The Long and Short of Shortsfest in Aspen

03/27/2015 11:43 am ET | Updated May 27, 2015

If you could find an app that combined the cumulative knowledge of Laura Thielen and George Eldred -- about movies in general and short films in particular -- then your Netflix subscription would be worth like a gazillion dollars.

In twenty years at Aspen Film -- now as the co-executive directors -- they have compiled a track record based of unwavering taste that has translated into thousands of hours that require only jumbo tubs of popcorn and the full participation of the audience. Their palate encompasses the entire candy counter of genres: features, documentaries, animation and shorts.

And yes, Mildred, they have been married the whole time.

But the convening of the 24th Annual Aspen Shortsfest (from April 7-12, 2015) became bittersweet when Thielen/Eldred announced they will be ankling Aspen Film by yearend 2015, after putting together the presumably boffo Filmfest program in the fall. Their last pass at short films in Aspen this April will encompass 70 films from 30 countries, based on 3,100 submissions from over 100 countries.

Attention should be paid to Aspen Shortsfest: over the years, the festival has presented over 70 Oscar nominees and winners. Of particular note this time around:

Nefertiti's Daughter about the role of street artists and women in the Arab Spring.
Andrew With Great Fanfare about a 14-year-old in New Orleans.
Bhavini starring an 11-year-old from India who just wants to dance.
Living in America whereby a quad skier tackles the Chugach Mountains in Alaska.
The Champion featuring an Iraqi refugee and his family, a promising boxer now driving a cab in Chicago.
German Shepherd about the son of a Holocaust survivor who becomes enamored of Germans and Germany.

One film will be of particular interest to locals in the valley: The Journey, about the Missouri Heights sculptor James Surls, produced by Barclay Lottimer and co-directed by his phenom twentysomething sons: Austin and Maitland Lottimer, winners of the Olympus Visionary awards, have shown brodacious signs of becoming as impossible to ignore as the Coen Brothers. The festival will also feature director Mark Nichols and writer-director Jason Reitman, with clips of Reitman's favorite films accompanied by his commentary.

"It's like trying to arrange all the jewels in the crown," Thielen says. "Big show-stoppers, and little gems. Each shines brightly. We try to shape each program with a mix of comedy, drama, documentary and animation. We encourage the audience to think and to feel and to trust. With two screenings every evening for five or six nights, they can go on the same ride together and experience the whole festival."

The global reach of Aspen Shortsfest did not happen easily or overnight. Twenty years ago, Thielen and Eldred were determined to turn Aspen Shortsfest into an international event at a time when shorts were largely confined to the United States and Western Europe.

"Our interest in movies in global," Eldred says, "and we wanted to do the same thing for shorts."

That meant beaucoup de faxes across multiple ponds and phone calls in the middle of the night to exotic time zones. That also meant reaching out to the British Film Council, the Australian Film Commission and sundry film programs all over the world. They would call a South Korean film school at 3 AM Mountain Time hoping to find someone who could speak English.

"Very few would send us their show reels," Thielen remembers. "That took about two years."

In 1996, Shortsfest generated 400 submissions entirely by word of mouth. Since then Thielen/Eldred have built up "a network with over 100 national film commissions and film schools, and little production companies in Europe."

"That's something I've noticed over 20 years," Eldred says. "The percentage of solid, well-made shorts is up. These are people who've been making movies since kindergarten."

The careers of Thielen and Eldred in Aspen coincide with sea changes in the shorts industries.

"As a curator and a film lover," Eldred says, "one of the things that has happened since World War II is film has evolved from a closed craft system with high barrier to entry, to the advent of film schools in the Sixties and more available and widely spread tools for shooting and editing. For practically nothing, people can take their high-end smartphone and friends and put it on the Internet -- and share with an interested worldwide community."

It may surprise you to know Eldred says the rise of the Internet has not been an unadulterated blessing for short filmmakers.

"YouTube is full of horrible examples," he says. "Movies made with no sense of craft or movie-making. It does enable people to shoot and edit and show. They have the opportunity of learning. There's no barrier and they have a shared community. But the introduction of the Internet crashed the market for short films until people making any money at all were making crumbs. There were shorts distributors in specialty exhibition, college, arts cinema, packages of shorts and that sort of thing. The introduction of the Internet crashed that. There was no money in it but made for much greater exposure. Nothing's replaced that in the United States."

"There is a healthy infrastructure for shorts worldwide," Thielen says, "because of the influx of money from countries to support their native voices. They've funded short filmmakers. And in Europe shorts are shown in television, on airplanes, in front of features. There's very robust support, especially in Europe. And there were a lot of co-production. The French supporting African filmmakers, for example."

In the United States she says: "Shorts disappeared because of trailers. And shorts distribution became super-costly."

"We're interest in the films that stay with us," Eldred says. "We'll see films and we'll find ourselves still thinking about them. There's some meat, a real richness."

As for the future for Laura Thielen and George Eldred, it's safe to assume their bucket lists will include beaucoup de buckets of popcorn consumed in their neverending search for the next great story every time the curtain goes up.