Interview with Jon Gann, Founder of DC Shorts Film Festival
The Pink Line Project recently sat down with Jon Gann, founder of the wildly successful DC Shorts Film Festival. Each year, Gann brings new films and filmmakers to the Penn Quarter of Washington for a week-long celebration of cinema. The September 2009 festival screened 100 films from 15 countries. Now in its sixth year, DC Shorts has achieved national recognition for the quality of the movies selected, many of which go on to play in other filmfests worldwide. It’s been named by MovieMaker Magazine as “one of the nation’s leading short film festivals.”
But the success of DC Shorts was not preordained – it took a lot of hard work. How did DC Shorts get started? How did Gann translate his idea into reality? Good ideas, particularly in this overeducated and ambitious city, are common. However, most of these ideas are never acted upon. What makes somebody risk their ego, savings and reputation on creating something new? Whether it’s writing a book, picking up a paintbrush, or taking a picture, Gann’s story holds lessons and inspiration for anyone looking for the courage to create.
Why did you start the DC Shorts Film Festival? Where did the idea come from?
A few years ago, I traveled around the globe to support a short film I created. After visiting a few dozen festivals over the course of a year, I was disillusioned by the whole festival circuit. It was clear that many festivals were concerned about money and sponsors and patrons and parties, and care about films and filmmakers — especially those who created short films — was not a priority. One festival, the Ashland Independent Film Festival in little Ashland, Oregon was an amazing exception. If you made your way to the festival, the organizers made sure you were fed, housed and had access to all of the filmmakers and films. It was an eye opener. By the time I made my way back to DC, the seed was planted.
I called my dear friend, Gene Cowan, who had previously helped me on motion graphics for a few films, and is a techno-junkie. I told him my idea and he laughed! Then in typical Lucy/Ethel fashion, he acquiesced and joined me.
What was that moment like, when you decided that you were going to put your own money and ego on the line?
As an impulsive person, I don't think I really thought about it. I had a small budget in my mind -- about the same I would have spent to make a new short film — and decided I would risk it. It was around this time that I already created the DC Film Salon, and was making headway into DC's previously closed film community. I just figured this ties in with my idea of opening up the industry to as many people as possible.
Many people tend to put off the big ideas, out of fear - why did you decide to move forward?
I might fear the little stuff, but I am always one to put the big ideas out there — as half-baked as some are. I knew that DC had a great number of film festivals, but none which showed short films exclusively. I also knew many filmmakers who needed a venue to show their creations. It seemed like a perfect fit, and really — I didn't think much beyond getting the event done.
Did people tell you that you were crazy? Yet you did it anyway - how come?
Crazy?! Me? Of course — I am the first one to admit it. I'm more afraid of someone telling me I am conventional. At a theoretical budget of $3,000, I thought I could handle the loss, so there was no real risk for me.
What were your expectations for that first festival?
I just wanted to sell a few tickets and make the visiting filmmakers feel like I did in Ashland — taken care of. Ticket lines around the corner, sold out shows and ecstatic audiences were the reward. Making a $50 profit was the icing on the cake.
What would you have done if nobody showed up?
Cry. Then run in the street and drag people into see the shows. Give away tickets, if needed.
What do you think you did to make it a success?
The first DC Shorts was something different in a newly gentrified neighborhood. It was marketed to my peers, and not to an older audience I found at many other festivals. Plus, I worked my ass off to get the festival mentioned in the Post, City Paper and other local media.
What obstacles did you have to overcome?
I found that other festivals were concerned about how a new event would affect them. Many had been around for a while and invested a great deal to ensure their continued success. I think they were amazed that by adding a new festival, it created more demand to attend other film events.
Since starting the DC Film Salon and DC Shorts Festival and then rolling them into the DC Film Alliance, I have found that organizations are reluctant to share resources for fear of becoming irrelevant or having to use their energy to compete. The truth has been that as the film community has become more open (in part to the digital revolution), organizations are seeing memberships increase, and their role as more influential than before. I honestly believe that if we all played in the same sandbox, we'd all be a lot happier, and maybe relaxed.
Was there a moment when you knew that DC Shorts would work?
The night before the first screening, we sold out the show. Then the phone began to ring with people clamoring for tickets and to be put on the wait list. When I arrived at the theater at 10 AM the next day, there was a line to be included on the list for the 3 PM show. That’s when I finally began to relax.
What did you learn from that first year, both about the festival and yourself?
DC Shorts is important for audiences and filmmakers alike. Audiences need exposure to more than the fluff at the cineplex, and filmmakers need to attend at least one festival that treats them with respect and care for their art. These are still the guiding principals of the festival — as I plan for our 7th year. About myself? That I really can do anything I put my heart into.
What did you get out of the experience and how did it change you?
My hair went grey faster, and I gained a few pounds. But seriously, I think the experience — and the planning of subsequent festivals has allowed me to put my talents into perspective. I see hundreds of short films every year. I see some awful crap, and a few films of true genius.
I might be a good film director, but I am not a great director. It’s better that I help talented filmmakers to reach for a higher level — linking them with the right people and community. In helping them achieve greatness, I get the satisfaction of making the industry a little better. And the praise is more than enough for me.
PHOTO CREDIT: Armand Emamdjomeh
Short URL: http://bit.ly/3Hnpv0