Why Did the Most Promising New Filmmakers Fail Us in 2013?

By  · Published on January 4th, 2014

This is a special edition of Short Starts, where we look at the past year of disappointing feature debuts from filmmakers who previously wowed us with their short films.

Short films can be good calling cards, but they aren’t always the best proof that a filmmaker has the skills to immediately jump into a feature. Especially a big Hollywood production. In recent years, thanks to the combination of the Internet, social media and cheaper tools for making movies on a personal computer, we’ve seen some awesome short films go viral and then get the attention of studio execs and big time producers. The filmmakers, in only a few minutes of screen time, display a lot of talent and imagination and, most importantly, promise. But they’re often handed properties that are too much to handle even for experienced directors, as we saw with Neill Blomkamp’s assignment of Halo as a feature debut. Fortunately, that never happened and instead we got District 9, an extension of his popular short, Alive in Joburg.

It’s fitting that Blomkamp disappointed with his sophomore effort (Elysium) in 2013, a year that overall was pretty dismal for directors transitioning from shorts to features. Terrible movies from people who had broken out with acclaimed shorts isn’t anything new. In the past we’ve seen Oscar nominees like Stephen Kessler and Christian E. Christiansen move “up” to Vegas Vacation and The Roommate, respectively. The past year was particularly heavy on the disappointing newcomers, though. 2013 even finished out with what’s possibly the biggest bomb of the year, and yep it’s a feature debut from a short film sensation: 47 Ronin, directed by Carl Erik Rinsch, who’d previously helmed the under-five-minute sci-fi effort, a commercial for Philips actually, title The Gift. Let’s watch the short and remember the good times below.

2013 also kicked off with a critically panned feature debut from someone who’d just come off a well-received short. Michael Tiddes can be viewed in the industry as a success given the profitability of A Haunted House (there’s even a sequel on the way), but that found footage scary movie spoof is a huge let down, quality-wise (it made our list of the worst films of the year), from his 11-minute thriller from 2007, Crawl Space. And the short isn’t even all that exceptional itself. I don’t think it went through the sort of must-see circulation that The Gift did, though it did play some festivals and received some positive marks from the horror crowd. It doesn’t have the best acting, nor too much else going for it on a technical level except that it’s a cleverly structured vignette, like a modern episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s always odd when shorts come along that have neat scripts but lack directorial prowess and then the filmmaker ends up tapped to direct rather than write. Does Tiddes have the mind to do what he does with Crawl Space in a longer capacity, that is pen a crafty gore-noir feature? We might never know if he stays away from the screenwriting software and keeps working for hire like this. Next up for him: A Haunted House 2.

Two other filmmakers were given easily profitable horror features as their debuts, and for the most part Andrés Muschietti and Fede Alvarez have both received favorable reviews. Muschetti adapted his own chilling three-minute short, Mama, under the wing of producer Guillermo Del Toro (many of these modern short-starters have big-name sponsors – Blomkamp is the protege of Peter Jackson, Rinsch is the protege of Ridley Scott, etc.). Our own Rob Hunter didn’t care for the longer version, but many found it to be about on par with the original. Alvarez, who arrived on the scene with Panic Attack!, which consists of five minutes of giant robots overwhelming a major city (sounds like that would have attracted Del Toro, too), and before that delivered the twisted Mr. Balls, made more fans with his very gory but hardly perfect remake of Evil Dead (he’s Sam Raimi’s protege). That was expected to be the biggest fail of this bunch, and it was quite the opposite (although it did wind up on some worst of the year lists). Of course, now Alvarez is reportedly heading into video game adaptation territory with Dante’s Inferno, so it’s too soon to label him a total champ.

We can also count a promising commercial director (we already did with Rensch’s The Gift), and more than many of his peers Fredrik Bond has been acclaimed for helming ads that are like short films. He’s been nominated for five DGA Awards for his work over the past decade with mainly foreign spots such as Carling’s “Space,” which would seem to make him a natural for a sci-fi movie, and the romantically charged “First Time” for Levis and “The Date” for Heinekin. The latter also hints, as does one of my non-nominated favorites, “Face Off” for Super Noodles, that he could be tapped for a fun musical. Surprisingly he didn’t go full Hollywood for his feature debut, but Charlie Countryman is probably worse than what might have come from him through a studio that could have reigned him in a bit. Most of his best commercials are the creative ideas of some ad man, I suppose, but here’s hoping he goes with something simpler and smarter next time, maybe similar to his best (and most adorable) narrative work so far, which in my opinion is the “Aviator” spot for JC Penny below.

There were some short-starters who came through with enjoyable feature debuts this year. There’s Maggie Carey (see her short start showcase highlighting The Jeannie Tate Show) with The To Do List, which is showing up on some worst-of lists and which isn’t amazing but does keep her comedic promise afloat. And actor-turned-director Joseph Gordon-Levitt (see his short starts here) made a step in the right direction with Don Jon, while Lake Bell did even better following her popular shorts with the feature In a World. There’s also Ryan Coogler, who began with a number of award-winning student films (including Locks, which you can watch here), and was named in a landslide vote on Indiewire’s annual critic poll as having the best first feature of 2013 with Fruitvale Station. Maybe these are just people who’ve been more around the block as far as working in the industry or having more professional training.

I’m not sure what’s in store for us with feature first-timers and former short-starters in 2014, but I expect we’ll continue seeing disappointing movies from viral video breakouts this year and beyond, same as we saw tons of good and bad directors come out of music videos in the ’80s and ’90s. I think most of them were film school graduates, though, where the current trend is founded in a very amateur, DIY approach to filmmaking, a lot of it where the filmmakers are visionaries doing everything themselves on laptops and not having much experience with collaboration or working with real actors. I don’t see why any of them can’t stick to what they do well, though, except that maybe since Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow bombed ten years ago there aren’t a lot of producers giving guys working mostly solo in a garage a chance anymore. There are ways around that, at least. The true DIY filmmakers should go with crowdfunding for their features. Or stick with shorts if they can find money (or passion if they can afford it) in doing so.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.