Eleven years ago Nick Mason started a film festival, mainly for fun. He'd screen short films on the side of a truck in Union Square Park near the tip of Manhattan. Most of the movies lasted just a few minutes. Celebrity judges would choose a best film, and everyone would have a good time.
After a few years Mason says he felt doing the festival was getting too easy. Then, the world changed when two airliners plunged into the World Trade Center not far from the park.
"Now Union Square Park was the park that everyone gravitated to to grieve or whatever and to light candles and whatnot," Mason said.
It also became home to TV satellite trucks from networks around the world. The 2001 Manhattan Short Film Festival was scheduled for about 10 days later. Mason said he assumed it just wasn't going to happen, but the city parks department wanted a way of easing the Union Square Park back to normality.
A staffer called and insisted Mason run his event. He did, and, again, everyone had a good time watching movies from around the world. But Mason says there were a couple of unexpected results.
"I noticed all the press started doing all their news coverage of it, from whatever station, for whatever TV station and whatever part of the world," he said.
Then, a few months later, after this moment in the glare of the TV lights, movies started arriving from all parts of the globe. That got Mason thinking about expanding the scope of the festival so more people could see how other people view the world.
After an abortive attempt to webcast the festival in 2003, Mason and his staff decided to show the films at seven theaters in seven states in 2004. Mason said it's just kept growing.
"To today, and this week, what, 4 years later, there's 295 shows in 115 cities, spanning 4 continents," he said.
This all happens in the span of a week, and everyone in the audience gets a vote. The results are tallied in New York. This year they'll be announced on Sunday.
The Manhattan Short Film Festival played at the Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis for the first time last year. The Oak Street's assistant programmer Ryan Oestreich ran the projector that night. He said this year there are 12 very different films from around the world in the program, ranging from drama to animation. With the prospect of voting for the best film hanging over it, Oestreich said the audience has to keep on its toes.
"The great thing about a short film is the way it can turn," Oestreich said. "You can be watching and have this build-up for four minutes, and you don't even know it's a six minute film. And before you even know it, the plot twist comes and then you are left with like 30 seconds of catch-up and then it's over and you say to yourself, 'What just happened?'"
Oestreich said inevitably people start taking notes and then talking during the intermission and at the end of the program as they try to choose the best film.
One of the people in the crowd last year was Stillwater High School drama teacher Harry Tollefsohn. He brought a bus load of students for the event. Some of them had never seen a foreign film before.
"They loved it, they had a great time," Tollefsohn said. "And what they really enjoyed about it was they were able to do some voting. Teenagers that are empowered is always a good thing in their book, you know?"
He saw another unexpected bonus for his students, an opportunity to develop dating skills.
"It's actually kind of a nice warm-up for some of those dates that they will have later on as they go to college and they have these more intellectual and artistic conversations," he said.
Many of the films shown at the Manhattan Short Film Festival have gone on to be nominated for Oscars in the short film category. Some of the the directors have ended up with studio contracts.
Mason says he wants to keep expanding, and plans to add a continent a year over the next three years, ending up with screenings at one of the bases on Antarctica.