I’m a huge fan of Wholphin, a quarterly DVD filled with short films published by the fine folks behind McSweeney’s and The Believer magazines. It’s one of the chief reasons why my appreciation for short films continues to grow. So I was delighted to discover that Wholphin‘s founder and editor Brent Hoff would be in Toronto to attend the Worldwide Short Film Festival. He graciously agreed to talk with me about the “magazine” and his passionate belief that films should be free to be just the right length. Extra credit for sitting down with me after spending 4.5 hours in the hot sun watching the Blue Jays win a 15-inning nailbiter.
An added bonus was the presence of Sundance Film Festival shorts programmer Jon Korn, who pipes in now and then. I’ve actually been promised a fuller interview with Jon soon so look for that in the weeks or months to come.
James McNally (JM): The whole reason I wanted to have this interview is because I don’t know how to pronounce the name of your magazine. Is it HOLE-fin or WOLE-fin or WALL-fin or what?
Brent Hoff (BH): WALL-fin. It’s a whale-dolphin hybrid.
JM: Now, see, I’ve already learned something.
BH: We’re thinking of making a shirt that has all the different pronunciations…I never said it was a good name for a product.
JM: How did you come to have what I consider one of the best jobs in the world?
BH: It was just an experiment thing. Dave Eggers, the publisher of McSweeney’s, and I had been talking about it. We had both seen all these amazing short films, some of them at Sundance, and Dave had friends who had given him shorts and things which were great, and they’d never been released. We were talking about working together trying to get some of these films around and nothing was happening to get them out in the world. We couldn’t figure out why no one had done it already. ResFest had sort of tried it, but they were doing a lot of music video stuff. Spike and Mike did animation, but that was only a small portion of all the stuff.
JM: What were you doing before? Were you working in film in some capacity?
BH: I was in New York, and I was working in TV, mostly.
JM: What was it about shorter films that attracted you in particular?
BH: That’s just where the hole was. There were great longer films that were finding distribution, [but shorts were] the films that I saw that were just sitting there not doing anything.
JM: One of the things I really like about the magazine is the intros to the films, the filmmaker’s statements or the interviews. Do you do all of those yourself?
BH: I do them, and my co-worker and partner in Wholphin Emily Doe will give some of the interns some of the questions to do as well.
JM: Apart from some experimental filmmakers, I can’t think of an example of a filmmaker who has made their whole career just making short films. Do you think that’s going to change? Is it possible now? Unfortunately, the old wisdom is that you make a short film and then you make a feature. Do you think anyone can make a career making short films?
BH: It’s already happening. I guess it depends on how you define short films. There are people on YouTube making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. I was talking to Nate [Weinstein] from YouTube yesterday, and there are some people who are really making a decent living from their YouTube videos, and they’re not all just obnoxious stunt-type things. They are serials and filmic things.
JM: I would compare that to television, though. Not so much as film, but maybe it is changing.
BH: What you’re starting to see is people becoming known for a certain thing, like the Ask a Ninja guys… The San Francisco International Film Festival just had a night where we brought up Derek Waters. He has done stuff for FunnyOrDie, but he’s also made a bunch of film shorts with friends of his, comedic shorts. He’s sort of branded as a comedic short filmmaker, but we did an entire night of his shorts.
JM: It’s funny you should say comedic, because my initial feeling about shorts was that they were almost like jokes, because they tended to have a punchline. I’ve seen a lot of shorts where there’s some kind of twist ending. I’m talking about shorts of 15 minutes or less. If they’re longer, they’re a little different, but I think it’s probably easier to do comedic stuff in short form because you don’t have to develop character. But I wonder if it’s possible to make dramatic films that are 20 minutes and keep doing that over and over. I don’t know anyone who has done it.
BH: I think what happens is that people who are doing that really well, like Taika Waititi (Two Cars, One Night) and Chris Waitt (Heavy Metal Jr.) end up very quickly getting offered large sums of money to…
JM: To do a longer version…
BH: To do a longer version. Some do still make shorts as well. [Steven] Soderbergh, while he was making Che, did a short. What I hope is happening is that all filmmakers are being freed up to make films of whatever length they want.
JM: And you guys are hopefully part of that enabling process.
JM: What are your guiding principles when you’re putting together each issue? You’re curating. You mentioned earlier a mixtape analogy. Do you have a theme? Do you think about what things are going to go well in certain months?
BH: I always say that I’m just trying not to waste people’s time, with any single thing on there. But it is true that you start to look at an issue and think “we have seven really heavy films here, maybe we should find something to complement that.” But, that said, at any given time, if what exists are seven really heavy documentaries, and not five great comedies, I would rather not put five not-so-great comedies on and put those seven great documentaries on.
JM: So you work with what’s being submitted at any given time or do you try to put things together a bit more?
BH: We do, and we’ll hold things for maybe an issue but really not so much. We really just want to put the best stuff that we’re seeing right now.
Jon Korn (JK): In terms of what you know, do people sit down and watch the whole thing through?
BH: It does happen. I mean, it generally takes two nights for people to watch the whole issue. There was a woman from Seattle who lost her remote control, so we made sure that when the DVD went in, she could watch it all in order without needing a remote control. An 80-year-old woman, who subscribes to Wholphin! So I know there’s at least one who watches it all in one sitting.
JM: What’s your acquisition process like? Do you get things sent in unsolicited or do you go to festivals? How do you keep up with what’s happening?
BH: In my bag right now are probably 50 short films, from this festival [Worldwide Short Film Festival] alone. Not as many from submissions, but we do get a lot of submissions and we watch them all. And we’ll commission a couple, now and then. Some of the best things we’ll find, often, are recommended by friends. I mean, this particular one isn’t going to work out, but Damon [Smith] from Babelgum was just telling me about Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson doing a concert in Sydney that can only be heard by dogs, this weekend. Now, we would have got down there and filmed that, for sure, had I known about it a few weeks before. But a lot of films come from filmmaker friends.
JM: Have you seen anything here that is noteworthy? Have you got your eye on certain things that you’ve seen here?
BH: One of the first things I saw when I opened the catalogue was this film Quadrangle, which I really want to get.
JM: That played at South by Southwest.
JK: And at Sundance.
BH: It’s a great film. A great film.
JK: I was on a jury in Dallas and we gave it a prize.
JM: I think it might have been at Hot Docs, too. I think.
BH: It’s a great film. That’s one I really am excited about.
JM: This one is a bit of a technical question. For my day job, I work at a distributor here in Canada, and I’m learning a little bit about rights. What sort of rights do you buy from filmmakers for Wholphin? Are they one-time rights? Do they still have home video rights, theatrical rights, all that stuff?
BH: Absolutely, yeah, yeah. We don’t do anything exclusively. The whole point of starting this was to get films out into the world so that they could be seen by more people. We don’t want to own anything, we just want to do whatever we can to get them out. Because we’re really open with it, we generally don’t have problems. All of the issues have gone into reprint and we’ve had no problems at all renegotiating for reprint rights with anyone. They’re generally happy.
JM: But it’s like a magazine rather than a regular home video release.
BH: Yeah, we don’t want it for seven years.
JM: Because you have subscribers all around the world, does that cause any issues with the rights to the films?
BH: No, not at all. You go to all these film festivals and you go to all these panels and you have people telling you a thousand different things. You know, “don’t give it to these guys. If you want it to be here, you better give it to us only” and, it’s for these short films. It just needs to get out there. And these filmmakers, they just need to build their names and their reputations and get this good work seen in all these different venues and different media and different formats. Anything that prohibits that and tries really hard to monetize that is generally helping some distributor and not the filmmaker.
JM: The big thing in distribution right now is online rights. Is that affecting you guys at all? I know you publish some of the films on your site, with downloadable versions. Have you run into any trouble with that?
BH: We just try to work with the filmmaker. Basically, we offer it. I mean, we do work with YouTube, and we’ve licensed stuff to TV. And if they want to be involved in that, we’ll definitely do it. It’s another digital revenue stream. If they want to hold onto it, then we strike it out of our agreement and let them hold onto it, and we just do DVD rights. It’s a little bit complicated for us. It sort of prevents us from doing straight digital releases of our exact DVDs to Netflix or iTunes or places like that. It does prohibit that a little bit.
JM: Do you foresee the magazine remaining on a physical DVD or are you thinking further down the line. Is it going to be an iTunes channel or something like that?
BH: Yeah, I keep expecting it to be moving that way faster. I’m a bit surprised. Maybe with the iPad it will be more appealing to have it just in digital form, but I haven’t seen it yet.
JM: As I said before, I still appreciate all the notes on the films in the booklet. To me, that’s added value, and I think there will always be a place for the physical object. I just wondered if you were looking at other opportunities. But it sounds like you’re running into other people’s territory a little bit, maybe they want to keep that. For instance, maybe an iPhone app. Is that something that’s crossed your mind at all?
BH: We have an iPhone app. McSweeney’s has an iPhone app, and we put shorts on there. We’re a little bit prohibited by bandwidth right now, so we can’t put some of the larger films, but I guarantee eventually, we’ll get more people downloading entire issues and subscribing that way than the physical DVD. But right now, at least our subscription base likes it this way. And it’s true, you want a backup, you want to own it in a way that you can make sure that if your iPad crashes or your computer crashes, you don’t have an Internet connection up in wherever, you can still watch them. And the quality’s better.
JM: So, speaking about quality, will there ever be a Blu-ray Wholphin? I know Blu-ray is still pretty expensive to produce.
BH: We’d love to do it, but it is sort of expensive. We’d also need to produce two, we’d need to offer both discs, and that’s not cost-effective. Most people don’t have Blu-ray players, it’s just not there yet. I mean, I don’t have a Blu-ray player. I’m all for it, and I want it to happen…
JM: The only reason I have one is that I have a PS3. I use it mostly to watch movies. But it does feel a bit like a transitional technology. We’ll probably have something else in five years.
JK: That form doesn’t make sense anymore. It should just be a tiny chip.
BH: Inserted right into the brain. Like a suppository.