Interview with Nathan Zanon| Student Shorts Programmer at Cinequest

| March 12, 2014

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You’ve probably submitted to dozens of film festivals in your time. But how do these folks pick and choose what gets programmed? Nathan Zanon coordinates the student shorts program at Cinequest and with so much variety this year, including domestic and international submissions and an eclectic mix of comedy, documentary and drama…well, let’s say we wanted to pick his brain and find out the method to the madness.

Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts starts Tuesday, March 11 @ 1:30PM at the Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose, with encore screenings Wednesday, March 12 and Friday, March 14 . We caught up with Nathan via email to chat about wading through hundreds of short films.

Student Shorts Programmer Nathan Zanon

Student Shorts Programmer Nathan Zanon

Hi Nathan. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into the student film programming game?

I have always been a fan of movies; I studied some film in college, I’ve worked on a few short films over the years, edited a documentary feature called Real Time (which played at Cinequest in 2003), and I’ve written a whole lot of unproduced screenplays. After college, I started working at the Camera Cinemas, who have been partners with Cinequest since it began. Through working with the festival from the theater side, I was able to meet the lead shorts programmer, Bill Maxey, and talk film with him. Eventually, he invited me to join the team doing the student shorts. I really enjoyed the process and he must have liked my programming choices, because after two years he handed the student program over to me. That was in 2006, so this is my 9th festival doing it.

Walk us through the process. How do films go from hitting the submissions desk to being screened in a showcase?

There are three other programmers on my team, and we’ve worked together for quite a few years now, so there’s a good sense of what kinds of things we’re each looking for. Almost all of the films go through me first, and if I think they’re at least worthwhile, I’ll pass them on to another screener. We use a scoring system of 1-10, but that mainly just helps us narrow things down to our best options. The program is really hashed out when we meet and discuss which ones will work together best to make a great program. We usually get around 350 submissions and have to get it down to about a dozen, so inevitably some really good films will have to be left out. But I think we do a pretty good job of choosing a program that works.

"The Cowboy and I"

The Cowboy and I


Can you tell us a little about your programming strategy?

I want the best films, but I also want a diverse program that represents the many voices, styles, stories, and genres that students are working in. So we might get several great films with similar subject matter, but we’ll usually only pick one of those to make sure we mix things up. I’m also looking for depth, for films that have layers and are trying to say something or explore a new idea. A story with a clever twist and some funny dialogue isn’t enough; the characters and setting need richness that creates an impact and a connection.

When you’re sifting through dozens, if not hundreds of screeners,  what practical things are a programmer looking for in an initial pass? Nifty packaging, total runtime, accompanying director statements, all of the above, none of the above? What I’m also trying to ask is: other than making an excellent film, what can a student filmmaker do to better prepare their submission to bubble to the top?

 It’s all about the film. I don’t care about packaging, and I don’t read director’s statements unless I’ve already watched the film and liked it (or hated it). Just focus on making a great movie!

"Lambing Season"

Lambing Season

Do shorter films have a better chance of making the cut from a programming stance?

It’s complicated, but I would definitely advise short film makers (student and otherwise) to be more willing to cut down their runtimes. From a programming standpoint, we’re working with about two hours. So if your film is 25 minutes, that’s going to be almost a quarter of the program. It had better be an amazing film, because if there are two 12-minute films that are just as good, I’m probably going to go with those. A long film can also kind of overshadow the rest of the program. That said, just because a film is shorter doesn’t mean it’s better—and if I do see that outstanding 25-minute film, I’m not going to take it out of consideration just because of the runtime.

" Made You Look"

Made You Look

Now that online streaming is a viable option, there still seems to be a protective mentality with young filmmakers, not only because they want to guard their film, but also practical consideration, including festival submissions. How do you think students should approach these two avenues of online and traditional festival runs? Are they mutually exclusive?

This isn’t the case with Cinequest, but some festivals require that they be the one to premiere your film, whether it’s a world premiere or a US premiere. Then there’s also the complicated process of getting Academy Awards consideration. And in the case of student films, there’s another layer of film ownership (does the director own it or the school?)…all of this stuff weighs in to these kinds of questions. I think for now, you probably stick with the festival submissions first and hope you can make a run there, then move online. But the whole model will almost certainly change in the next 5 years, so maybe the best advice is to just be aware of your options and build your strategy from there. I do think it’s a great thing that you can find short films through so many more avenues now, because not so long ago, it was really hard for most people to even see a short film.

"No More Aloha"

No More Aloha

Any words for your featured student filmmakers? How about for filmmakers who want to submit for next year?

To our featured students, just a big thank you for the work that they’ve done and for telling a story that connected with me and will hopefully connect with the rest of the audience. For me, it’s an honor to be able to champion for great films and promising filmmakers, and I hope they will continue to do great work. To filmmakers submitting in the future, take every opportunity to watch short films and learn from them. Think about how to build your story’s depth without adding to its length. Be daring and be yourself.

Nathan Zanon coordinates the student shorts program at Cinequest. He also serves as Interactive Media Manager at Montalvo Arts Center.

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Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts” film showcase screens on Tues, March 11 @ 1:30PM, Wed March 12 @ 9:30 PM and Fri March 14 @ 9:15 PM.
All screenings at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose.

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

Film School Shorts is a production of KQED.



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