Film is a collaborative medium. Every moviemaker knows it, and it’s a fact that is celebrated by the Collaboration Filmmakers Challenge (CFC). The only moviemaking contest of its kind, CFC brings together complete strangers and tasks them with helping each other realize their cinematic visions. Tonight marks the official end of CFC’s inaugural year—a screening of selected entries at Los Angeles’ Harmony Gold Theater will be followed by $8,000 in cash prizes being awarded to the winners. Below, co-producer Jake Hartley tells the story behind this unique celebration of Do It With Others moviemaking.

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Joe Gressis, co-founder of the Collaboration Filmmakers Challenge, always tells the story the same way: An idea came to him one afternoon as he spoke with a friend about a string of local seminars designed to inspire young filmmakers. As they discussed ways to foster industry relationships, he proposed a hypothesis: The best way to get filmmakers to work together… is to have them actually work together. It’s an admittedly simple idea, but one that seemed conspicuously absent from the filmmaking landscape. She countered with an idea of her own: “Come up with a good plan and I’ll help you get it off the ground.” Joe went straight to work with co-founder Dena Hysell, and so began the creative experiment of the Collaboration Filmmakers Challenge.

The CFC is a non-profit, L.A.-based short film competition held in association with Secret Handshake Entertainment, a production company Dena and Joe co-founded in 2007. Participants spend two weeks of fun, intense filmmaking in the pursuit of $8,000 in cash prizes, which are awarded at a screening at the Harmony Gold Theater in Hollywood by the audience and a celebrity judging panel.

Of course, what I’ve just described did not emerge overnight, and the complexity of the endeavor was apparent from the start: How do you create an opportunity that stands out from the countless existing filmmaking challenges, and—if the idea is to create new relationships—how do you get people excited about working with (and relying on) complete strangers?

With a small but dedicated team consisting only of Dena, Joe and myself, we set about the task of crafting the rules, securing powerful incentives for our participants, cultivating industry sponsorships and generating publicity for our fledgling competition. Not to mention we had to tackle this whole collaboration concept! We finally settled on a solution: The contest would run for two weeks, with each filmmaker spending one week making his or her own short film and one week helping a randomly assigned collaborator do the same. Anyone who failed to collaborate with his or her assigned teammate would be disqualified; anyone who collaborated on a winning film would earn a share of the prize. Additionally, we would offer a $1,500 individual prize—our Key Collaborator Award—to the person who contributed most to the efforts of his or her fellow filmmakers.

It sounds like a lot of work—and it was, to be sure—but any one of us can tell you that this was also a labor of passion. In an industry that demands so much from its members, here was a rare opportunity to actually make the rules and create an environment reflective of enjoyment and freedom, rather than one of logistical headaches and creative restraint. Before too long, we were up and running at, offering $8,000 in cash prizes and the chance to be screened by remarkable industry figures, such as Michael J. Weithorn (“The King of Queens,” “Ned and Stacey”), Tim Minear (“The X-Files,” “Firefly,” “American Horror Story”) and renowned film critic Kurt Loder.

Time flew by and we quickly found ourselves face to face with our participants at our orientation on May 24, 2012. Regardless of background, these people shared a love of creativity, a drive for success and the uncanny ability to keep us on our toes with pointed, insightful questions. We announced our central theme—a quote by the brilliant P.J. O’Rourke—and revealed the randomly created pairs who would spend the next two weeks collaborating on each other’s short films. The stirring excitement was palpable as the intriguing reality set in: With all of the collective talent in the room, the collaboration was sure to be fruitful… just as the competition was guaranteed to be fierce.

A mere two weeks later, our office shelves were filled with dozens of short films. The three of us gathered the following night to screen everyone’s work. As we loaded the first DVD, we couldn’t help but feel some trepidation: Living on these discs was the fate of our inaugural year. Over the next three hours we were amused, impressed, provoked, delighted and inspired. We had more than just great films—we had great stories.

Tonight we’re excited to share these stories with the world at the Harmony Gold Theater, where the judges and the audience will each determine a “Best Film,” and one person will take away the $1,500 Key Collaborator Award. As we look toward the future of the CFC, we have visions of a growing competition with returning champions and dangerous new challengers. But, more importantly, we see lasting friendships and prosperous connections that will someday carry our filmmakers to heights far above our modest little operation. And when that day comes, our mission will be complete—or at the very least we’ll know where to find more celebrity judges.

Jake Hartley is a Duke graduate and aspiring writer/producer. As part of Secret Handshake Entertainment, he has worked on several features, including A Little Help and Home Run Showdown, and is an associate producer on the upcoming Web series “Oishi High School Battle.” He has also has worked as a writer and consultant on a variety of independent projects.