It’s the sublime to the ridiculous, and that’s just defining the parameters of Asbury Shorts USA, one of the nation’s longest-running Short Film Concert Series. For aspiring directors, it’s a way to have your work seen. For Doug LeClaire, who runs the show, it’s a way to celebrate the often overlooked medium, and he’s been doing it for over 40 years. His decades-long run grew out of a ritual born at his alma mater, New York Institute of Technology. Film students would hold a year-end party to showcase their films, and eventually the practice spread to adjoining colleges and universities.
The annual celebration kept growing, and the need for additional seating followed suit. Initially held at various locales in the New York metropolitan area, fans are now drawn to theatres, concert halls, and an occasional convention center, both here and around the world. It’s the old adage “good things coming in small packages.” On any given night, audiences are treated to an average of a dozen films, with durations lasting anywhere from two to sixteen minutes. It’s an eclectic mix of subject matter; viewers can witness impending doom in the frenetic New Zealand animated selection, Fire in Cardboard City, or hop aboard an entertaining New York City subway ride for Panhandler Party. Mr. LeClaire, by his own admission, has seen nearly one thousand shorts from here, there, and everywhere, and currently pulls from a stable of approximately sixty films to curate each of the performances.
The independent impresario, who speaks about the growing prevalence of film festivals, draws a line of distinction. “We’re a different animal. We know that when we go into a theatre, 85% to 95% of the audience will have never seen any of the films in the line-up. It’s like they’re seeing it for the first time. I’ve never had a complaint.”
Asbury Shorts USA selections have a long shelf life, and to show that, he recently dusted off Boxman, one that hadn’t been screened in thirty years. The twelve minute existential film noir, made by NYU film student Stephen Marro, depicts despair and isolation in a 1970s down-on-its-luck New York City, where the menacing background drives the narrative.
“I didn’t think too much about making it, I just wrote the script, and I went out and filmed it. I wasn’t out there to prove that I was the next Orson Welles. I wasn’t over-thinking about anything in that movie.”
Eventually, Mr. Marro did make a name for himself, and he continues to work in the television and film industry. He grabbed notoriety with his 2012 film, Broadway’s Finest. The movie earned a number of film festival awards, had a limited theatrical release, and found a presence in streaming services.
At a recent encore presentation of Asbury Shorts USA on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, sitting in the audience alongside Stephen Marro, was Amy Nicholson. Ms. Nicholson, a former creative director at a prestigious advertising agency, came to filmmaking a bit later in life. Like many aspiring directors, she relied on family for source material. The result: Pickle, a 16 minute award-winning documentary, which follows her parents’ often successful, although sometimes disastrous, attempts to rescue a wide array of animals near their home along Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The 2016 film, sprinkled with dark humor in the vein of Errol Morris and John Waters, was a departure for Ms. Nicholson, both in terms of content and financing, who at the outset said: “I’m not going to apply for funding. I‘m just going to make the dumbest, funniest, thing I can possibly make and then I’m going to put it out there. I’m going to see what happens. It got into every film festival except Sundance.”
Today, Amy Nicholson continues to make documentaries, and her most recent, Happy Campers spotlights a seaside trailer camp in Chincoteague, Virginia, whose residents are being forced to vacate their place in the sun. It was awarded Special Mention at the recently concluded, DOC NYC Film Festival.
LeClaire is quick to point out that he’s not running a festival, but in fact a concert series. He pulls from multiple sources to shape his carefully considered potpourri of movies, considering both the venue’s location and the area’s demographics. In the past week, he has entertained audiences in Omaha, Nebraska—for the first time, and traveled back to Fryeburg, Maine, for a repeat performance. LeClaire’s biggest turnouts, however, are in Florida, in particular, Punta Gorda’s Charlotte Harbor Convention Center, where he welcomes a yearly audience of eight hundred and fifty fans. For retirees with disposable cash, time, and limited desire to hunt and peck for some of the films that occasionally appear on YouTube or Vimeo, it’s one-stop entertainment shopping.
By and large, LeClaire and Executive Producer Cathy Berger are able to show the films at little, or no personal cost, although there are times they need to pay a licensing fee to a film distributor. In general, local producers pays Asbury Shorts USA a presentation fee, and if the presenter is unable to support the cost, a split of box office proceeds usually seals the deal.
Over the years, the short film series has drawn a number of big time hosts who moderate the evening’s two act affair. Emcees have included, among others, actors Peter Gallagher, Mathew Modine, Edie Falco, and directors, Melvin Van Peebles and Jason Reitman. The most notable presenter may have been Harvey Keitel’s star turn. Asbury Shorts USA producers, happy to have him on board, met with the actor a few times before his appearance and offered him a script. However, Keitel, known for his uncanny roles, found his own motivation. Shaking off the spotlight, he angrily demanded the house lights be turned on, and then delivered an impassioned ten minute speech about the importance of independent film. The crowd rose to its feet in a standing ovation, and Keitel promptly left the stage.
The long (and the short) of it: Asbury Shorts, USA, continues to roll along, and you can catch up to it in Florida at the Vero Beach Museum of Art on Feb. 10, 2024 or at the Charlotte Harbor Event Center in Punta Gorda.
For more upcoming dates, times and ticket information, go to our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/asburyshortsnyc.
By Tom Farkas