The Pros of Cons: Screening Shorts at Gaming and Comic Book Conventions

Here’s the more-or-less standardized path for moviemakers:

You raise funds and rally your friends to make a short film. You submit to a couple dozen film festivals. Most are chosen because they can be reached by car, but there are always a few Hail Marys on the list. If you’re lucky, your acceptance-to-rejection ratio is north of zero. (If you aren’t, well, there’s YouTube.)

But you luck out and get the “official selection” laurel from a hand-full of fests. You attend the ones you can afford, telling yourself this is your big chance to make industry contacts and mingle with fellow moviemakers. The bigger festivals deliver robust crowds (time of day dependent); the smaller fests introduce you to the experience of watching folks walk out of the theater before your short has had a chance to screen. It’s not personal. Many in the audience are there to support pals who worked on the zombie flick screening right before your movie. Normally they wouldn’t be caught dead watching a short film. (Note: Where you fall in the program determines just how much you will be subjected to the watch-and-ditch phenomenon.) You get a question or two during the post-screening Q&A, go to a few parties, chit-chat uncomfortably with other desperate filmmakers, then head home.

If you’ll notice, this litany of experiences doesn’t include: making industry contacts, finding collaborators for your next project, or attracting the enthusiastic support of fans. Unfortunately, those things are as rare as finding Orson Welles’ lost reel to The Magnificent Ambersons. No matter how good it is, your gorgeously crafted, hilariously touching short is too often just a bite-sized morsel on an otherwise star-studded cinematic banquet table.

There’s a Reason They’re Called Fanboys

Comic book, gaming, and science fiction conventions—or “cons”—may not fast-track you into the film industry, but if you’re looking for passionate audiences, you’ve come to the right place.

“You don’t make fans at film festivals. If you’re lucky, you make industry contacts. At cons, you definitely make fans,” says filmmaker James St. Vincent. In 2012, St. Vincent submitted his 20-minute post-apocalyptic Western, “The Price,” to the usual fests. The short was chosen as an official selection at the Vail Film Festival, Manhattan Film Festival, San Antonio’s CineFestival and others. But it was the San Diego Comic-Con and Dragon Con’s Independent Film Festival in Atlanta that mattered most to the first-time director.

St. Vincent

“At the cons, particularly Comic-Con, you can establish a fan base, and that’s what I wanted because I was making a genre film. I wanted like-minded people to become interested in my work.”

The Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival was first launched in 2000 and screens nearly 50 shorts. Each year it hands out awards in a wide range of categories, including Sci-Fi, Documentary and Horror/Suspense. But what St. Vincent found particularly appealing was the way Comic-Con programmed its shorts, not in blocks like most festivals, but by carving out a specific time slot for each film with a Q&A session to follow.

“Our Q&A actually went longer than our film did,” says St. Vincent. “And the questions we got from the audience were not the same questions you’d get at Tribeca or Sundance. Nobody asked us about our budget or what kind of camera we shot on. They asked us about the universe, the world-building and the characters. It was a much more satisfying experience than the other festivals I showed at.”

Comic-Con attracts nearly 130,000 attendees over its three-day run, and St. Vincent estimates that nearly 200 people attended his screening of “The Price.” He also notes how often attendees stopped him on the convention floor to compliment his short and follow him on social media.

“The audience likes to feel like they’re on the tip of something new,” says St. Vincent. “They don’t care what you’ve done before. If you make yourself available and make them feel like you’re one of them, they will embrace you.”

A New Audience for a Traditional Filmmaker

In 2006, Phillip Chidel’s low-budget horror film Subject Two opened Sundance’s Midnight Movie program. It went on to play at film festivals around the world and was snapped up for distribution. When Chidel completed his 2012 short, “Til Death,” he wanted to try something a little different.

“I was looking for fantasy and sci-fi festivals because of the subject matter of my film,” says Chidel. “I was surprised that I liked the cons more than the traditional festivals.”

Along with fests like the Sacramento Film Festival and New Orleans Horror Film Festival, Chidel added Dragon Con and Gen Con in Indianapolis to his submission list. “All the Dragon Con short screening blocks that I went to were sold out,” he says.

Dragon Con1

Dragon Con Film Festival director Matthew Foster says he gets between 700 and 1,000 submissions each year and ends up selecting around 80 shorts for the festival’s 10 programming blocks. The theater seats approximately 150 people and screenings run from 10 a.m. to the wee hours of the night. And, like Comic-Con, the festival also hands out awards, with cash prizes.

“If you have a genre film, this is your audience,” says Foster. “Traditional film festivals can have a problem drawing crowds for shorts, and there’s usually not a lot of buzz. At Dragon Con, we supply an enthusiastic audience. There are 60,000 people walking outside our door. We have people who want to see the films and afterward will want to talk about them.”

Somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of the films selected have directors in attendance, which Chidel loves. “The thing Dragon Con did really well was to inspire us to interact with one another—the director got us mingling. Many of us were of like minds. I made some professional relationships that continue today with my latest projects.”

Foster says that Dragon Con’s programming tends to be a bit broader than Comic-Con, bringing noir, humor and drama into the mix, but that there is some overlap in the shorts they accept. “Horror is probably the most popular genre among convention goers.”

Ultimately, though, Chidel advises that filmmakers research how a particular convention will fit with their film and have a game plan for attending: “Know your audience.”

Fan-fueled Films

For filmmaker Mike Zawacki, attending fan conventions like TeslaCon in Madison, WI and the SteamPunk Empire Symposium in Cincinnati, OH seemed a no-brainer for his film “The Wars of Other Men.” The 26-minute dieselpunk war film boasts impressive production values and CG effects depicting giant airships and tanks. It’s exactly the kind of retro-style steampunk fans go wild for, and even gained the attention of Indiewire’s “Project of the Day.”

Getting his short accepted at various conventions and even setting up additional hotel room screenings of his own, Zawacki has attracted supporters from the steampunk and sci-fi community. His plan is to develop an episodic series based on the world he created in the film.

“The idea to do a series evolved after we went to our first steampunk convention,” says Zawaki. “I knew that there was a scene out there, but I was not prepared for how vibrant and enthusiastic it was. So, after doing a few of these, I realized we could engage the people we’d been hanging out with for the last year or so as partners and brand ambassadors.”

Dragon Con

There are other, more tangible, advantages to tapping into this community. Zawacki has enlisted fans to help provide costumes and props. “Steampunk is so production design-intensive, and there are a lot of people who construct their own costumes and props. Engaging them is a wonderful creative and collaborative opportunity.”

Right now Zawacki is looking to independently produce a pilot through a combination of crowdfunding and other investments. “As funding becomes more decentralized,” he says, “cons become more important, allowing individual outreach and engagement.”

This exactly the philosophy that CEO Ben Dobyns’ Zombie Orpheus Entertainment (ZOE) embraces. A fan-supported, creator-distributed Internet network and studio, the Seattle-based media company produces the popular fantasy web series JourneyQuest and, in 2010, briefly broke the Kickstarter record for most money raised for film and video, earning $400,000 from 4,000 backers for their film The Gamers: Hands of Fate.

The company’s motto is “No studio. No network. No cancellation.” Their shows and films are funded directly by the fans through patronage and subscription models. It then releases all its work for free, online, under a creative commons license.

“We use Cory Doctorow’s dandelion model,” Dobyns says. “You blow the seeds out there and have no idea where they’ll land, but they’ll take root in places you never expected.”

Not surprisingly, ZOE’s idea to tap fans for financial support meant attending fantasy and gaming conventions. “The cons were vital to building our fan base when we first started,” Dobyns says. “The people who attend are the target audience—the people who are going to write about our stuff, and become actively involved in it.”

With the advent of high-quality video on the Internet and a robust web-based community, Dobyns says that cons have become less about attracting new audiences and more about connecting with existing fans. He singles out Gen Con Indy as ZOE’s destination of choice.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job of building and integrating a legitimate film festival into their event,” he says. “For people starting out, I would absolutely recommend going the convention route. Dragon Con and Gen Con are the stand-outs, in my opinion. That’s where you’re going to find the tastemakers. People who are passionate enough to attend conventions are passionate enough to become evangelical about your work.” MM

For more information on the conventions mentioned, visit the Dragon Con and Comic-Con websites.

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