A decade ago, the only thing Jon Gann really knew about film festivals was that he didn’t much care for them. After a year of traveling to dozens with his 9-minute film “Cyberslut,” the man who would go on to found the DC Shorts Film Festival felt defeated by the massive, impersonal cinematic showcases that valued sponsors over filmmakers.
His feelings were crystallized one afternoon when he touched down in France and rushed to a screening of his short, hoping to arrive in time to introduce his movie and greet the audience.
“I got to the theater just as the lights were going down and the guy goes, ‘Ah! Zees must be Jon Gann,’ ” Gann recalled, affecting a French accent. “And then they showed the film. And I said, ‘Don’t I get to meet people?’ And he said, ‘Ah, no, have a martini.’ And I thought, I just came from another festival where I had a martini. I don’t want another martini. I want to meet people; that’s the whole point.”
If Sundance conjures up images of celebrities in furry boots, Cannes is about A-listers playing dress-up along the Riviera and Toronto has become a factory of Oscar chatter, Gann decided DC Shorts would be about something more basic: films and, more importantly, the people who make them.
The 10th annual DC Shorts Film Festival kicks off Thursday with 11 days of events and screenings that feature more than 150 quick hits of animation, documentary, musicals, thrillers and fiction from countries near and far. All entries will have a run time between one minute and 30. Brad Pitt will not be posing for pictures and Martin Scorsese won’t be doing a Q&A, but, from a filmmaker standpoint, Gann’s festival has become increasingly important in the last decade.
“DC Shorts is getting to be so well known beyond the Beltway, it sort of puts D.C. on the map as a place for film and a cultural entertainment center,” said Crystal Palmer, director of Washington’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development.
And, for the most part, Gann has made it happen all on his own.
The baby-faced 47-year-old is a fast talker with earrings and smiling eyes, and he is a ubiquitous, welcoming presence at the annual film festival, where he makes a point to meet as many people as possible between putting out fires. This year, Gann hired an operations manager so he can spend fewer hours thwarting potential disasters and more time enjoying the films and their creators. But in the beginning, it was just Gann and his longtime friend Gene Cowan, who helped with behind-the-scenes technical work.
“Jon came up with a very good description of our relationship — he’s Lucy and I’m Ethel,” Cowan said from his home in Silicon Valley. “So Jon will call me up and say, ‘Oh, here’s this new thing I’m doing, and you’re going to help me.’ And I’m kind of schlepped along by Lucy. And this was definitely one of those situations.”
A film festival sounded like a big undertaking, but Gann had one thing going for him: a venue. He lived in a building that was also home to Flashpoint, the downtown gallery and performance space.
“I think the biggest hurdle to jump was actually getting the films,” Cowan said. Gann tapped film school friends and acquaintances and managed to secure about 75 submissions.
The inaugural DC Shorts Film Festival featured three screenings showcasing 33 movies. Gann paid for the event from his checking account. But that Saturday in September 2004, people lined up around the block trying to get into Flashpoint’s black box, and Gann obliged, even if it meant momentarily ignoring fire code.
“I think Jon realized there was a pent up demand for it,” Cowan said. “Because where do you go to see short films? And where do short filmmakers go to show their films?”
The event has since evolved, adding a script competition, filmmaker workshops and rooftop parties. Screenings take place at six locations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, including E Street Cinema, Angelika Film Center and Visarts Rockville. The film festival recently received a grant from the Oscar-bestowing Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As its reputation has grown, so have submission numbers. This year, Gann received more than 1,200 films and 150 scripts.
Gann places each of the films that make the cut into a 90-minute block, taking a tapas-like approach to ensure that each festival screening has a colorful palette that might include a mini-documentary, a romantic comedy, an animated drama and something experimental or altogether unclassifiable. Regardless of the genre, though, Gann seeks out narrative threads.
“If you can tell a story in 10 minutes, then you really know what you’re doing, and filmmaking will always be about visual storytelling,” Gann said. “If you don’t have a story, you’ve got nothing.”
The selection process is unique to DC Shorts. Gann insists the 110 volunteer judges watch the films in their entirety — which doesn’t always happen at other festivals — and compile feedback for the director.
“As a filmmaker, when you enter a festival and you send them your film and your check, you usually just get an e-mail that says ‘no,’ and you have no idea why that ‘no’ is,” Gann said.
For some, the constructive criticism can be hard to swallow, but Gann feels strongly that filmmakers ought to get something in return for their roughly $35 submission fee.
“It’s unusual to get feedback about your film at all, and it’s really unusual to get honest feedback,” said Los Angeles-based director David Renaud, who returns to the festival for the second time with “The Morning After.” “Your mom is never going to tell you what she thinks about your film for real.”
But Gann will, even during his DC Shorts offseason.
“Not only was he supportive during the festival, but he’s continued to be supportive and available to me as a filmmaker, which is huge,” said local director and actor Joel David Santner, who won the screenwriting competition in 2011, which spawned the 2012 festival film “Mirror Image.” “I think that’s really good of him, and it’s kind of a representation of how he runs that festival.”
Gann has a knack for storytelling, which comes in handy when aiding filmmakers, and he believes nearly every short can be shorter. David Renaud’s wife, Mia Renaud, produced their film, and noted that Gann’s “sometimes hard-to-hear” suggestions led them to cut a lot of funny material.
“But after we made those edits, all of a sudden [‘The Morning After’] started getting into festivals — a lot of festivals,” David said.
The Renauds may be the idealized example of Gann’s vision. The pair met during the 2006 DC Shorts and eloped in Vegas not long after. David is a doctor, Mia is a lawyer and their films are passion projects produced amid full-time jobs and raising two children. Their most recent film has been accepted into 15 festivals and counting.
“I never thought I could make a film, and David inspired me and sometimes pushed me and sometimes forced me, but he really convinced me that I could do it,” Mia said. “And to go back to DC Shorts where it really all started for me, it’s just so great.”
For his part, Gann plans to keep expanding DC Shorts, although he doesn’t want to remain its director forever. He’s written a book about film festivals, produced movies and gives talks to filmmakers, trying to demystify the selection process. In the meantime, he believes DC Shorts is on the right path, even if a few years ago he longed for the event to have more industry respect.
“But someone said, ‘Listen, you’re in D.C. You’re not in L.A., you’re not in New York. It’s not an industry festival, but it’s an important filmmaker festival, and isn’t that more important? What you’re doing is promoting filmmakers. Why would you want to be Sundance? You hate Sundance,’ ” Gann said.
That is, after all, why Gann started the festival in the first place. And, according to longtime collaborator Cowan, the path Gann is on is the one he set out for.
“It’s beautiful because everything that Jon wanted the film festival to accomplish, he has accomplished — and more,” Cowan said.
Thursday through Sept. 29. Various locations. 202-393-4266. www.dcshorts.com. $12-$15 per screening; $20-$40 to watch films online; $100 for all-access pass.