutual creative communities for a competition hosted on the social media giant. Helmed by TIFF’s “Department 30” (digital/online content), earlier this summer filmmakers were invited to share their one minute short films on Instagram. Running for a week in July, select submissions were highlighted on the TIFF Instagram account, with awards given out by a star-studded jury, as well as an audience award. From there, the winners are invited on an all-expense paid journey to Toronto in September, where they will be feted at an exclusive event during the main festival.
Calling all emerging filmmakers with #TIFF18 dreams and an Instagram account: Submit your 60-second short to the third edition of the #TIFFxInstagram Shorts Festival for a chance to join us in September. 📹 Submissions now open (closing June 18) 📲 http://tiff.net/shortsfestival . . . #digitalshort #shortfilm #filmmaker #director #photographer #cinematographer #editor #film #art #stopmotion #animation #musicvideo #videoart #cinematography #filmfestival #festival #competition #showcase
HOW DOES IT WORK?
After producing your one-minute masterpiece, you fill out a quick form, make sure your instagram account is public, use the #TIFFxInstagram hashtag in your post, and then your tiny film is in official consideration.
Once submitted, the process is rather similar to many festivals. The selection committee is composed by pre-screeners from both of the stakeholders, and, in TIFF’s case from different departments (including programming). A short list is formed and eventually turns into the official program after the final decisions of the two Department 30 head curators. The 2018 edition had 23 films that made the cut and became featured finalists displayed on the festival’s Instagram account.
This year three prizes were awarded: “Share Her Journey”, a new category for the 2018 edition, which ties into TIFF’s high-profile campaign to champion female-identifying filmmakers, a “Fan Favorite” award determined by the number of likes the film received on its TIFF-account upload, and, of course, the jury award. The jury each year is composed by film-world luminaries that are active on the platform and share TIFF’s values of inclusiveness. Past jurors have included such stars like Ava Duvernay, James Franco, and Isabelle Huppert.
- The 2018 Jury
WHY DOES A PARTNERSHIP LIKE THIS MAKE SENSE?
On the surface the shorts festival makes a lot of sense for TIFF and Instagram. For filmmakers and for audiences it is a more interesting question, as often in these marketing-driven events self-interest and altruism can be tough to disentangle.
Still the stated mission for the event is high-minded: the festival explicitly seeks to promote art, to lower the barrier of entry for emerging and international creators to the TIFF ecosystem, and promote TIFF’s values of diversity, inclusiveness, representation, gender parity and decentralization of the power from Hollywood.
Behind those goals however the strategic motivations aren’t hard to uncover. TIFF is indisputably one of the most influential film festivals in the world, yet that IRL prestige and reputation has not translated equally well to digital. The organization’s number of followers on social media and Youtube nowhere near echo the community that we see in the streets of Toronto in September. On Facebook, TIFF only has 231K likes when an online platform like NOWNESS has over 1M. For an event of TIFF’s magnitude, its digital footprint is underwhelming.
To grow that footprint you need to have compelling content to offer, and crowdsourcing work from talented creators, in official collaboration with the most popular social media company among millenials and Gen Z, is a pretty good path to building up a profile. Increasing one’s follower #’s is not mere vanity either—it has real advantages. Festivals like TIFF are year-round cultural organizations, and accessing communities in the digital spaces where they spend their time is vital in both expanding their circle of influence, tapping into emerging talents, but also in promoting other, non-festival, initiatives that increasingly are part of TIFF’s identity—such as the this year’s tie-in with the Share Her Story campaign. Festivals don’t have the luxury of being irrelevant 11 months out of the year anymore. Instagram has turned into the prime space where creative people share their work, using their accounts as digital portfolios, sourcing inspiration, and it is not unusual to conduct business strictly within the app. For content creators, Instagram is of the utmost importance, making it an ideal partner.
And while Instagram began as a photo-sharing platform and is home to several diverse visual communities, it is on a steady path towards being taken over by video. The introduction of Stories has fueled massive growth in engagement, and Instagram has scarcely tapped the advertising possibilities. There is a real race among Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat (who has a similar festival partnership with Tribeca) to replace TV and the ad dollars associated with it. The TIFF x Instagram Festival began in 2016 to mark the platform’s increase in allowable runtime for video from 15 seconds to 1 minute, and well, last month they just unveiled IGTV which allows for uploads up to 1 hour long!
Stories are great, but to engage audiences for TV-like periods of time, platforms need hi-quality, professional-esque video. This initiative is IG buying access and awareness within the filmmaker community, encouraging the creators who already rely on it for their personal brand to think of it as a content outlet, and potentially consider the possibility of creating content direct to the platform. Can Instagram tap into the same user-generated engine for short form video that powers YouTube? Partnering with an organization like TIFF which has massive credibility with talented filmmakers makes abundant sense.
A young man, trapped in his dark thoughts and overwhelming melancholia, drives to Italy for the first and last time. This is @petrapriskin’s atmospheric THERE MUST BE LAND ON THE OTHER SIDE, set to the poem “Verzweiflung (Despair)” by Nietzsche: A bell tolls afar The gloomy night rushes along I don’t know what I can do My joy is gone, my heart is heavy Said juror @iammaasante: “It felt complete, was shot beautifully, and moved me.” Help crown the #TIFFxInstagram Fan Favourite Award by watching + voting (❤️) the shorts on our profile, from July 10 to 18. 4 more days left. . . . . . #shortfilm #filmfestival #director #editor #cinematographer #digitalshort #poetry #poem #atmosphere #nietzsche #italy #germany #german #language #wandering #wanderlust
COOL. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CONTENT?
There is an inherent risk in TIFF sponsoring such a contest—while Instagram is a massive free-for-all ruled by likes and the algorithm, a festival is, by definition, exclusive and defined by its taste. Efforts are made to mitigate this somewhat: the word “film” is notably absent from the name of the contest, and it is not an official program in the larger festival. Additionally the restraints of the contest like its maximum one minute runtime serve to differentiate it from short films in the festival’s main selection. The nature of the curation is obviously different from the TIFF Short Cuts, with the programming department’s minimal involvement, and as such the digital/online content department have established their own standards over the past three editions.
The 2018 competition was again very diverse in terms of narrative and storytelling. Entries traverse a range from documentary to fiction to animation, and explore conventional, to more experimental styles. Some films are very tiny and quick slices-of-life, while others are more of a visual, poetic experience. Filmmakers have played with the format too, from long single-takes to different aspect ratios. Technology/the internet as a theme is rather present in a few shorts, which seems fitting given the background of the competition, and other films do indeed feel like the exact kind of fun, entertaining videos you pause scrolling your phone for.
What better way to launch the first day of the #TIFFxInstagram Shorts Festival—a celebration of the best in 60-second filmmaking—than with @lausiv’s THE MINUTE, a self-described “plastic short” about how we use our time. And very relatable to anyone who’s ever said, “I just need *one more* minute.” Adrián returns to #TIFFxInstagram for his second year; juror @aliciamalone loves this short’s “strong sense of personal style—its beautiful mix of colours, effects, narration & message.” ⏱ Tune in every day from July 10–18 to catch this year’s finalists, and help crown the Fan Favourite Award Winner by ‘liking’❤️ . . . . . #shortfilm #filmfestival #director #editor #cinematographer #comedy #digitalshort #minute #oneminute #stylized #short #colombia
The 2016 winners are striking in their visual aesthetic, while the 2017 winners were more impactful through their narrative. The 2018 edition awarded three completely different films, the Share Her Journey winner is an atmospheric film that gets to the audience through its beautiful cinematography, the Jury winner is a psychological thriller/horror that relies on an outstanding performance, and the Fan Favorite is the epitome of a digital short that has the potential to go viral—fun, quick, relatable, and effective.
A 17-year-old girl (Jihye Yoon) pretends she doesn’t hear or see anything around her—but there’s one voice she can’t ignore. South Korean director @nuri.never.knows made the horror EDGE OF SEVENTEEN as a tribute to the oppressed, lackluster adolescence that she and “many teenage girls experienced growing up in Seoul: girls who were expected to wear the same uniform every day, keep disciplined, and follow the rules.” In a minute, she intrigued and terrified us. Said juror @awkwafina: “Without being too over-the-top scary, this short is extremely haunting and very spooky.” EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is the second film in this year’s #TIFFxInstagram Shorts Festival—watch and vote ❤️ for your favourite films on our @Instagram page now til July 18. . . . . #shortfilm #filmfestival #director #editor #cinematographer #digitalshort #minute #seoul #southkorea #koreancinema #horror #thriller #fightthepatriarchy #womeninfilm #shareherjourney #pressure #girlhood #teens #teenlife #edgeofseventeen #seventeen
To be frank however, since we are used to more conventional filmmaking, the kind TIFF has established it’s reputation in championing, we approached this content with a somewhat skeptical eye, and our impressions are mixed.
Is this something people want?
We love TIFF and Instagram individually for different reasons. We’ll stand for 20min long prestige dramas that can cost upwards of $80,000 to make, and at the same time, S/W co-founder Jason Sondhi adores following experimental motion animators on IG making 10 sec weird experiments. What the platform’s interests seem to imply is that there is potential for a kind of sweet spot—a fusion of the two aesthetics.
Yet if that exists, it doesn’t feel like we’re there yet. By creating this competition, it feels like TIFF and Instagram are not responding to category of content and creators, but trying to bring a new category form into existence, one that doesn’t fully play to either’s strengths. Both TIFF and Instagram have distinct communities of content creators, by trying to get them to mingle through this festival, which one will overpower the other? On one hand Instagram is hoping to attract filmmaker who have a conventional style from their association with TIFF, and turn Instagram content into a more legitimate form. While TIFF is looking to discover talent from the Instagram pool and potentially shape/help them find their voice, that would fit the TIFF vision. The finalists embody that tension, as they feel a bit still like translations—either more traditional short film styles ported to an IG format (widescreen and all) or IG-style content extended and expanded into “film”.
The value proposition for creators is also unclear in this imagined scenario. For Instagram partisans is making more involved, self-contained storytelling for the platform a win? With the expansion of IGTV, will filmmakers begin to simply upload their traditional festival-style films to that platform? That is in keeping with our recent Be Everywhere All At Once article, but it’s hard to see that as a positive outcome for TIFF, who still demand premiere exclusives for shorts at their film festival. Do you want to see full-length Short of the Week shorts on our Instagram?
It’s a bit of chicken or the egg situation, and it’s kinda fascinating. Creating TIFFxInstagram was a shot in the dark, and is ultimately a bit of an experiment. The ideal community of filmmaker that would perfectly suit both interests probably does not really exist, yet who is to say that it won’t in a couple of years?
Ultimately storytelling, well… good storytelling, should transcend the platform used to convey the narrative. However our team’s area of expertise is short films, and while the selection of TIFF x Instagram most definitely showcases incredible new talent, we can’t help but evaluate the content as a whole as a curated program of digital shorts rather than short films in a more conventional way. In my biased opinion they are two different mediums that will of course collide at times but are distinct—again for now.
These kind of competitions will surely raise the bar however in the years to come. the content’s quality will undoubtedly skyrocket. We will just have to wait and see whether all this content will become a fusion of mediums, a less formal, polished shortform than festival circuit shorts, but more intentional than single snaps. The future of that is unclear, but that might just be the biggest benefit of the TIFFxInstagram Shorts Festival—giving a forum for filmmakers to try and reconcile the two ideas and invent that future.