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Calling-Card Shorts Now Mostly a Long Shot

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George Lucas might not want to make any more "Star Wars" movies now that "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" is secure in its crown as the top-grossing domestic movie of the year. But that didn't discourage West Virginia-based filmmaker Shane Felux, who this year created a sequel of his own: "Star Wars: Revelations," a 47-minute opus with genuine production value, impressive special effects and -- true to the "Star Wars" template -- wooden dialogue and stilted acting.

All Felux needed was about $20,000 to complete his film, which drew quick notice on the Internet when it debuted in April. On iFilm, the short film Web site, his film was downloaded more than 3 million times, and he earned notices in USA Today and an appearance on CNN.

But despite the attention, Felux has been disappointed to discover that "Revelations" hasn't provided him the entrance to Hollywood that other film shorts inspired by Lucas' franchise have brought in the past.

"I was hoping that the industry might stand up and go, 'All right, that's pretty good for something a little under 20K, what do you want to do next?' " Felux said. "And I'd go, 'Well, here is the next thing I want to do, here's how much it's going to cost.' And hopefully go on and make another film."

On rare occasions, cinematic calling cards sometimes do their job. Peter Cornwell, an Australian sound man, spent years crafting "Ward 13," a 14-minute short about a man waking up in an insane asylum, trying to break free, facing all sorts of bad guys. With the idea of crafting a calling card, Cornwell began constructing the figurines and sets in his bedroom, and when the project expanded, he started moving pieces and construction into his friends' homes. His hard work paid off when, in November, he was hired to direct "The Dionaea House," a horror thriller David Heyman is producing for Warner Bros. Pictures.

But Cornwell's experience is very much the exception to the prevailing rule. It's not that attention-grabbing short films -- whether they begin life as fan films or Internet novelties -- aren't the calling cards they once were in the movie industry. The truth is that, despite a few illusory examples, they never did guarantee the entree for which their creators hoped. Despite all the initial acclaim that greeted such short films as the "Stars Wars" spoof "George Lucas in Love" or "405," in which an airplane lands on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, their creators were not instantly given the directing assignments for which they were angling. And the flood of ersatz films that have followed in their wake pretty much has rendered the Internet fallow ground for recruitment.

The phenomenon began in the late 1990s, as the Internet began spawning so-called fan films, which take well-known characters, usually from fantasy and sci-fi movies, and present them in new stories via short films and trailers. One of the first such films to become hot was "Troops," a short directed by Kevin Rubio in 1998 that followed a group of stormtroopers on Tatooine a la the TV show "Cops."

Another short that rocketed to short-lived popularity was "Lucas in Love," which spoofed the then-popular "Shakespeare in Love" by inserting George Lucas as the title character as it offered a fictional scenario about how he developed the "Star Wars" mythology. It was written by Timothy Dowling and directed by Joe Nussbaum, who made "Lucas in Love" as his USC student film project.

Even before they hit the Internet, both films attracted attention as VHS tapes that quickly circulated throughout Hollywood. Executives had their assistants making copies of copies of copies. Soon Rubio, Dowling and Nussbaum all got meetings around town and netted representation -- Rubio with WMA, Dowling and Nussbaum with Endeavor and Benderspink, respectively.

Rubio credits the Internet for fueling the frenzy. " 'Troops' had the luck of being the first one put on the Net like that, back when you only had QuickTime 2 and it took eight hours to download," Rubio said of his film, which appeared on TheForce.net. "The fact that it took that long to download and that we were crashing sites, it got noticed from the community because people wanted to know what the hell is worth waiting eight hours to download."

"Lucas in Love" surfaced on the Web site Mediatrip.com, where a few million watched it.

"This is when everyone thought that every Web site would be laden with short films and it was going to be a Shangri-La for shorts," said Dowling, who was written up in People, the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly and appeared on CNN, CNBC and "The Today Show" while also making the rounds of film festivals worldwide.

Soon, Hollywood agencies began tracking the Internet with the hopes of discovering new talent. The developments attracted the attention of Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt, visual effects artists who were working on TV's "Star Trek: Voyager." Working weekends, spending just a few hundred dollars, they created a short titled "405" that showed a 747 landing on a amazingly traffic-free section of what usually is one of the most congested highways in the country.

At first, their calling card appeared to be a success. Amid the Details and Rolling Stone interviews and photo shoots, Branit and Hunt quit their jobs, signed with CAA and began taking meetings.

The success of "405," "Lucas in Love" and "Troops" changed the landscape for calling cards. Suddenly, spoofs flooded the Hollywood landscape and then the Internet. "It became too much," Dowling said. "It became a lot harder to get something seen. There were like a hundred 'Blair Witch' spoofs. There were so many of them that not one of them was making an impact."

The evolution of the Internet and digital technology only made it easier to make and disseminate such shorts. But as they multiplied, they tended to cancel one another out.

"It doesn't make a splash anymore," said John Halecky of iFilm, where many shorts appear. "People are even spoofing the MasterCard 'Priceless' commercials. Well, you're spoofing a 30-second ad with a 30-second ad."

The evolution of the Internet also made it harder to build buzz. The old days of making copies of copies on VHS, messengering them around town and congregating around TVs to catch the latest parody were gone. Ironically, while the Internet made such shorts instantly available, it also ended their mystique.

The original calling cards were, Halecky said, "a hotter item because you couldn't get it unless you knew someone. Whereas today, if it's online, boom, the whole world can watch it and move on with their lives."

Ultimately, making a splash with a short ended up diverting some of its most celebrated practitioners from their career goals. The makers of "Troops," "Lucas in Love" and "405" were so focused on their particular projects that they lost sight of why they made their shorts in the first place.

"Once you get those meetings, and they love the short, but they can't do anything with it, the big question is, what's next? What else do you have?" Dowling said. "And we were so focused on the short that we didn't have anything else."

Branit agreed: "What happened was we ended up in a lot of rooms with people going, 'So what do you want to do?' And we didn't know. We hadn't planned the second chapter."

Nussbaum turned to commercial work while waiting for a feature project, and Dowling focused on writing. Branit and Hunt started their own visual effects company, parted ways with CAA and eventually with each other.

But as they continued to plug away, they learned another Hollywood lesson: perseverance. Nussbaum eventually landed a directing gig on MGM's 2004 tween movie "Sleepover." Last year, Dowling sold a high-profile project, "Outsourced," with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn attached.

Branit moved with his wife to Kansas City, started another visual effects company and this year worked on "Sin City," "The Adventures of Sharkboy & Lavagirl in 3-D" and "Serenity." But he still is working on the dream: He is putting the finishing touches on a nine-minute short he wrote and directed that he hopes will put him back on the map as a Hollywood player.

Still, for a few would-be players, if such calling cards demonstrate real skill, they occasionally still can hit their mark.

"It's not (about) saying to the whole industry 'Look at me,' " said Mark Bell of Film Threat DVD, which specializes in short films. "It's saying, 'I have certain skills, I can handle a camera, this is the d.p. I want to use, etc.' "

For example, looking for a directing gig at New Line, Michael Davis submitted several minutes of animatic action sequences of his own script, "Shoot 'Em Up." The studio liked what it saw, and the project is moving forward with Clive Owen attached.

Filmmaker Wes Ball created a one-minute animated trailer for the coming-of-age adventure "The Treehouse" that he hopes to make as his directorial debut. The trailer was instrumental in him getting the gig on the Warner Bros. Pictures project, being produced by Tapestry Films.

And though the day of the Internet short might be waning, the dawn of the phone-download featurette could be just beginning with mobile phone companies desperately looking for short-form content to fill their small screens. "If the next breakout films (come) on the phone, I would not be surprised," Bell said.

Meanwhile, back in West Virginia, Felux decided not to wait for Hollywood and began plotting his next move.

"I'm planning to do my next feature, an original feature, on a much larger scale than I did 'Revelations' but with the same mind-set and production value that I did on 'Revelations,' " Felux said.


Borys Kit writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

For more news from The Hollywood Reporter, click here.

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