Morgan Spurlock Has Big Ideas About Short Films

A new series of three-minute documentaries aims to inspire people to change the world.

From Liz Garbus short documentary Robot, a man interacts with a robot at Yale Social Robotics Laboratory

A scene from Liz Garbus' Robot, one of 30 documentaries that's part of the Focus Forward series of short films about innovation. (Photo: Courtesy of Cinelan)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

Ever since taking the world by storm with his 2004 fast-food documentary Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock has been known to do things in a big way.

But these days the filmmaker is going for something smaller with Focus Forward, a new series of three-minute online shorts that finds some of the world’s most acclaimed nonfiction directors, such as Last Call at the Oasis’ Jessica Yu and Hoop Dreams’ Steve James, making films that revolve around the same theme: innovation.    

“This is a place that encourages people to think of the world differently,” Spurlock tells TakePart. “Each of these Focus Forward films are [about] people who are doing that—people who are risk takers, people who are pushing us and the boundaries in very different directions. These are aspirational and inspirational movies.”

After making a splash earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, the series has taken on such subjects as a landfill in New York that recycles trash into clean energy and Los Angeles’ Homeboy Industries, which puts former gang members to work as bakers. Yet if all Focus Forward did was depict inspiring individuals and ideas from around the world, it wouldn’t be considered a total success.

The program also hopes to inspire anyone with a camera to create their own short films about innovation within their community. As extra incentive, Spurlock’s offering $200,000 in prize money and a trip to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. “To reward filmmakers for creating work that can truly have an impact is something that we all should start to recognize and try and push for,” he says.

The socially conscious series came about after Spurlock appeared at the 2011 TED Conference. Approached by a representative from General Electric with the idea of a collaboration, Spurlock, who cofounded Cinelan, a video publisher specializing in syndicating short-form documentaries, saw an opportunity for the company to do some innovation of its own.

As Cinelan’s director of content strategy and acquisitions Damon Smith says, “We’re only just beginning to see the age of the short emerge.”

Short films were once the predominant mode for filmmakers, but Cinelan wants the Focus Forward series to cut across a variety of platforms, from online to the more magisterial experience of movie theaters. The shorts have  appeared to much fanfare at film festivals and could pop up (and already do in some places in the U.K.) as pre-show entertainment at multiplexes. That ability to be shown anywhere is particularly important since, as Spurlock says, “The message behind these movies is one that’s very worthwhile.

“Long-form investigative journalism is disappearing and (documentaries) serve an even more important purpose,” he adds. “What I think Cinelan and Focus Forward do is serve as a great primer to a conversation.”

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