Sundance Film Festival 2023. Short Talk with Mike Plante, Senior Programmer, Short Film

Mike Plante is currently a senior programmer for short film at the Sundance Film Festival, where he has worked since 2001. He has worked as a film programmer and projectionist since 1993, and he helped run CineVegas from 2002 to 2009. Plante also makes short and feature documentaries, including Be Like An Ant (2011), Giuseppe Makes a Movie (2014) and The Polaroid Job (2016), and We Were There to Be There (2021).

At the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Tara Karajica talks to Mike Plante about this year’s short film selection, Sundance and shorts, programming and the short form today.

How would you define the artistic direction of the Sundance Film Festival short film section?

Mike Plante: We try to put on a great show for our audiences, making 90-minute programs of a wide variety of stories and styles that we have found through our submission process. Hopefully, each program is a great mixtape for the crowds, with films to laugh, cry and think about long after the screening is done. Along with that, we hope we can find new voices in filmmaking every year and help that talent make connections with the film industry at large to keep making films. Not just from the US, but from as many countries as possible, especially underserved regions of the world.

What can you say about this year’s selection?

M.P.: A new record for submissions, close to 11,000. So, we found an amazing group of shorts and filmmakers, most of which have not been to Sundance before. While we have some very “big” films, the majority of the program have stories or vibes that seem to be very personal to the filmmaker.

Sundance is famous for being the launch pad of the careers of some of today’s prominent filmmakers. Can you elaborate on that?

M.P.: Our goal is to create the best program from the submissions we get. Obviously, we have no idea what the filmmakers will go on to do. If we are lucky, by playing at our Festival, it will not only be a fun show, but help them to be noticed and get the next project going. When producers, financiers and studios see the shorts with a crowd, they get caught up in the excitement of how good the filmmakers are, especially on a big screen. And, that can often lead to getting a new project going or getting hired. It’s hard to predict what the film industry will do and fortunately prediction is not part of our job, ha! It’s great that we seem to be a springboard for talent, also for all the actors, camerapersons, editors, writers, etc. 

When programming and selecting films, can you exclude your personal taste? If so, to what extent?

M.P.: We are all very much professionals at work. It’s easy and even fun to recognize when something is going to play well with audiences and it’s talent to support, which is our job we are hired to do. We also know when to select a difficult film that not every audience member will like, that’s part of the variety of the program. Films are important for different reasons and we don’t want to show just one type of film. When you have a group of programmers with different tastes, it makes the festival better. If I see something I don’t respond to, but I know another programmer on our team might, I share it and get another opinion from someone who I think would like it. That’s basically the definition of festival programming. 

How do other festivals influence your selection?

M.P.: They don’t. We do not have a premiere requirement of any kind for short films –only for features. We’ll play a lot of shorts as premieres because they just finished and wanted to try us first. And, we play a lot of shorts that have been to twenty other fests before us. The audience has never seen them, and shorts need all the love they can get. It makes our fest better.

What do you think of the underrepresentation of short films in the media?

M.P.: Feature films will spend a lot of money for publicists to get a lot of coverage. Shorts don’t have that budget. The irony is, there will be a short or two every year that goes viral online without spending any money and will blow up bigger than many features. It’s interesting to watch and impossible to predict. I think true film fans will write and read about and search out shorts. The quest to see films is part of the fun. More and more websites and streamers are figuring out how to get involved with shorts, it gets better all the time. Audiences have been watching short stories for years on TV with shows, the crossover will grow.

What is your opinion on the situation of short films today? What is the situation in the US? And, globally?

M.P.: There has never been a better time to make shorts, as the technology is affordable. You don’t need permission from Hollywood or anyone else to make a film. And it’s easier than ever to get your film seen because of film festivals and the Internet. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to get people to actually watch it, the Internet is overloaded, but there is far more opportunity than twenty-five years ago.

In the US, tons of impressive and personal shorts are being made, in fiction, doc and animation. But it’s near impossible to get funding in this country. Filmmakers are smart and get around that, adjusting what they make to match their means, making smaller works and sticking to what really motivates them, which is great. 

From the outside looking in, it appears that funding a short in almost every other country is much easier and the productions and stories are often a bit bigger. But I’m sure it’s still very competitive for that funding. 

Still – it’s the best time ever to make a short. At least, since the start of the 20th century, the last time shorts were dominating movie theaters, ha!

Can you talk about the audience’s support of shorts in Park City?

M.P.: Every screening pretty much sells out, it’s great. Some audiences want to see as many as possible, and some love to mix shorts with feature screenings. We are fortunate to have so many film fans attend that want to see everything. When a festival has the audience travel to a remote location to see the films, you get an appreciative audience.

What advice would you give to young filmmakers when submitting their short to Sundance?

M.P.: Make the film for yourself, not for what you think a festival wants. There is no one thing that we look for. This year, we have a short that is two and a half minutes long and one that is thirty minutes. We are showing every type of genre in fiction, socially important docs and totally funny docs, and so many styles of animation. It’s a lot of work to make a film, you have to will it into existence. So don’t make filmmaking harder than it already is. Create exactly what you want to, with what you have in your backyard already. And if it doesn’t work out, make another one right away.

What’s in store for shorts at Sundance?

M.P.: Great audiences and appreciative filmmakers. And a ton of snow.

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