After 16 years of touring his annual animated short film program around the world, Acme Filmworks founder and producer Ron Diamond releases his latest program in theatres for the first time.
For those of you who don’t know, let’s get it out of the way up front -- Ron Diamond is my brother-in-law and business partner in AWN. Personal biases aside -- I prefer my pesto over his…there, I said it -- of the many things I’ve always admired about Ron, one is his boundless and infectious enthusiasm for animated short films. Whether it’s the work of obscure unshaven eastern bloc hermits or the brightest, shiniest new superstar at a big studio, Ron is relentless in his search for great short films. His eye for talent, for cinematic excellence in animation, is unmatched.
For 17 years now, Ron has personally curated and toured around the world a collection of the newest animated shorts produced each year. In addition, he’s compiled nine DVD collections of classic animated shorts, which are sold online individually and in box sets at the Animation Show of Shows website, comprising a truly fantastic and unprecedented library packed with some of the greatest animated short films ever made.
Collectively presented to audiences as the Animation Show of Shows, Ron’s expertly curated film collections capture the very essence of what makes animated shorts so unique -- they deeply affect our hearts, minds and souls by taking us on visual journeys we’ve never dreamed possible. They force our minds to run through the gamut of emotions in the span of a few short minutes. They represent all that is good, bad, happy, sad, angering, uplifting, and, ultimately, wonderful about the world we live in.
For the first time ever, Ron is releasing a new Animation Show of Shows program in selected U.S. theatres. I had a chance to speak to him about the new shorts program, the hurdles he faces bringing it to theatres and the unwavering passion he brings to the effort.
Dan Sarto: You’ve been curating and screening the Animation Show of Shows all over the world for 16 years now. What gave you the notion first to create a non-profit company for the ASOS effort and then to release the new collection in theaters?
Ron Diamond: Well, it's been a priority of mine for a very long time to bring the Animation Show of Shows to theaters. Partly, it was the realization that I was losing too much money doing it on my own and that if I organized it through a non-profit, I might be able to make it sustainable through donations and funding grants. This new non-profit operation allows me to continue reaching new audiences, introducing them to the wonders of great animated short films that otherwise would never get seen.
DS: In a way, you’ve come full circle, getting involved back where you began your career in entertainment, which was animated short film distribution. I’ve known you for almost 35 years now and you’ve always been passionate about animation. What is it about this medium that has always been so important to you?
RD: It goes back to when I was in grade school in the early 1960s when we were watching films projected from the AV cart. There were films that stood out to me as being really interesting. They weren’t films you'd see on TV. These were short films. Ironically they weren't films that necessarily had a lot of animation in them.
I remember seeing the Saul Bass film Why Man Creates. It's a 30 minute short that questions the concept of why we do what we do and it makes us really think about the inherent originality of creativity, where ideas come from in terms of personal experiences and seeing things in different ways. I really admired that film.
I remember watching An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge which is still a somewhat ambiguous film in terms of what its message is. There's a lot to talk about in regards to its message. I always find myself gravitating to these kinds of narratives that are unusual, creative and deal with some level of social consciousness raising where we should look at our society, look at how we fit in it and try to not just be ourselves but be part of a community and have empathy for other people.
When I started to meet filmmakers, I thought these guys are working so hard making these beautiful films and nobody knows who they are. There are no superstars in animation. We'd like to think there are, and there are people who have name recognition like Walt Disney and John Lasseter and Nick Park in certain parts of the world. Do people really know who these great people are?
From the very beginning of my career I wanted to share great films and do what the filmmakers weren't focused on, which was bringing their work to audiences that otherwise weren't looking for them.
My challenge now is figuring out how to make a distribution model for short films to get them into the hands of people, help them enjoy the films contextually and give the filmmakers not just the praise but the appreciation of a new base of fans.
RD: Well, I don't think that the International Tournée of Animation became really notable until the mid-80s when Landmark theaters and their sister company Expanded Entertainment decided to aggressively get into the business of distributing films. I think they figured, well, we can acquire the rights to films, we can put them in the cinema and we can control all aspects of the business model without having to make the films.
This is something I felt from the first time I started pursuing film distribution in late 1979 -- why worry about making a new film when you can find so many great short films that have already been made. If we can distribute those intelligently, maybe we can find a profitable business model and put more money in the hands of filmmakers.
Unfortunately that still hasn't come to pass. So my goal here is to use the non-profit status to create a distribution model that can benefit a great number of people, not just through recognition or through exposure but rather through some kind of economic earning potential because these are great films.
DS: For years now we’ve heard the Internet is the great equalizer and levels the playing field for people to self-publish and get their films into the hands of literally anybody who's connected. We've seen how that sometimes works and mostly doesn't work for animated short films and how it overwhelmingly favors certain types of very, very short films targeted to a pretty narrow demographic. Part of the reason why you’ve trudged around year after year to dozens and dozens of schools and studios touring the Animation Show of Shows is the fact that for these types of films, people still really just don't know they exist.
RD: Well, it's true. Often in post-production, we joke that we make something and watch it in a pristine visual environment and the only way to ensure that everybody is going to hear it or see it properly is first to go to everybody's home and adjust their TV set. That’s kind of what I do with the Animation Show of Shows. I want the films to be seen in a highly professional standard. Originally it was in 35 millimeter, then Blu-ray, which I also show still, as well as DCP.
I did 59 screenings of the program last year. I get a lot of thank yous. People participate in a survey which I appreciate. Ultimately, however, there needs to be a benefit for the filmmakers. The filmmakers do get the benefit of having their film seen by studios, which is good. Unfortunately, the only thing that really proves some kind of economic model is to pay people and if they're not getting paid, then to me that's failing to find a viable economic model. I need to bring the program out to the general public and find a way to educate people. It’s an expensive proposition to bring a program to the theatres. But I feel like if I don't put my money up front with the filmmakers, I'm not going to get the films I want, films I think are truly valuable and important and should be seen. I'm not going to be genuine about my intent. I have to prove that I'm going to make money by putting my money out there and trying to earn it back later on, which is not the smartest way to do it when you're not wealthy.
The Kickstarter campaign [Ron launched a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to fund the setup of the non-profit Animation Show of Shows effort] worked though it never became a viral campaign. We got mostly people within the industry who contributed. I'm grateful to all of them for their help and participation. We raised over $107,000. Unfortunately most people don't realize that only nets about $75,000 after all the fees, consultation and meeting the requirements of the awards given to donors. I respect all of that. Still we're way in the hole in regards to the program. Hopefully the theatrical run will prove successful and in the meantime we will give voice to films that otherwise wouldn't get seen in hopes that people begin to discover some really great films. I think there's enough great films being made each year to keep this program up.
RD: It just requires education, familiarity with the medium, the selection of really good films and the merit of all of the films online that are curated with an intent to appeal to a broad audience.
This 17th Animation Show of Shows that's showing in cinemas is very different than what I've showed in the past. What I've showed in the past was a lot more challenging because the films were intended for professionals. They might just be looking at one element of a film at my recommendation. It could be a storyline, it could be a design component. It could be one particular character that I want them to look at and think, “Wow, that's fantastic!” The rest isn't so perfect but that one element is amazing. Of course they really want to see a good story and usually there are a lot of films with great stories in the show.
For the audience that I'm aiming at, the goal is to make something that appeals to the public. I use my own aesthetics and preferences in terms of what kinds of films I want to show. I'm not going to show something I don't like. For the new theatrical release, the films are the ones I would specifically show at the studios because sometimes there are films that deal with bigger issues, things that are not for general audiences that really shouldn't be shown in a public theater for people who don't know what they're coming in to see. I think that's for later on when people are better familiar with animation and we develop a larger audience where people can start to be segmented for the kinds of program that they want to have. I embrace that day when we can do it, but right now I don't feel it would be wise to do.
I love the funny cat video or the quirky dog video on YouTube as much as the next guy -- those are good, they make us laugh and they make us happy and I'm not going to discourage that at all. Sometimes though we need to be asking questions, becoming more media literate and having more empathy for our fellow humans and if we could be enjoying it while we're doing it, all the better.
DS: Well, not every film is for everybody. Some films I think have a broader appeal. That's not an issue of whether they're better or not as good, they're just different. Tell me a little bit about what you look for in a film. What are some of the things you consider worthwhile when you watch a film. How do you whittle down a much larger list of really good films into a manageable program?
RD: I suffer a lot during August, every year, when I put together the program. I should be on vacation somewhere on a beach but I'm sitting here, watching films repeatedly, thinking, “This one aspect of this film is so good but otherwise it's not up to par and hard to watch.” Then I try to convince myself otherwise.
I'm constantly looking at the films, moving them around in different orders and watching the whole program again and again. Overall, I would say that I gravitate to films that have a story, though I am very fond of showing films that are non-narrative and experimental in nature. I will show films to studio audiences and in schools that are downright unpleasant to watch because I feel that as professionals, we need to see what's getting made, we need to know what is coming out into the community.
For the general public, I like to show a range of films because first off, there aren't that many “10s” out there as far as the best films. You look at the films that win the awards and prizes. They're not always films that will appeal to an audience. My goal is to program something that appeals to an audience.
I'm looking at a broader range of films usually demonstrating a very high level of execution. I lean towards 2D animation but there's generally still a lot of 3D animation that makes it into the programs. I try to be open to stop-motion and other forms of animation, other techniques, but ultimately it's about the film having an A-plus quality about it in terms of story, visuals and connectedness.
I've seen many well-constructed films that don't speak to me. I understand why the filmmaker made them. They're just not right for my program. It doesn't mean I don't like the film or don't like the filmmaker. I just want to make sure I’m thinking specifically about that person in the auditorium who sits down and watches the show.
It's really important that all aspects of the films are exquisite in some way, though I am OK with showing films that are ambiguous because life is ambiguous. When a child asks why their dog or a family member died or got to an accident, you can't explain it except to say these things happen.
That's one of the reasons why I so respect these short films. These filmmakers don't feel compelled to hit you over the head with the story point three times to make sure you got it. They may only tell you once and if you don't get it, come back, watch it again, you're going to discover things about these films that you will not get on the first viewing. I'll tell you many of the films I've selected for programs over the years needed multiple viewings before I went, “Oh my, this is fantastic, this is an incredible film. How could I have ever thought that film shouldn't be part of the show!”
DS: Share some numbers. How many films will you watch before you start honing in on a short list and then how many of those do you really juggle around trying to see if they would fit? And from there what's the final number in the release?
RD: Well, generally, the release is somewhere between 10 and 15 films, to keep the program to under two hours. Each film is like a shot of espresso. After you've got about 10 shots of espresso, it's time to take a break. Often for the educational screenings, the program is a bit longer, so I'll do an intermission just so the audience can clear their head, go to the bathroom, relax, talk to their friends.
I'll see well over a thousand films in the course of a year. Give you an example. At CalArts, I saw 162 films in seven hours, sitting on a folding chair. If I had any advice to the people at CalArts, it’s to say that for those of us who are over 30, please get us a chair that's a little more comfortable. Next year, I may just bring my own chair. But there are no CalArts films in my program this year. That’s not to say that none of them were good. Many were outstanding. It's just they just weren't right for what I was putting together. It's like a puzzle. You can have a really good film but it just doesn't fit in that puzzle, it just doesn't work. They need to work as a group.
I estimate worldwide there are about 3,000 films that get made each year -- student films, independent short films and studio films. I travel to a lot of festivals, generally a minimum of three, sometimes as many as six or more, each and every year. I sit through all the programs. I sit through the short films in competition. I sit through the short films out of competition. I sit through the student films. Generally those three categories combined are roughly 13 or 14 programs, generally about an hour and a half each. We're talking about a serious commitment of time to watch these films. But then I'll also go watch the TV films, because you never know when something is going to get classified as having been paid for by TV or something and you need to see it.
RD: Well, it's like your children. Which child do you love more? I love them all. Two of the films have won major prizes at some important animation festivals. For instance, We Can't Live Without Cosmos, which was part of my program for the 16th Animation Show of Shows. I felt it was so strong, it should be included to reach a broader audience. It won the Cristal at Annecy [International Animated Film Festival] as well as the Grand Prix at Animafest Zagreb. This is a film about loneliness. Initially we think it's just a funny film. And it is really funny. You laugh hard at the jokes -- they make you laugh and it feels good.
But the story takes a turn which is totally unexpected. What we realize is that the humor establishes this platonic relationship between two men in a space program. We come to believe that they both are driven by a desire to fly into space and that they're best buddies and want to support one another and help one another and become successful together. Things don't quite happened as they planned. I don't really want to tell how the story concludes but we are left with a sense of mixed emotions, both happiness and sadness. A lot of these films deal with big subjects that help us think about who we are in the world. Hopefully they help us sort that out a little easier.
Another film that is very strong is World of Tomorrow, Don Hertzfeldt’s short film, which won both at South by Southwest and Sundance, both highly regarded film festivals with slightly different audiences because they’re not animation festivals exclusively. Don's films are parables for how we live our lives and what we'll do in the future and how we fit into the world. Using the voice of a four year old girl, who happens to be his niece, he very cleverly creates an extremely compelling character. It’s a very touching film. It has little bits of wry humor in it. It's clever and it's well written. It's graphically very interesting to look at it. It brings us into a place that we never would have imagined.
One of my favorite things about animation is there's so much suspended disbelief. We accept what's going on in the narrative no matter how crazy the world gets. A well told film keeps our attention all the way through and makes us want more at the very end. Yet, we know that we've had all we need to truly experience a great film.
There's a film called Snowfall, a first film by a 25-year-old Dublin animator, Conor Whelan. He and I first met in Annecy. He made a beautiful film about unrequited love. I don't really want to say what it's about and give it away. It's a beautiful relationship story. It's one of those films that has a level of ambiguity to it.
RD: This is something I've been wanting to do since 2004, when I saw these little interviews produced for United Airlines and directed by Jeremy Warshaw about directors who made commercials for the airline that we produced at Acme Filmworks. I was so touched by the one he made of Michael Dudok de Wit as it really captured who he was as an individual. He's an attractive man, he's highly articulate. He's compelling. There's a true honesty about him as we see him in a real life setting.
From that moment, after seeing that piece I thought one day I'm going to do something similar. So for this show, I hired Jeremy Warshaw to direct the first of four interviews that we did with the filmmakers to punctuate the films, to give greater depth of insight to the audience as to what's going on in the mind of the filmmaker. These interviews bring a level of respect, appreciation and humanity to who the filmmakers are. These people don't get a lot of acknowledgement. They make a film. They can spend anywhere from six months to five years, sometimes longer, working alone, often with little or no money, paying out of their own pockets. They make a short film. It plays at a few festivals and it's gone from the landscape.
If it doesn't happen to get nominated or win an Academy Award, most of these films fall into relative obscurity. I want to ensure that films which are really exemplary get discovered by new audiences and by producing these little portraits of the filmmakers, I wanted people to begin to know who they were so that maybe we can begin an age of greater literacy of who the filmmakers are. My hope is that this helps these people become more successful and helps the audience understand the medium better.
DS: Well, it will be a challenge to sustain a credible voice that rises above the clutter of everything else that's bombarding people these days to hopefully deliver a message about great new animated short films that appeals to them.
RD: Yeah. Personally, I am very proud of the selection. I'm grateful to the filmmakers for permitting me to include their films and for giving me the privilege of offering them as part of this non-profit effort. I'm using my personal credibility to assure filmmakers that all best efforts will be made to ensure their films get seen by the widest audience possible.
Hopefully the audience will respond. We'll see. I'm pretty sure they will. Having shown the Animation Show of Shows for 16 years, I can say audiences have never seen the same story twice. Never the same exact visual twice. I'm pretty confident the audience is really going to enjoy this new program.
DS: Well, I would agree. As objective as I can be about this, seeing as you’re my brother-in-law and business partner in AWN, I can say without hesitation we often disagree about films. About a lot of things actually. But our discussions about the merits or lack thereof of any given film are just that -- discussions. Regardless of how I feel about any given film you’ve selected, there's no doubt that your relentless passion for short films and the lengths you go to each year, bringing the latest program to thousands of enthusiasts around the world, is a unique and commendable effort. It’s a thankless task that deserves far more credit than it receives.
Sometimes, somebody needs to step up, to carry the torch so to speak. I don't know anybody else who continually, year in and year out, devotes the amount of time, attention, money and effort you do to bringing new animated short film gems to the industry. I know you do it because you feel that if you're not there to do it, no one else is going to.
RD: Well, it's true. I don’t believe other people will do it quite to this extent because if they were so inclined, they’ve be doing it already. My hope is that by doing the theatrical program I can actually get this film seen by more people and not travel so much. 16 years screening in as many as 59 different locations like I did last year – it’s pretty brutal. We do have to carry the torch. I believe that if we don't, nobody will.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.