The story behind Manhattan Short is one of lucky breaks and the steadfast vision of Nick Mason. A true blue North Shore boy who’s lived 18 years in New York, Mason is working to extend the reach of the world’s only global short film festival.
How’d it all start? Booted out of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (“I’ve never been more disliked in my life,” he laughs), Mason fell into a share of a champion racehorse through family ties, which paid for years of travelling. He ended up in NYC of course. The year was 1995 and while acting in Off-off-off-Broadway plays and student short films, Mason noticed that beside the traditionalist New York Film Festival, there was a lack of edgier film festivals. So he took short film submissions and introduced outdoor screenings to the city. Eric Petterson, owner of celebrity haunt the Union Square Café, roped in Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and others to act as judges. But the festival only truly gained exposure in September 2001 while international film crews were reporting on the city’s mood after September 11. It was a case of “the right place at the worst of times,” and submissions from every country quickly multiplied. Today the festival shows in over 300 cities worldwide.
Ten finalists are chosen by Mason and his team, and the process is not so much a matter of picking favourites, as a matter of speaking to different demographics. “Every film’s got to find its festival, and every festival’s got to find its audience,” he says. “I’m sitting down and saying, ‘I know an audience that will like that.’” Manhattan Short is now the most popular film festival of Russia, “possibly because [of people’s] conflict with the government.” The festival “offers you an opinion and you can vote. And voting in Russia has had a lot of question marks over it.” This anti-establishment appeal carries across many social issues; one of the films in this year’s crop has homosexual overtones, and Mason asserts, “Now I don’t know if they’re going to like it in New Milford, Connecticut. But I know they’re going to love it in Russia.”
He’s glad that social media can create a much larger, empowering conversation about the films. “You throw things out to the public, they do amazing things to it. [Manhattan Short] offers us global debates – it’s so classless. You’ve got to go out somewhere, and see other people, and share an opinion.” Switching from celebrity judges to an audience vote in 2004 was a pivotal moment that aligned perfectly with this democratising spirit. “It’s not something I wanted to see become, ‘Oh, we’ve got to be in this cool arthouse cinema’. It’s not just for Paddington and Bondi. I hope it finds a home with the Hoyts cinema chain getting involved as well – something you can go to any cinema to see. All demographics, all age groups, all wage-earners, all races, they can go out one night, and share in the world of that kind of cinema.”
Over 16 years, has he noticed any changes to how films are being made? “It used to be, to get a film made you needed friends at Panavision and Kodak, and you needed $10K.” But today one finalist, I Am A Big Ball of Sadness, for example, can be casually filmed on an iPhone by actors rehearsing a play – and find a massive audience.
His advice for budding filmmakers? Read any interview with double-finalist Christopher Stollery. “At the end of a good short film you’ll say, ‘I wanna see that again.’” It’s like the first time you had sex. Maybe the second time. You wanna do that again.”
BY SHIRIN BORTHWICK
*Image: Nick Mason photographed by CyCy Sanders.