It used to be said that everyone from the butcher to the banker was secretly working on the Great American Novel. The fantasy of achieving best-selling fame and fortune led to countless workshops, classes, writers groups and literary journals to identify the elusive "diamond in the rough" and earn someone a few quick bucks. They also encouraged would-be novelists to cut their teeth on the short story, a quick, low-investment proving ground where the next Stephen King can learn to harness his muse and develop his craft.
Whether it was America's declining literacy rate or shortening attention spans, by the 1990s, film had supplanted the novel as the artist's dream of choice. Predictably, workshops, courses and gurus sprung up like weeds. But getting something onto the big screen is like winning the lottery only with longer odds. That is, until the advent of digital video and the Internet.
Now, everyone and his brother can be the next Scorsese or Spielberg. Short films are no longer relegated to college classrooms and obscure festivals. Web sites like Atomfilms and I-Films are bursting at the seams with homemade movies. Major film festivals have seen audiences for short subject programs surge, and, last year, for the first time, all five Oscar-nominated shorts were available for download from iTunes. Technology has led audiences to seek out tiny bursts of entertainment.
Still, the competition is fierce. On the Web, your 10-minute masterpiece about the cat lady down the street must fight for attention against a thousand other choices. So how does the next Francis Ford Coppola or Sam Raimi (to drop the names of a couple of Michigan natives) find an audience for his work in progress?
Bucking demographic wisdom, Keith Jeffries moved to Michigan from London in 2003 for one of the few sane reasons: to marry a local girl. An award-winning filmmaker and former network director at the BBC, he quickly noticed how few opportunities and venues existed for local filmmakers. The film climate had become so grim that Hollywood had started shooting its "Detroit" locations in Toronto.
Still, Jeffries was determined to find a creative home. "For the first year I literally joined every organization I could find, from the Detroit Film Center to the Ann Arbor screenwriters group. One night, my fiancee dragged me to the Lost Film Festival at the Dreamland Theater in Ypsilanti. The guy duct-taped a sheet on the wall, took out a box of videotapes and started showing these crazy madcap films. It was brilliant. I was inspired by his can-do spirit."
Jeffries approached the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor and offered to revive their long-defunct Cinema Slam. "They took a look at my résumé and work and adopted me as their resident filmmaker. Of course, offering to work for free helped."
For the last two years, Cinema Slam has provided a platform for local filmmakers to experience their work in front of a live audience. Inspired by cinema clubs in London, Jeffries offers a mix of regionally produced shorts and films he's solicited from festivals and the Internet. "For the locals, I set the bar pretty low because I want to encourage them to participate. But I'll always curate two to three excellent shorts I've stumbled across just to show them what's possible. Plus, as an audience member, I like the unpredictability of it all."
Roughly half of the 90-minute program is typically homegrown, with more than a few selections coming from the University of Michigan's film school. April's program featured a predictable mix of horror-inspired shorts and artsy video poems. "The difference between students at Ann Arbor and those at East Lansing," Jeffries adds, "is whether everyone dies at the end of the film." (Wolverines tend to be more introspective, while the Spartans, perhaps inspired by former MSU student Sam Raimi, go for more violence.)
Not surprising, the best short of the evening was a curated piece. But there are some local gems to be found. U-M student Joe Hawley delighted audiences with his marvelously surreal music video, Banana Man. Though Joel Denyes could learn a thing or two about writing poetry, his Bent (In The Meantime) boasts beautifully composed images and arresting visuals. Even if many of films featured at Cinema Slam fall short in the writing department, there's no shortage of clever ideas and savvy filmmaking. Some have even gone on to find success at local film festivals.
After showing six live-action shorts at Cinema Slam, computer game developer John Ardussi talked Jeffries into directing his Napoleon Dynamite-inspired short, The Adventure Golf Guy, and went on to win the Critics' Choice award for best short subject at the Central Michigan International Film Festival as well as Made In Michigan award at the Flint Film Festival. "The power of Cinema Slam," Ardussi says, "is that you can learn what works by gauging the audience's reaction." To that end, Jeffries provides each audience with a feedback page in the Cinema Slam program.
The Slam's growing attendance has been particularly encouraging to Jeffries. "At first, we mostly attracted filmmakers and their families. But word has been spreading and we're drawing more than 50 people per show. Next year, I hope to present more thematically linked programs. For Halloween, we intend to do a program of locally made horror films, which seem awfully popular."
With the success of thus year's Young Filmmakers Cinema Slam (K-12 auteurs) and plans for experimental film instillations in the Michigan Theater's grand lobby, Jeffries is dedicated to helping resuscitate Michigan's floundering filmmaking community. "While Europeans have an easier time of displaying their work, Americans have unprecedented access to the craft of filmmaking. I'm trying to fill the gap between the incredible range of work that's being developed and the need for places to show it."
The last monthly slam of the season is at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 16, at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463. See cinemaslam.com for more information, including how to submit work.Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]