How long does a film have to be to be worth watching?
Tara Steffens, director of Riverside Short Film Festival that will be held in New Haven March 31-April 2, has seen one really good film this year that was just 60 seconds long and many more that were between two and five minutes.
“I’ve seen some really good 20-minute documentaries, which blows my mind,” said Steffens.
Around 3,000 films were submitted to the 2017 Riverside Short Film Festival from filmmakers all around the world. There were only two countries that weren’t represented, said Steffens — Greenland and the Congo.
She and five others have watched every one of the films to select the best to be featured in the Best of the Fest showing Saturday, April 1, at the Walt Theater in downtown New Haven.
Some of the films that have been entered in the Riverside festival have gone on to national and even international acclaim. Last year, one of the films submitted to Riverside went on to win an Oscar for Best Short Film in 2016.
“That was a Russian film, ‘We Can’t Live Without Cosmos,’ ” said Steffens, noting the film was submitted to the Riverside festival four months before Oscar nominations were announced.
There also have been films submitted to Riverside that have won prizes at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
One of Five Short Film Festivals in the U.S.
This year will be the second annual Riverside Short Film Festival, although the event goes back more than 10 years under a different name, location and leadership.
The Riverside Short Film and Video Festival was started by Patti Ryan of Grinning Bear Studios LLC in Swiss, just outside of Hermann. In 2015, Ryan approached Steffens, co-founder of the Riverside Players community theater company, and Gary Rice, of Astral Glass in downtown New Haven, about taking over the festival.
They shortened the name and expanded the reach of the festival.
“Since we’ve taken it over, we’ve found out we are one of five short film festivals in the U.S.,” said Steffens.
To be eligible for the Riverside Short Film Festival, films have to be under 30 minutes long, which includes both the title sequence to credits, Steffens noted. They also have to be in English or subtitled in English.
There aren’t really any other requirements. The films can be any genre — animation, documentary, even music videos — and they can be from student/amateur filmmakers or professionals.
“We feel that short films are at the heart of filmmaking, and we love promoting that,” said Steffens.
“Short films is how a lot of people get into films. When you’re starting to figure out how to do film, doing something that’s 15 to 20 minutes is easier. But we believe that it definitely is kind of the heart of film, because to tell a good story, in a short amount of time, to be able to do character development and plot development and good cinematography in 30 minutes or less, means that you’re an amazing film maker.”
Selecting the Winners
Along with Steffens, the board for Riverside Short Film Festival includes Andrew Saunders, a Washington native who studied film at Webster University, and Leigh Kolb, Campbellton, who is an English and journalism instructor at East Central College, where she also teaches Intro to Film and organizes the Film and Lecture Series under the Patrons of the Arts. Kolb has written film criticism for various websites and magazines and works with the True/False Documentary Film Festival in Columbia and the St. Louis International Film Festival.
Volunteer screeners for the Riverside Short Film Festival include Keith Meyer, who has a degree in communications, and Chad and Scott Griefe-Wettenhall, who work as teachers.
The team members each watch the full extent of each film that has been submitted, unless it is disqualified for some reason, like it’s longer than 30 minutes or isn’t subtitled. Some films are watched by the team members gathered at one location, but most are watched individually.
“The first cut is easy. Production value and acting and story are pretty obvious at first,” Steffens remarked.
But deciding what will be included in the Best of the Fest does get really tough, partially because of time limitations.
There are two two-hour showings for the Best of the Fest, with different movies in each. The showing from 1 to 3 p.m. is all G- and PG-rated films, and the showing from 5 to 7 is all R-rated films.
They don’t want to select too many films that are the full 30 minutes or even close to that because that limits the number that can shown.
The three final judges for selecting the Best of the Fest films, as well as the overall winners are Steffens, Saunders and Kolb.
“We go through and rewatch all of the finalists and do a full judging panel,” said Steffens, explaining they have a scale of 1 to 10 for acting, script, plot, cinematography, directing as well as a “I just liked it” aspect.
“We add all those together, get an aggregate score, and usually anything that gets an 85 or higher from the three of us is almost always included in Best of the Fest,” Steffens said.
Prizes for the top films include cash and a laurel, which is a logo that can be added to the film to note that it has won an award.
“The more awards a film racks up the better chance it has for it getting picked up or noticed by a distributor,” said Steffens.
The amount of the cash prizes will vary year to year depending on how much money was raised in sponsorships.
Last year, the first-prize winner received $200, and second received $100. There also was a third-prize winner and an Audience Choice award.
Winners also receive custom-made glass trophies from Astral Glass, which are more a work of art than anything else. Each year, Astral Glass creates a totally new design for the trophies.
The goal is eventually to award a film scholarship to a student attending a school in the St. Louis metro area, said Steffens.
From 900 to 3,000 Films
The Riverside Short Film Festival has grown more than 300 percent since last year. Film submissions went from 900 in 2016 to around 3,000 this year.
The board made new contacts with places like the Missouri Film Office, which offered to promote the festival, as well as film schools across the country and international organizations, like the Spanish Arts Council.
Filmmakers can submit their films either as a hard copy or a digital copy online.
Hard copies are submitted as DVDs or on a flash drive via the post office to the film festival address. Digital submissions are uploaded to a website called Film Freeway, which was developed to help film festivals.
The majority of the films received this year were from U.S. filmmakers, which account for 454 films.
There also were 152 films from India, 137 from Spain, 135 from the United Kingdom, 125 from France and several dozen each from Canada, Italy, Russia, Brazil, Germany, Poland and Australia, said Steffens. One film came from Jordan, and one from Qatar. There were even some submitted from North Korea.
The large number of submissions that come from some countries, like India, Spain and France, are a reflection of the incredible support those countries have for the arts, said Kolb.
“The quality of films from some foreign countries is high because of the value of film and the arts in general and how those things are funded,” she said.
One of the reasons Kolb enjoys film so much is that it opens her perspective to so many things.
“It’s just a beautiful way to visually observe and analyze culture, our own or others, and always sort of a commentary of what’s going on in the world,” she said.
Attending a film festival like Riverside provides more than entertainment, said Kolb. It is educational.
“Immersing yourself in multiple perspectives, whether that’s literature or films, is the most powerful way to build empathy and also learn information about people other than you and places other than where you are,” said Kolb. “There’s so much to learn about the world and other people by watching film.”
One of her favorite essays about art is “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors” by Rudine Sims Bishop about how art should work as both a mirror and a window, “because you want to be able to see yourself but also see others in the art that you consume,” said Kolb.
The Riverside Short Film Festival will be a three-day event this year, beginning with an opening reception, Cocktails and Classics, on Friday evening, March 31, from 6 to 10 p.m. in downtown New Haven.
The band Friends of Aaron will perform songs from movie sound tracks outside on the parking lot of Pinckney Bend Distillery. There is no admission charge, but cocktails will be available for purchase.
Around the corner at the Walt Theater, a special presentation by Kolb on “The History of Film” will include a variety of old short films. No tickets are required.
“It’s mostly going to be film clips and information about the earliest films, which were very short, and the evolution of those first decades of film,” said Kolb.
Downtown shops will stay open late, and there will be a movie scavenger hunt.
Tickets will be needed for admission to the Best of the Fest on Saturday, April 1, where the top films submitted to the festival are shown on the Walt’s big screen. There is limited seating in the circa 1940 art deco-style theater. There are only around 150 seats available.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.rsfvfestival.com or at the door. Tickets can be purchased for either viewing session or for an all-day pass to be able to watch both sessions.
Then on Sunday, April 2, the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra will be in the balcony at the Walt to live score some silent comedy films being shown on the screen, just as silent movies were shown back in the day, said Steffens.
Short films being shown will include a series of Buster Keaton comedies: “The High Sun” (21 minutes) “The Goat” (27 minutes) and “The Balloonatic” (22 minutes). Tickets are available online or at the door.
People from all over the St. Louis metro area are expected to attend the festival, which has gotten the attention of Feast and Sauce magazines, said Steffens. There may even be people from as far away as Kansas City.
Having a film festival centered in New Haven is perfectly fitting for that community, which has been so supportive of arts over the years, said Kolb. From the Riverfront Cultural Society group to the working artists who have their items for sale in the shops to the renovated Walt Theater, downtown New Haven is an ideal location for exactly this sort of event, Kolb said.
“New Haven is special, anything that happens there is special, especially with the Walt Theater,” she said. “But it really is a haven, this beautiful downtown that has been lovingly preserved, and there is a core of people and visitors who support it.”
Sponsors of the festival include Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New Haven, Pinckney Bend Distillery in New Haven and Downtown New Haven Inc.
Planning for Changes Next Year
The success and growth of the festival in just one year already has organizers planning to make some changes for the 2018 event.
Currently there is no entry fee for filmmakers, but Steffens said there will be a nominal charge next year, probably between $5 or $10.
They also hope to bring in more volunteer screeners to help them sort through the thousands of submissions.
The submission dates will likely be adjusted from Aug. 1-Feb. 1 to July-January, strictly to give screeners more time to watch all of the films, since they all have full-time jobs and work on the film festival on the side.
“None of us get paid to do this. It’s all for the love of the arts and films,” said Steffens.