INTERVIEW WITH… CHRIS AITKEN FROM SHORT COM
We have Chris Aitken here who founded the not-for-profit UK based shot film eventShort Com. It runs several screenings across the UK and submissions are open for comedy shorts… Now.
Tell us a bit about your job, and what you do…
So with Short Com I pretty much run everything but I’ve got some great volunteers who lighten the load. The main job is primarily getting people to submit and being visible. I started Short Com very much from the ground up with no big names or reputation so over the years I’ve had to build awareness and that reputation whilst figuring all this stuff as I go along. Such as marketing, PR, festival and event strategies and figuring out how to do this with very little money. Now I’m venturing into the field of creating partnerships and attracting sponsors to get funding for running bigger events and offering prizes to attract more submissions.
How did Short Com come about?
The first film I had made was a little dark sketch in Salford when I was living there as an MA student studying TV and radio scriptwriting. We got to screen it at Filmonic. I loved the community aspect of people coming together and getting to see their films on a big screen. My film did what it needed to do and got the laughs where it deserved. But afterwards I wasn’t sure what I could do with it. I didn’t think it was a festival film and wasn’t convinced it would become viral online. Although I thought Filmonic was a great night, I thought it lacked curation. At the time I was doing some voluntary work for the Frog and Bucket comedy club in Manchester and thought it might be a cool idea to put on a night exclusive to comedy shorts, as I thought there must be a culture of people making comedy short films/sketches and, like me, probably didn’t think their film would be suitable for a festival. I also thought a night such as this would appeal to both comedy fans and film fans. The first night I put it on I got an audience of over 30 at the Frog and Bucket. At the time I didn’t realise that’s a really good number for a completely unknown night/event and it was much enjoyed by the audience. Since then I’ve never been allowed to run away from Short Com despite the bloody stress it all is.
There’s a strong charity connection with the nights you organise, I presume this is part of Short Com’s ethos?
One of the issues I felt starting all this was that there was going to be money involved. I was going to have to recoup my expenses so I was going to have to charge for various things. But it never sat well with me that I could be making money from other people’s artwork. There was another comedy film festival that wanted to claim a form of ownership rights over submissions to their festival and I just thought that was wrong. Although they’d be providing a service I’d rather make my money through my own creative projects.
At the time I had recently lost my childhood best friend to suicide. It came relatively out of the blue and opened up the terror of how much a silent killer depression is. Not only did I lose my friend I lost my comedy partner and a comedy persona that I can’t be anymore or someone who I loved to entertain. So as I didn’t want to make profit from Short Com and I can’t run for shit I decided any reasonable amount of money raised would go to the charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) who create awareness about the dangers of depression and consequences of suicide amongst young males as well as running a phone helpline. As Short Com now screens both in England and Scotland, money raised for Scottish events go to the Scottish Association of Mental Health. Although not exclusive to creative people, or is it necessarily so that all creative people suffer from depression. I tend to find creative people are battling with their mental health because their artwork is linked with their confidence, which shoots up and down depending if things might be going right or perceived not so – regardless of how successful one is. I think it’s important to keep reminding people of their importance, keep their spirits up and that there is nothing wrong in telling people that maybe you don’t feel okay.
Personally we’ve chatted to you about the reluctance of commissioning ‘dark comedy’ – why do you think there’s still an obstacle?
I don’t think there is an obstacle particularly with dark comedy. Although if there is a reason then I don’t know it. Producers might just be saying that to me so that I’d piss off. I think there is a bigger obstacle to writers and performers who are ‘not a name’. Or as someone said to me, don’t have a “buzz”. Being a great stand-up doesn’t translate into them being a great writer or actor but as they have an audience they’d be a lot easier to market. Which fair enough to a commercial channel is emphatic, but not so much for the BBC. I’ve pretty much giving up on TV now and am now more focused about being a feature writer because there are only a limited amount of broadcasters in the UK you can go to, especially as a young writer, so basically I don’t much care where this rant goes. I grew up watching comedy because it was funny and not aimed at me or ‘my generation’. If you take Father Ted for example, I’m pretty sure that the whole cast were unknown to the UK and became one of the biggest comedies because it was bloody funny. Logically to me good comedy will likely grow an audience rather than big names in a poor comedy.
One of the major issues I feel is that there are a lot of people working in comedy that aren’t funny themselves. I know people, particularly with the BBC, who have had their scripts completely dumbed down, reinvented to something a producer/commissioner wants rather than trusting the writer, who is probably a lot funnier than them. I was in development with a BBC comedy producer at the end of last year who was brilliant and nurtured me and didn’t want to rip the heart out of it or tone down the more visceral elements of my project. So there are good guys out there. When it got turned down by an exec, which is fine and I never really thought it was for the BBC, the gist of the rejection is that for a BBC 3 comedy they are more looking for knob gags. Fair enough their are people out there who might want that but there are plenty who don’t and I think it’s important to have variable programmes for different audiences. A lot of commissioners tend to just jump on the band wagon when something is in favour. The Office inspired more hand-held mockumentary style programming and The Royle Family killed the laughter track, well this was what I was informed by at a panel discussion at the Media Guardian Edinburgh TV Festival a few years ago and it still appears to be true. It’s possibly because of the Inbetweeners that I am, and others, expected to write knob gags. That’s not a slur upon The Inbetweeners in any way.
Another particular issue is that comedy programming is still becoming London centric. The impending release of the recent comedy feeds seems to suggest they have been largely filmed or set in London, which does not help reflect the diversity of different comedy voices from around the UK. There is an ignorance that in London, outer London regionalised comedy might not work down south, a particular problem I know with Scotland. But they would have no qualms about a London based comedy being played in other regions. Because of this it’s really hard for comedy filmmakers in rural or out of London reach to feel confident about the commissioning process. If the likes of Jon Plowman and John Lloyd are saying there is a problem with the commissioning system then there must be a lot of truth to it.
Short films seemed to have crept up in length on the circuit, how does that impact programming for you personally?
There was a quote from Roger Ebert I saw and retweeted the other day “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough,” and I really subscribe to this. I have had longer films sent to me this time but I’ve not watched them yet as I’m saving them to watch at a future date, so I don’t know how good they are yet. But I do tend to find the longer films are unnecessarily longer. The Short Com programmes over the years have had a varying length of successful selected films. Last year I had a fifteen minute film and two eight minute films. One was a BAFTA nominated short and the others highly regarded on the festival circuit. But these films were able to sustain an audience’s attention because there weren’t too many static moments and they were funny. But as always comedy is subjective, so if an audience member is not digging a film that is quite long it’s really hard to sustain their attention or interest. With the shorter films, if someone is not keen on it, there will be another short coming up afterwards that they might like. Also selecting longer films means I might not be able to select more films for a programme. Well it makes it harder for me to select a longer film because of this. There is a temptation to make films longer maybe because people think it’s a sign of filming progress, I don’t know. But if you can tell a joke or tell a story with less time then it’s probably for the better.
What’s your advice to someone who gets a rejection from a festival or film-night?
Give up. No, getting a rejection from either doesn’t mean that your film is not any good, it just might not suit the programme. Even if the programmer didn’t like it, it doesn’t mean others will not. Again as a screenwriter, I will get rejections here there and everywhere but if you’re good enough there will be someone who believes in your talent. I also insist that it’s a good idea to look at the films festivals and film nights screen so you can figure out if you’re film is really right for the festival. I have on my website the best of programme from 2013/2014 to see the films that I selected plus essays on what gets selected and what can make a good comedy short film. Although I might not favour your film, you have my respect for going out there to make one and getting seen.
Tell us the best and worst part of your job.
There’s a great feeling when I get a film that I know is going to be a wonderful addition in the programme, particularly from someone who I don’t know of. Also seeing an audience react positively is a great boost to the confidence on my level of judgement. I’ve also been very fortunate to have some great comedians such as Dan Antopolski, Josie Long, Mick Ferry, Nadia Kamil, That Pair, Paul F Taylor and others who have opened up the programme. I’ve also been really fortunate to form a great relationship with some of the people that submit films to me, some I’ve been able to collaborate with, which was never something I intended but not going to complain about.
The worst is just the whole organising of it all, editing the website, constant need to market, having to turn people down. The stress that an event might go to shit. I had a few hairy moments last year with my venue at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival constantly having problems, such as going on fire, flooding, being double booked having a screen that looked like it had a big cum-stain on it, which I sorted with some white drapes. The joys of the free fringe.
Show us one of your favourite films and tell us why you like it…
Eeek, too many. But here are two that kind of show the breadth in terms of production values somewhat but reflect that for me where content is the most emphatic trait. Joggers by the Darkly Show. (Ironically I used to be in a band who composed the music for this, I had no idea.)
And Fear of Flying by Conor Finnegan, which is maybe not the most ‘independent’ of films but I knew that audiences were just going to love it. And they did.
Below is Chris’ biography:
Chris Aitken was not allowed to watch Grange Hill in his younger years, but his parents had no qualms with him watching the likes of Bottom, Alexei Sayle, The Young Ones, Rab C Nesbitt and other good comedy from the nineties, so it could be said, had a good up-bringing. After living the lie of doing an undergrad in a fairly useless subject, he went on to continue his uselessness by completing an MA in scriptwriting. He now has a few sketches/shorts made and has and continues to read scripts for production companies. He was once on the Disney Show in nineties. He was never asked back. Short Com can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and at a good ol’ fashioned website.