When Barbara and Andres Muschietti, two television-commercial veterans with little movie-making experience, decided on a lark to make a short horror film last year, they didn't exactly have a larger plan in mind. "We didn't even have an outline," says Barbara Muschietti. "We just wanted to do something scary."
But a few months later, the Muschiettis, who work mainly in their native Spain, had done a lot more than that. With their short film "Mama," a sparkplug of a tale about two children in a Gothic haunted house, the Muschiettis secured a deal from Universal Pictures to turn their short into a feature. And they won the admiration of a Hollywood A-lister who has just a bit of name-recognition: Guillermo del Toro, the director of "Hellboy" and upcoming epic " The Hobbit," who liked "Mama" so much he decided to join the project as a producer and even write a draft of the script.
To many movie fans, the mention of short films conjures some dusty notions. If the form registers at all, it's as a film-festival afterthought or a quaint anachronism, a reminder of the moviegoing era of a half-century ago when the main theatrical event was sandwiched between cartoons, newsreels and other filler.
But to contemporary Hollywood, shorts are serious business — or at least a serious fad. The massive success last year of the shorts-derived "District 9" — and the power of YouTube to spread word quickly — has transformed how Hollywood views these mini-movies. "Studios and financiers have always said they'd like to see as much of the movie as they can, figuratively, before they develop it," says the veteran Hollywood producer Douglas Wick, who has been behind mega-hits such as "Gladiator." "With shorts, they literally can."
In recent months, shorts from filmmaking neophytes have seized the imagination of some of the town's biggest names, who see them not just a calling card for new talent, as they previously did, but the basis for hot, multiplex-worthy material.
Sam Raimi's production company was the envy of many in Hollywood last year when it outmaneuvered several players to acquire the feature rights to "Panic Attack," an apocalyptic tale evoking "The War of the Worlds" from a Uruguayan unknown named Fede Alvarez. Leonardo DiCaprio's production company optioned a science-fiction short from a Dutch physics student named Tim Smit called "What's in the Box?"
Top producers have expressed interest in turning "Alma" — a dark, impeccably executed short with Tim Burton overtones from an in-the-trenches Pixar employee named Rodrigo Blaas — into a big-budget animated feature. Patrick Jean's "Pixels," a playful ode to classic video games, is also attracting attention from industry players who want to turn it into a theatrical film.
And over the last few weeks, heat has swirled around Ricardo de Montreuil's "The Raven," a story about a man pursued across a dystopian downtown Los Angeles, where the film was shot over one weekend. "The Raven" is the most current example of a short gaining buzz in real time, as stars, producers and agents send links to one another with an air of conspiracy and discovery. It's basically Hollywood's version of pursuing unassuming bar bands in the hope of turning one of them into the Rolling Stones.
"It was a little insane. I don't know how it became viral so fast," says "Raven" director de Montreuil, who previously directed dramas that played the likes of Sundance but never before gotten a fraction of the attention. "I'm still trying to figure out what happened."
The profit motive and creative template for nearly all these efforts stems from the short "Alive in Joburg." Several years ago, no one had heard of the modest nine-minute science-fiction film or its rookie director, Neill Blomkamp. But under the tutelage of "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, the short was honed and chiseled into "District 9." The rest is film lore. Backed by the muscle of a studio marketing campaign, the film became one of the biggest hits of last summer, an Oscar nominee for best picture and one of the best-received films of 2009.
"A good short tells you that a filmmaker can handle a story, that he has vision and that he has the ability to convey emotion, which are all things we saw with Neill," says Sony president of worldwide affairs Peter Schlessel, who helped spearhead "District 9." "You can never take something like that and build a business plan around it. But if it worked once, it could work again."
Yet it's more than just a lone hit that has so many Hollywood power players going shorts-mad. If graphic novels became the rage a few years ago because they offered nervous studio executives a tangible representation of a story idea, shorts do graphic novels one better: They show how a finished film might actually look. And with traffic so easily measured, it can reassure focus group-minded studio executive of an audience for a filmmaker's work (at least a nonpaying one).