Autographed photos line the walls of the small coffee shop inside the Hilton Hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The attendant tells me that no long ago big names in the entertainment world were regularly seen in the small town. Laura Dern, Michael Peña, Mike Epps, Ryan Phillippe, and dozens of others adorn this makeshift shrine to a recent time when the state’s tax incentives brought in countless productions and turned Shreveport into a vibrant hub. “Everybody came back then,” the attendant confirmed. New regulations have put a cap on those enticing financial benefits, but the battle is not entirely lost.

Six years ago, Gregory Kallenberg, a moviemaker and entrepreneur, decided it was time for the film community of Northwestern Louisiana to host an event that would encourage outsiders to invest in local talent and give aspiring filmmakers in the region an opportunity to showcase their work. First held in 2012, Louisiana Film Prize quickly made an impression in the American South and beyond as a competition that was first and foremost about the filmmakers.

Qualifying short films must shoot in Louisiana, which means that students and local crew-members are able to take part in the production of the films, even if the director flies in from Los Angeles or New York. A vast majority of the entries are created specifically for Film Prize. Hundreds of projects are submitted and eventually 20 finalists are selected to be part of the weekend-long celebration in October.

Today, Louisiana Prize Fest is divided into three simultaneous events: Film Prize, Food Prize, and Music Prize, each with separate juries of professionals working in those respective fields. For the Film Prize, the short are screened in two slates of 10 that play at different venues and times throughout the weekend. No one that hasn’t seen all of the finalists is allowed to vote—this applies for general audiences and judges alike. Additionally, all projects are viewed on the big screen as no screening links are provided. Filmmakers are encouraged to set up booths and host parties all over downtown to lure in potential supporters and remind them of their short’s merits.

Taking the jury and public into account, one winner is chosen to receive a massive $50,000 cash prize—money that comes without caveats. The five top-rated films also secure distribution through Shorts International. Clearly the large sum is motivation enough to enter; what’s more notable is that because there are no features or other shorts playing besides the 20 in competition, all the attention is centered on the directors, and their cast and crew. Each moviemaking team is interviewed by staff in a public setting, giving attendees another chance to learn about their treacherous roads to the finish line—Louisiana Film Prize is unlike any other film event around.

Travis Bible’s “Exit Strategy” was a unanimous favorite at Louisiana Film Prize

Travis Bible’s time-travel wonder “Exit Strategy” was the undeniable standout. Two brothers are caught up in a time loop to prevent a fire from happening. Despite what variables they change, the outcome continues to remain the same. Rather than focusing on the mechanics of its premise, “Exit Strategy uses the setup to go for the heart in a moving and unexpected resolution grounded in Christopher O’Shea and Richard Kohnke’s performances. With his unique ability to turn heady science fiction into something more character driven, Bible is certainly one to watch. Deservingly, he unanimously earned the top prize.

Other highlights include Jonnie Stapleton’s “Stag,” which brings to mind Little Miss Sunshine, follows Ben (Herbert Russell), a heartbroken security guard who decides to take dance classes by himself. Russell won the Best Actor award for his charming turn. A great exercise in comedic timing and tone, Taylor Bracewell’s action comedy, “Candyland,” takes place inside a grocery store as the representatives for a ruthless candy bar brand have a standoff with the disgruntled manager. On the more auteur-oriented side, Suzanne Racz’s “Willow,” which was shot on film, tells the personal story of a girl who discovers there are others whom, like her, feel the most comfortable when wearing furry suits. All films in the program exhibit enviable production values and professional execution.

Much of the  success of Louisiana Film Prize can be attributed to Gregory Kallenberg, a visionary that fosters camaraderie and connections between filmmakers, judges, and the public at large. The executive director is devoted to the craft and its appreciation and that devotion is embedded in every aspect of the festival’s execution. Unlike tax incentives, his actions directly affect the local industry in ways that cannot be revoked by the state government: local crews are getting trained, stateside and international talents are participating in homegrown short films, and a sense of industry is being developed once again. Tax incentives are crucial, no doubt, but empowerment is invaluable. In no time, more coffee shops around Shreveport will have more local faces on their walls that they can handle. MM