Short Shorts Film Festival
An Interview with Seigo Tono,
Office Manager Short Shorts Film Festival
The following interview with Seigo Tono of the Tokyo-based Short Shorts Film Festival (www.shortshorts.org/2010/) was conducted on 29 August 2005 as part of Alex Fischer's Ph.D research examining the process of film festival operation. The interview was held in the Short Shorts Film Festival head office in Tokyo, Japan. Seigo Tono was the office manager at the time of this interview and he has since taken the title of festival director.
The festival began in 1999 under the name American Short Shorts with the goal of introducing ‘calling card' short films to Japan. Works screened during the first few years were primarily sourced in America with the intention of exposing Japanese filmmakers to this specific style of filmmaking. In 2002 organisers renamed the event Short Shorts Film Festival as the number of Japanese films screen was comparable to the international entries selected for programming. The festival is held annually in Tokyo but also tours major Japanese cities as well as select international destinations, e.g. Singapore. Since the time of this interview the festival has grown considerably. One of the most noticeable additions has been the formation of an Asian-specific programming stream called ‘Asian Shorts'.
ST: The festival was founded by Tetsuya Bessho, who is a prominent actor in Japan. He has done many films as well as stage productions. He has also done Japanese TV commercials, so he is very well known. If you name Tetsuya Bessho on the street people recognise him, know him. His first film was an American film, he got a small role in an American/Japanese co-production, a science fiction film (Solar Crisis, 1990, Dir. R. C. Sarafian and A. Smithee) in which Charleston Heston starred. It was science fiction about space and he was one of the crew members of the space ship. He was maybe 22 or 23, but ever since then he wanted to make his way in USA, but as a Japanese it is very difficult to find roles and so he came back and started his main career here.
He was very successful and he became quite famous and we see him on TV all the time and then he made a decision: he may want to try again in the States. That was 1997 or 1998. He wanted to go back just to see what would happen. This time his friend and business partner, his name is Douglas Williams, who is also the co-founder of the festival - you see him on the credit - took him to a short film screening without explaining to him the concept of the event. When Tetsuya saw these short films he was really impressed by it because they were so ‘short' and he could see what the director wanted to express. He had never seen anything like this in Japan, because in Japan the word for short film exists, it is called tanpen.(1)
ST: Tanpen is a short film, but our image of tanpen before the Short Shorts Film Festival was that it was some kind of experimental film that we were obligated to see when in elementary school. It is about morality or society or something like that. You know, we were forced to watch these boring films and so we remember always tanpen as such experimental films, weird films. So he wanted to change this image, replace it with entertaining films. He decided to call it ‘short film' like the American or English way. So we don't use the word tanpen in our publications. He wanted to create the same sensation in the Japanese audience and public that he felt during the screening he attended in Los Angles. So as soon as he came back, that was like 1998, he called his friends to see if anyone was interest in organising a short film festival. At the time, he didn't know anything about short film festivals in Japan or organising a festival.
So, he went to see other festivals in Japan and at the time there were very small short film, I wouldn't say festivals, but manifestations or some kind of a screenings around the city. These were organised by international people, ex-pats living in Japan. Occasionally, for the weekend, they would organise these small short film screenings in a café or something. Actually there were three, two other co-founders, Douglas Williams and Keiko Takahashi, her name is also in the catalogue. So, the three of them went around and attended various film festivals. They also researched other festivals and methods of funding. Of course Tetsuya is a well known person so many companies would help him, but not financially.
AF: In-kind contributions?
ST: Correct. Giving out flight tickets or hotel rooms.
AF: Basically, contributing to the overall festival.
ST: Some companies also gave him some money with the understanding that their names would be on the promotional material. There is also a company called Sunny Side Up who has been our PR firm since the beginning.
AF: Did they influence the brand labeling of the festival?
ST: No. But they have been a great supporter and because the president of Sunny Side Up is related to Keiko Takahashi who is the co-founder of the festival.
ST: At the time Keiko Takahashi was working for Sunny Side Up and Tetsuya Bessho and the president of Sunny Side Up are friends. I'm sure she introduced her sister Keiko since she was studying film in Hawaii. Sunny Side Up helped by bringing in some money and also helped with the promotions. They also helped with the airline companies so filmmakers could come to Japan.
AF: The pictures on the webpage from the official opening look fantastic! It must have been quite a sensation because it was sold out and people were packed up and down the streets. That was when it was called American Shorts right?
ST: The strategy Tetsuya used at that time was to focusing on location. He thought, "where should the festival be held?" Tetsuya decided to have the festival in the Harajuku Omotesando area where young people from the age of 15 to early 20s congregate. If you are 30 you are already kind of old for this area. Everything in Japan, all these trends, they all started in Harajuku. That's in the area's history.
AF: It's culturally known for that?
ST: Everything starts in Harajuku. The fashion starts from Harajuku and Omotesando is of course a sacred avenue. In this area they have all these expensive stores, so Tetsuya had to convince the Association of the Town Committee of Harajuku and Omotesando to allow the film festival to be held in that specific location. They are notoriously very hard to do business with. They are like the Godfathers of the town. At the time I wasn't there, it was only Tetsuya and Keiko. They had to bring the project in front of these ten Godfathers...with cigars you know?
They were like, "what could you bring to us?", so Tetsuya explained our initiative of having a short film festival and that such an event had never happened in Japan. He then explained that he thought many young people will come and eventually it would be good for the town and commercial business as well. So they finally gave their approval and this is really rare. They usually don't accept a project like this. It is usually through an introduction by someone who knows a member of the association.
I think that the success of the festival owes much to the fact that Tetsuya Bessho is a famous person instead of some independent event producer. Everybody knows Tetsuya from television and they trust him. They also realise that Tetsuya has a really good business mind. For many people it is hard believe that he is an actor because he is such a good businessman. He operates this company and is the president. Many famous Japanese television actors, stage actors start businesses. A little bit of moonlighting separate from their professional work. For example, they open up a little restaurant, or clothing stores. But usually it never works. It is very tough.
AF: It will open and then fade.
ST: Exactly, but Tetsuya Bessho does not want to have the festival like this. This is Tetsuya Bessho's festival. So, the first couple of years he really worked hard to promote it. Now, he tries not to show up in the businesses and that's why he hired me, to replace him. I now go to the Association to negotiate for things such as sponsorship.
AF: When did you come on board?
ST: The third year in 2000 but I began working for the organisation in 2001.
AF: OK. So you volunteered in 2000?
ST: No. I joined after the festival in July of 2000. Another thing, Tetsuya's proposal was accepted by another group of people who allowed us to have flags along Omotesando Avenue. This had a huge promotional impact. Usually, this is not allowed even if money is involved because the image of an event may not correspond to Omotesando and they will never accept it. To them money is not important but the image they created fifty years ago is, so they don't agree to every event that is proposed.
AF: Is that why the volunteers are so important? They clean up the streets?
ST: Exactly. One of the things we decided was that we needed to do something for the community. So, during the festival the filmmakers, student volunteers and festival organisers all participate in cleaning up the street.
AF: Would I be correct in saying that short films were brought here from America to stimulate local filmmakers into making similar productions. So the festival has influenced them right?
ST: Exactly, the first time we solicited for Japanese short films we received films that were not short films at all. Just somebody has taping your sister for 20 minutes without any editing. In a way it is a short film, you could say it is experimental. But it's not the kind of short film that we wanted to promote or show to the public. We wanted to promote short films and also encourage young Japanese filmmakers who may be able to sell the short films they make to the television, Internet companies or mobile companies. We are living in a time when filmmakers don't have to necessarily grow up and make feature films. They can make short films without money for mobile technology because they as distributors want all this short video content. They don't want to see a two-hour film on a mobile phone.
Tetsuya wanted to have an American Short Shorts Film Festival where you could experience a nice story in five or six minutes. The story begins, there's a struggle in the middle and then boom! A good ending. It took quite a while, I don't want to say educate, but since the Japanese student filmmakers had never seen such short films before they needed some examples. Through our festival we promote these kinds of films on national tours and many people, I think, will create an idea of what their films can be like.
AF: And it took off because there were 100 entries.
ST: The majority of the films we really couldn't show; they were quite bad at the time. But then, each year the skill level has gone up. You can check the programme. For example, out of the twenty official national competition films, we now call it our National Short Shorts programme - maybe half are made overseas. Many of these films are by Japanese who are studying abroad and decide to make a short film while there using local actors so it looks like an international short film.
AF: I would like to know more about the JAM productions.
ST: We only did JAM productions once. What happened was we invited a famous movie producer to be a member of the jury in 2001. He had never seen a collection of short films as such. He was so surprised and impressed, just like Tetsuya. So he called some famous Japanese directors in order to start making short films.
AF: Like the BMW films?
ST: Kind of. But it was for theatres not the Internet. A total of six shorts maybe two hours in length. The plan was, first theatre and then DVD and then television. The second year he hired different directors to make JAM Films 2, we weren't involved. So since then we were not involved in this project.
AF: Do you ever see going back down that path? Short Shorts performing as a facilitator of filmmaking? Do you every see Short Shorts doing its own in-house productions?
ST: In-house productions meaning?
AF: Like, starting like a film institute. Is that in the future of Short Shorts?
ST: Do you mean are we going to have a school?
AF: Yes, or something like that.
ST: Yes. As a matter of fact, in October there is the Tokyo International Film Festival. We will be collaborating with them and Tokyo Government-based agencies to have a one-day workshop. Because the focus is on Asia we are going to invite a famous filmmaker from Korea or China and a selected number of students, maybe five or ten to attend the workshop for the whole day. The schedule could be a lecture in the morning, shooting in the afternoon and maybe at night editing. Another possibility is a completely screenplay-based workshop. We have not decided yet.
AF: Wow, great...
ST: We are going to do it as well.
AF: It seemed like the festival was going in that direction...
ST: We also have Pacific Voice. We work as a consultant to other companies who make short films. We do that sometimes.
AF: You had the Louis Vuitton Special Screening and a screening at the Roppongi Hills Theatre. Do you like to move the festival around to different locations?
ST: Our dream is to have our own Short Short's Theatre, which we will have in 2007 in Yokohama. We will call this our Short Short's Film Centre.
AF: So you are moving to Yokohama?
ST: No, just an official theatre and every day we will screen short films as a commercial business. For the short film festival we will always stick with Omotesando. We would like to have a different venue like, for example, Roppongi Hills because it is a proper theatre.
AF: And that is for the twenty-four hour screening?
ST: All night screenings. We thought because there are so many programmes, for example, at 11:00 am on Sunday we have the National programme. But then if we have some other venues at the same time we can show international shorts, so people can choose. This is the same for the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival. During that festival there are maybe seven or eight venues - the whole city helps the festival. All the movie theaters are involved with the festival. The organisers and also use a screening room at the university and the town community hall, the whole town is a part of the festival during that period. We would like to do something similar but the main Short Shorts Film Festival is not supported by a public element. We always have to look to balance the budget.
Right now they are making a new building along Omotesando. It is called Omotesando Hills. It is the same company that built Roppongi Hills. It is a huge complex that will be done next year in February or March. So we might have another room there when that time comes.
AF: It was TIFFCOM that helped you get the market going - is that right?
ST: This year it is not called TIFFCOM, they changed the name. In order to promote our event in July we screened the awarded films there in October. Now we will participate in the Asian Film Market.
AF: I read that.
ST: I went there and I saw so many people doing business, so it is a good start. But then in Japan, still, we don't have much of a market for short films, but I think it's coming because of the mobile phone. So many people use and make calls from everywhere.
AF: Last question, where do you see the festival going in terms of having this filmmaking workshop? You started out showing people what short films were, then they started making them through workshops. What else do you think your festival can do to promote short films?
ST: I think it would be nice if a Japanese filmmaker, a young filmmaker, was to win the Grand Prize in a future festival. So far the quality to win the international shorts is not there yet. There are so many good shorts sent into the festival. Also the number of international shorts submitted is greater than the number of Japanese shorts entered. But one day we hope that a national filmmaker wins the Short Shorts Grand Prize. This film could then be accepted into the Academy Awards and win an Oscar. It would be a nice route, through our festival a Japanese filmmaker won an Academy Award. It would give a lot of motivation to other young Japanese creators or filmmakers who want to do something with their ideas. Also, right now we are talking with the Ministry of Culture about the need to familiarise children with visual content. Our goal is to facilitate this programme. I hope to bring suitable short films selections to elementary school and public schools around Japan to have a seminar or workshop or even class.
AF: Fulfilling your mission statement to spread cultural ideas.
ST: It is better to start young when teaching children how to communicate through visual media. They can understand that short films are fun but we can also teach them that there is another way to communicate through visual content. And, sometimes you should not be tricked by what you see, because the media can trick you as well. Universities too, we would like to bring our selections to these institutions and have an opportunity to show them as well. So we would like to get into an educational model as well.
AF: Do you think if Short Shorts didn't exist there would still be a lack of short films coming out of Japan? Is there competition from other festivals that have started to copy your ideas?
ST: There are other film festivals that screen short films starting up. Like the Kurosawa Short Film Festival.
AF: But what if Short Shorts never existed?
ST: I don't think there would be the same impact on short films if we didn't exist. But surely because of the mobile era now, I think many companies would have discussed or developed short video content like characters like for games. But maybe they would not think of short films.
AF: You have done so much, it is really amasing to think that it all started with the films being sent over from America and then incorporating them into the Japanese culture. I'm sure there are spin-off festivals that started up after they saw what you were doing.
ST: I'm not sure, but I don't think there would have the same short film hype that we have now if we didn't exist. I think, again, the film festival's success owes a lot to Tetsuya. In part it's his strategy but it also helped that he was a famous person. Many people would listen to him and there was lots of press coverage following him. For example, if there's a National Tour and he participates, the media will come to take his picture for the next newspaper. If it was me, just a managing director, there may be a small notice that the festival was starting, something, but nothing like the coverage Tetsuya Bessho would attract because he's a famous person.
AF: It helps that you got George Lucas as well as other iconic people involved.
ST: Once we got Lucas' support letter we could approach Roman Polanski. It was about creditability and stuff like that.
AF: Things caught on that's for sure. With regard to the original mission statement, do you think it is true today?
ST: I think so, yes. In the beginning it was to exchange culture, visual culture and content, between America and Japan because we started with American Short Shorts. But we are doing this internationally now. Our second stage is to promote more Japanese short films abroad and introduce an educational component. Starting something like the Sundance Film Institute. Who knows, there might be a Short Short's Film Institute or something in the future. I think that is what Tetsuya also has in mind.
(1) This appears to refer to what Stephen Teo identifies as the Hong Kong colloquialism "tsaan pin" which is defined as "meaning damaged or deficient films" (Teo, Stephen (2009), ‘Asian Film Festivals and Their Diminishing Glitter Domes: An Appraisal of PIFF, SIFF and HKIFF', in Richard Porton (ed) Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals. London, Wallflower Press, p. 111).
*DISCLAIMER: This interview is made publically available with the permission of its author participant.