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Marathon Moviemaking

Marathon Moviemaking

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DigiFest Southwest winners Ben Lowney and J. Fegan in BABOF;
and the cast of Clown Camp.

In the age of hollywood blockbusters, where a single
big-budget item can spend years in development, it might be refreshing
to know that a new trend is providing some degree of
balance. Timed film competitions, or “marathon festivals,” are
a growing player in independent film circles, where organizers
brazenly challenge participants by asking the question: Can you
write, direct and edit a movie in 72 hours? What about 48? Or even
24? We dare you.

Challenging, yes. But is this a natural progression of the film
festival blueprint, which has for so long stood the test of time?
Grubb Graebner, creator of DigiFest Southwest, thinks so.

“It was time to do something different,” Graebner recalls from
his office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I was a screenwriter here,
and I teamed up with my partner who used to put on trade shows.
Our first year, we produced 10 movies in one week, which really
was just crazy.”

Now in its fifth year, DigiFest Southwest (formerly
Flicks on 66) was among the first of its kind—effectively condensing
the festival process to a mere seven days from production to
screening. Other events have since taken the concept to shorter
and shorter time limits. Organizers of these sped-up festivals
believe the frantic pace sparks contestants’ inventiveness.

“Moviemakers benefit from this experience because it forces them
to get creative fast,” says Kryshan Randel of the 24-Hour Film
Contest. “They learn how to keep it simple, tell a good story,
work as a team and complete the basic paperwork needed for a short
film.” Looking for ways to gain practice with hands-on learning,
Randel started the Vancouver-based competition while still in film
school. He went public with the event in October, 2001 and has
since watched it become a popular draw for the city’s sizable number
of up-and-coming moviemakers.

The team of the silent film, Maiden Canada,
celebrate their multiple awards (including the Audience Award)
at the 24 Hour Film Contest.

Randel describes a typical applicant as young (20-25) and relatively
new, if not to the film industry in general, at least to the creative
side of it. With that in mind, the deadline is meant to push moviemakers
to imagine something completely impulsive and unpredictable.

“It’s also a great way to find out who’s up to the challenge of
moviemaking,” Randel adds. “They use the information they learn
here before moving onto larger projects.”

That said, it might be easy to picture marathon
festivals primarily as launching pads for beginners looking to
get their feet wet. Not the case, according to John Sylvain,
co-founder of LA’s Instant Films. “Most of our participants work in the entertainment industry,” he
says. “All of our actors are working actors. Many of our writers
work on television shows like Will and Grace, The West
Wing
and Scrubs. Some of our directors have features
under their belts, while others work as camera operators in Hollywood.”

Inspired by comparable events for live theater, Instant Films
is an invitation-only festival where producers handpick applicants
to act, write and direct the projects in a period of 48 hours.
Practically all other aspects of the production, from the movie’s
props to its settings, are selected at random shortly before the
event begins.

(LEFT TO RIGHT) Instant Films’ founding
partners Peter Lebow, John Sylvain and Charles Papert.

Similarly, the New York-based RIP Fest also
has its roots in theater. Artistic director David Rodwin, a composer
by trade, saw starting a film festival as a good way to combine
several different elements of the per­forming arts. “I did collaborative workshops for
musical theater and thought the same process seemed to apply to
film,” he says, remarking how RIP Fest includes many professional
stage performers looking to make the jump to the screen. Again,
those chosen to participate are restricted only by the randomly
selected guidelines.

Marathon Film Festivals

DigiFest
Southwest

Location: Albuquerque, NM

48
Hour Film Project

Locations: Atlanta, GA; Auckland,
New Zealand; Austin, TX; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Cincinnati, OH; London,
England; Los Angeles, CA; Minneapolis, MN; Nashville, TN; New York, NY;
Paris, France; Philadelphia, PA;
San Francisco, CA; Washington, DC

Instant
Films

Location: Los Angeles, CA

National
Film Challenge

Location: Nationwide

New
York City Midnight
Moviemaking Madness

Location: New York, NY

Project
Pioneer 2880

Location: Nationwide

ReelFast
48 Hour Film Fest

Location: Vancouver, BC

RIP
Fest

Location: New York, NY

72
Hour Feature Project

Location: Chicago, IL

24
Hour Film Contest

Location: Vancouver, BC

Film fans line up to check out the latest
offering from DigiFest Southwest (formerly known as Flicks
on 66) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The process of choosing themes and genres at
random is a common thread in the marathon festival circuit. Organizers at
NYC Midnight Movie Making Madness have a similar fondness for the
serendipitous results achieved by chance. Competition director
Charlie Weisman, who co-founded the event in 2002, had made numerous
frustrating attempts to penetrate traditional festivals without
the advantage of stellar attachments or funding. “The realization
was creeping in,” he recalls, “that if you don’t have a decent
budget, no serious festival will take notice—though they will be
more than happy to take your entry fee.”

Though only in its second year, participation in NYC MMMM increased
sevenfold in 2003 to include 279 teams from six countries. First-round
teams have two weeks to complete their movies before competing
for the chance to come to New York for the 24-hour (midnight to
midnight) round. A $1,000 award is given to all finalists to help
defray travel costs. With the strict time limits in place, Weisman
and company hope to level the playing field for all budgets involved.

Composer H. Scott Salinas lends DP Siobhan
Walshbe a hand while director Joel Viertel sets up a shot on
his RIP Fest project, The Anniversary.

“Working together as a team under such difficult constraints will
benefit any moviemaker, beginner or professional,” he explains. “We
just provide a competition where storytelling is rewarded over
a big name in the credits.”

If by now there isn’t already a marathon festival
taking place in your area, there’s a good chance that at least
one may soon be passing through. From its home base in Washington,
D.C., the 48 Hour Film Project is set to venture out on a 12-city
international tour in 2004. As an event going into its fourth
run, it’s one of the more seasoned marathon festivals. “We’ve bumped into a few
that pre-date us, but we definitely feel like one of the granddaddies,” says
creator Mark Ruppert. “And as far as I know, we’re the only one
that travels around like this.”

The sprawling world tour aside, the event has
other unique methods to keep things challenging for entrants—and
interesting for audiences. Their random genre selection includes
some unconventional choices (the superhero genre, for one). Additionally,
teams are given props, characters and specific lines of dialogue,
all of which must appear in each film. From a crowd-pleasing
perspective, this seems to work. According to Ruppert, in every
city so far the films have screened to a standing-room-only audience
of crews, friends and exhausted moviemakers.

Exhausted moviemakers, of course, are to be
expected. Organizers acknowledge that marathon festivals breed
a high-energy, atmosphere, and participants should know that
going in. Independent producer Chris McDaniel, who is currently
entered in his second marathon festival this year, happens to
prefer it that way. “I think a lot
of people thrive on deadlines these days,” McDaniel says. “I’m
one of those people that has so much ambition, but wants some kind
of theme or deadline to motivate me. Plus, I was in need of a project
I could produce while still holding my regular job.”

Producer Elizabeth Spear, whose film won the
2003 grand prize in Chicago’s 72 Hour Feature Project, agrees
with the motivation factor. But she also admits that, while the
experience has definitely made her a stronger moviemaker, this
will probably be her last marathon festival. “I’m still a big believer in the idea that real
and lasting art takes time to culture,” says Spear. “This is a
sort of an anarchist movement in film. Can cinematic genius be
revealed in 24, 48 or even 72 hours? Can these films ever go head-to-head
with major motion pictures, or must they forever compete in their
own weight class?”

One thing everyone agrees on is the role digital
technology plays in making marathon film festivals possible.
All the events mentioned are either exclusively digital or strongly
encourage the use of digital media. Adds Weisman, “People should
learn everything they can about digital. This technology makes
it possible for anyone with a creative mind to make a great movie
in a day.” MM

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