Gladiator, Traffic, Crouching Tiger—if you've been a part of society in the past year, you've heard of all the Oscar-nominated films. But The Periwig-Maker? A Soccer Story? How about My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York, one of last year's winners? They're short films, and as such they get short shrift when it comes to national exposure. They make the rounds at festivals (The Periwig Maker was shown at over 70 last year), but none attain the exposure of full-length films. The best way to catch short films (unless you live on a node of the festival circuit) is to watch them online.
In fact, the Web can be your own personal thousand-plex cinema: It's home to everything from full-length feature films previously released in theaters, to dialogue-free films about hot dogs, to earnest documentaries about gay teens, to silent films featuring folks eating dirt, and so on. Some sites have done deals with film schools (Atom Films has a deal with USC) to get student films on their sites; many also deal directly with independent filmmakers or have licensing deals with studios and festivals for material. And some sites, like Alwaysi, accept unsolicited films from anybody.
Two genres that dominate are fan film (especially for Star Wars) and parodies. One of the Web's all-time most popular short films, George Lucas in Love, ably combines those two genres by parodying the Paltrow-Fiennes film while appealing to Star Wars fans who'd always wondered what inspired Princess Leia's hairstyle. So, the problem with short film on the Web isn't diversity or quantity—it's quality. What's worth watching, and where?
Atomfilms.com, with the charming tag line "Get into our shorts," is probably the most recognized film site on the Web. It hosts several popular animated series including the elliptical "Angry Kid" (created by Aardman Animations, best known for Wallace and Gromit) and a slew of short films of all stripes.
Atomfilms' opening page is cluttered with promotions and sponsorship deals; the Audience Choice page (where both the highest-rated and most-clicked films are listed), is a better place to start. But even that page led me to a lot of bad movies I didn't want to finish. When I checked, Kliengeld (Small Change), a 15-minute long German film about a businessman's relationship with a panhandler, was the No. 1 in terms of viewer's quality ratings, despite the fact that it has no English subtitles. Checking the most popular list, the very edifying Go Sick: X-Tra Special Delivery and Bikini Bandits and the Time Machine filled out the top two slots.
iFilm.com, a portal for short films, opens with a multitude of greatest-hits lists: You can see a list of the most popular films this week, the most popular of all time, plus the editors' picks of the day from other film sites around the Web. The films are broken down into easily navigable subsections for spoofs, sci-fi, comedy, etc. (not to mention a section devoted to films that just played at Sundance). To my mind, this was the best place to find good stuff. As a portal, they have everything on the Web to choose from; they claim links to over 15,000 films. I recommend Butt Naked (not what you think) and Killer Pink (also not what you think).
Alwaysi.com is a collection of independent shorts, TV-showlike episodes, and full-length films. They have over 2,000 films, 70 percent of which are shorts and episodes. Like Atomfilms.com, they actively seek out new movies at film fests and from independent studios (and they also accept unsolicited material).
Unfortunately, this site is switching to a subscription model later this month. The fee will be low—probably about $4.99 per month. But as Chief Operating Officer Anthony Soohoo says, "the free lunch can't continue forever." (If Slate's experiment with the subscription model is any indicator, they can expect to see their visitors drop significantly.) But Soohoo claims subscriptions will work because of Alwaysi's large, high-quality collection of movies. After poking around their site and sampling the wares, I wasn't convinced. More interesting is their plan to launch a recommendation system similar to Amazon.com's. They'll track your viewing patterns, your rating patterns, and your community preferences and then generate a list of movies that you'll probably like. This is a tremendous idea: If it works the way they say it should, it will be tailored not just to what you saw, but what you saw and liked.
Heavy.com has an incredible collection of so-called "viral" films. These are mainly extremely short (10 seconds to three minutes or so) and share a sort of "holy shit I can't believe this is on tape!" quality that is strangely irresistible. They include footage of people getting chased by aroused donkeys and falling off gymnastics equipment, a clip of an exploding Gummy Bear from what seems to be a high-school chemistry lecture, funny foreign commercials, home videos of vicious cats, and a particularly grim one of a tennis player breaking an ankle on his way to a long backhand. Lowbrow? You bet, but also addictive. Unfortunately the site is annoyingly Flash-heavy and attempts to play a long intro every time you visit. But the "Contagious" section is the best collection that I've seen of these strange little shorties that are always making the e-mail rounds.
Mediatrip.com is a great place to catch up on parodies like Swing Blade (Swingers meets Sling Blade) and Film Club (think Fight Cub for filmmakers). The site doesn't have a lot of depth (their short-films page only listed about 30), but they have a page where they list their most popular film streams, most of which are spoofs.
Some of these sites, the biggest and best of their kind, still have poorly designed navigation and technical glitches. Even on a T1 connection I found myself waiting a long time for downloads, being denied by certain clips, following bad links, and waiting through eons of buffering. But finding a gem like The Killer Bean (about a coffee bean with moves straight out of a John Woo film) makes the all the waiting worth it.