24/48/72 Hour Film Festivals and Competitions

Indie/Post-Film School Industry Reflections part 1
This is the first in a series about my experiences as a film school grad trying to network, build my resume, make films without the resources of a film school behind me, get my films shown, etc. I hope those of you reading find it helpful or at least interesting.

Since graduating from film school, I have made more films by participating in these kinds of competitions than by just writing or getting a script, finding independent funding (or funding it myself) and gathering all the necessary people to get it shot and made. You might be thinking that sounds just like what you would do for these competitions but it is actually quite different.

At one time I thought that the time constraints (and of course, the promise of prizes to be won)  were making it easier for me to build my portfolio of films. I was trying different genres, testing my ability to think creatively on demand and with little sleep, and it was easier to ask people to give you one weekend of their time than to try and coordinate everyone for multiple days of shooting, perhaps over weeks or months. It was cheaper to rent the equipment for 24 hours and throw your hands up with “well, we got what we got in the time we had” than to shoot over many more days and hours, trying to get the shots perfect and even renting equipment again for re-shoots if necessary. Props and costumes were often whatever was on hand and therefore cheaper than hiring a costume designer or spending a lot of time designing and shopping for the exact shade of green dress (for example.) In summary, the ‘quick and dirty’ style and the result of a finished film in just 24/48/72 hours rather than months of work was very attractive.

What didn’t help me and my fellow filmies was that we actually won a bunch of prizes our first time doing one of these competitions. It set us on a path where we thought we were pretty good at this and could win a lot of money/gear by doing more. The problem was that the first time we did it, we had no expectations – we made a film for ourselves, had fun, tried to do our best (not knowing what to expect from the competition) and lucked out that our earnestness and naivete paid off. After that, however, we starting thinking about how to win, what we needed to do to ‘impress the judges’ or ‘outshine the competition.’ Since then, our film competition experiences have been a mixed bag. On some we have had more fun than others but always there was that sense of disappointment when we didn’t win anything – because that was the reason we did them, not for our own satisfaction of making a film. After making 5 films in this way, I have realized something else. We are not learning or progressing as filmmakers. Yes, it is a challenge to pull off a film in a matter of days or hours – but the question I have been asking myself lately is whether it is the RIGHT challenge to help me grow as a filmmaker?

Will these competitions ever help me get funding for a more involved project? Is rushing into filming and directing actors and crew on the fly helping me grow as a director in depth and complexity of ideas? Am I really learning how to mine a script for nuance and drama?

My experience is probably different from many other filmmakers out there who have done these competitions. There are probably lots of people who do well year after year and make money or earn gear doing so. I think a lot of people go into these competitions with different strategies than me and my team(s) have had – there have definitely been times where it was obvious that scripts had been written in advance of the actual time frame.

In comparison, since graduating I have only made 2 short films outside of these competitions (not including those I have pitched or tried to get funding for through other competitions like Hot Shots Shorts, Crazy 8’s or Kickstart.) If I had never done those competitions, would I have had enough money (from entry fees and food and rentals) to make another 1 or 2 higher-quality films? As I look back on the 4 years since I graduated from film school, I can see that the films that have gone on to do well- show in festivals, win awards or garner attention are not the ones that were made in 24/48/72 hours. In fact, I only recently realized that I have never sent ANY of the films I have made in those competitions out to festivals. Not even the one that we won awards for and which I can honestly say I am proud of. It costs a lot of money to promote your films and send them out to festivals and you ultimately have to choose which films deserve that investment. Every single time I have chosen the films that I spent more time or money on, the ones I devoted myself to for months or even years, ultimately the ones that I learned the most from and grew the most while making.

I suppose I am supposed to be making a point here. I do think that 24/48/72 hour competitions can be fun and a good learning experience. They are a great place to network and test yourself in certain areas. But I caution anyone who is motivated to do them because they think they will or can win. The disappointment isn’t worth it and doesn’t help fuel your creativity outside of the competition zone. At least for me, it has diminished my sense of confidence in my instincts…and unfortunately, it isn’t always about your film, sometimes its about the judges or the bizarre constraints on the competition and it has nothing to do with what you did (even more frustrating sometimes.)

Do them because they are fun. Do them as long as you are learning something. Do them with a grain of salt and don’t forget to do a film you really really care about once in awhile.

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