Anyone scouring a film festival guide in recent years for promising short films would’ve been wise to look for the name Valerie Steinberg, a producer with a knack for nurturing filmmakers with truly original perspectives that are difficult to articulate until you watch their work. An executive producer on the Cannes sensation “War Pony,” Steinberg has an eye for those on the cutting edge – and sharpening what talent is already there into something that can make an immediate impression – that leaves no wonder why any studio looking to freshen up their talent pool would be interested in bringing her into the fold. However, when she’s put a premium on protecting her filmmakers’ uncompromising visions, the question instead was whether it be worth the effort for her.
“The mission of 20th Digital really aligns with how I’ve always approached working with emerging filmmakers at the very beginning because you invest your time and energy in a short and it’s only through not only seeing the result of the short, which anyone can see once it’s out there, but also the process – did we enjoy working with the filmmaker and how was this process and then to use that as a launching pad to go from there,” says Steinberg. “I wish more studios were operating with this eye for giving actual opportunities to emerging filmmakers and I wish more shorts were getting made by studios because I think there’s a really interesting pipeline for that.”
Horror has always been fertile territory for filmmakers to make a mark early in their careers, if for no other reason than they likely identify with the feeling of wandering around in the dark, afraid of what they might run into as they try to get their filmmaking careers off the ground. However, as a genre built generally around high concepts and low budgets and appreciated by a reliable core audience, it is less frightening for studios to take risks as 20th Digital Studio has with “Bite Size Halloween,” an annual offering of shorts that has become a proving ground at a scale that is rarely afforded to burgeoning talent outside of film school thesis projects. Provided with opportunity themselves when their corporate sibling Hulu sought to expand their streaming selection, the studio has passed it on, building momentum and stature alongside their filmmakers to now not only produce shorts but actively develop them into features.
“It’s really exciting because we’ve been doing shorts for about five years, two years before [as] part of Bite Size Halloween and then three years of Bite Size Horror, so it’s really exciting to be able to show the growth,” said Arbi Pedrossian, vice president of development at 20th Digital. “This year on Huluween, we’ll have a whole new round of shorts, but also two features which were incubated through our shorts filmmakers and the first two are finally coming out this year.”
The arrival of “Grimcutty,” which came about after John Ross delivered the chilling “Gregory” for Huluween four years ago, and “Matriarch,” an expansion of Ben Steiner’s 2018 short “Urn” about a literally toxic relationship between a mother and daughter, are just the first two features in a nine-film slate that 20th Digital has set with Hulu, already promising another soon with a full-length version of Anna Zlokovic’s “Appendage,” starring Rachel Sennott. But ambition isn’t limited to making bigger films, but the program itself bigger when 20th Digital has built upon its original mandate of cultivating diversity to increasingly expanding beyond the borders of the U.S. Although the number of shorts produced in a given year has fluctuated between 20-30, with an expansion of the brand “Bite Size Holidays” yielding even more come December, international representation has steadily been on the rise with eight of the 21 shorts in this year’s season made outside North America, including five from the UK, and additional shorts from France, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.
“It’s slightly like programming a shorts block at a film festival, but with films that haven’t been made yet,” Pedrossian said of how a season is put together. “It’s based on seeing their past work and really finding up-and-coming filmmakers that have a distinct voice and that can bring something new to the genre. We’ve got a lot of representation on our slate, so a lot of different points of view being addressed and new ideas coming across and then we have a pretty traditional pitching process where we invite the filmmakers that we like to pitch ideas.”
Steinberg’s involvement as an executive producer on this year’s series came from such a general meeting with Pedrossian, Jenna Cavelle and David Brooks, bringing four directors in tow with at least three ideas for shorts. Bridget Moloney, with whom she had worked with on the comedy “Blocks” – its own horrific idea tucked into a comedy about a stressed out mom who starts to spit out Lego bricks – had a darker follow-up in mind with “The New Nanny” and ended up with a greenlight, opening up a broader conversation between the producer and 20th Digital about collaborating. Although Steinberg’s filmography suggests varied tastes, she has shown a particular affinity for pushing the envelope in horror where she helped shepherd Mariama Diallo’s “Hair Wolf” and Laura Moss’ “Fry Day,” two of the most unsettling and innovative genre films of recent years, to the screen and while she champions those who think outside the box, she has found a space at 20th Digital where there’s a lot of room for the filmmakers she’s long supported to carry out their ideas.
“This year, Samantha Aldana, who did the short “Angels,” is a filmmaker I’m really excited to have formed a close bond with over the years,” said Steinberg. “We brought her in and I love that I have the opportunity to connect the dots, but then ultimately [20th Digital] has been doing this for several years and they have the big [picture] view of which projects they’re going to select.”
If a pitch is selected, the support system for the films has been refined to take on any potential production challenges, as some of this year’s global offerings demonstrate. Take for example Jon K. Jones, who lives in New York but was inspired to set his short “Fracture” in Scotland yet had relatively little idea about the regional resources that would be needed to pull it off. Steinberg, a veteran of the Rotterdam Lab where she was able to meet with producers from around the world, put Jones in touch with the Scottish-based producer Nadira Murray, who literally took the director in, allowing him to stay at her family home and together founds the production resources necessary for the tale of a man unsure of whether he’s exploring unknown parts of the universe or trapped inside a mental ward. With 21 projects happening across the globe, the needs of each can be quite different, especially when some require less assistance when they’re in the hands of teams that have been working together for some time just been waiting for the chance to shine while for others, the team at 20th Digital is making introductions for collaborations to blossom.
“What’s really fun is as much as it’s a talent incubator for the writers and directors with the opportunity to get their feature greenlit, I also view it as a talent incubator for the producers,” says Steinberg, who admits that the budget approval process is one of her favorite parts of the process to see how creative filmmakers get with their allotted amount, which is the same for each film. “It’s an opportunity for the producers to get to produce a short film that’ll be on Hulu as much as it is for the directors and to see where that takes them.”
It may be too soon to tell the full impact of the program when so many of the filmmakers are only just getting started, but both the entertainment value of the films and the hands-on experience they offer is already evident and for Pedrossian, it’s never too early to start talking with those who have a short in the series about what’s next.
“It’s an ongoing process of did we love the short? Did we love working with the filmmaker? Okay, let’s talk about initial thoughts [about a feature] and is it already something that’s developed in the filmmakers’ head or is it something that we can explore a little more,” says Pedrossian, noting that the recent process of turning “Appendage” took just a year in development from conception to post-production while others take a longer period of gestation to get them right. “The most important part for us is just focusing in on the filmmakers we believe in and taking that next step.”
Whether or not a short makes the leap to a feature at 20th Digital or elsewhere, the studio is making sure everyone involved in the “Bite Size” series is putting their best foot forward.