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‘Populist Festival’ Matures

‘Populist Festival’ Matures

Articles - Festival Beat

Manhattan Short Festival

Ever thought you knew more-or had better taste-than a film critic
or festival jury? Well, now’s your chance to prove it! Celebrating
its sixth year, the Manhattan Short Film Festival decided to go
online-and give the first 100,000 visitors to their Website the
chance to “be the judge” of their film festival, broadcast live
from NYC’s Union Square Park on Sunday, September 28th.
But whether you attend the live, free event or log on and watch,
one thing’s for sure: choosing the best of this talented dozen
will be a difficult task.

Festival founder Nicholas Mason recently told us about his completely
unique twist on the film festival structure, what it takes to make
the cut, and what is at stake for the competing moviemakers: the
chance to make a feature!

Jennifer Wood (MM): What you’re doing with the Manhattan
Short Film Festival is unique on a number of counts, but specifically
in the judging process, where film fans are given the opportunity
to let their inner critics out and judge this year’s 12 festival
selections. What inspired this idea?

Nicholas Mason (NM): A short film to
a director-young,
old or whatever-is a calling card to make a feature film. Maybe
there’s one person out of a million who might say ‘Let’s back that
director.’ A film festival’s job is to make sure that as many people
from as wide an audience as possible talk about that director and
that that one in a million person sees the film. That was the draw
to the Internet.

We’re creating a live show and a live festival from New York.
We’re not just streaming the films; you can go to the Website and
actually watch the festival. We have the films showing live in
Union Square Park and live on the Internet simultaneously, which
then goes into a live interview with the director after the film.
In creating that, it is our goal to show a bit of Union Square
Park around the world, while we attempt to turn every director
into a media star in their respective country. I don’t know what
success it’s going to have this year, but it’s certainly going
to be something we’ll continue in future years. It’s good to be
the first to try and create a live TV broadcast from a park in
New York.

MM: If all goes according to how you ideally envisioned
this, how will the process work? How many people will be able
to vote, and how can they get online and do this?

NM: Well, they can reserve a spot now
on the festival’s
Website (www.msfilmfest.com) and we’ll lock in your Internet connection.
You can do that now. But only the first 100,000 will be able to
get on because that’s all we can afford on the server front at
the present time. I would suggest getting on about 6:15 p.m. EST
on Sunday, September 28th, because I can imagine the
heavy influx of traffic coming through.

At the end of the show, a voting sheet will
come up. And that will only come up at the end of the show if
you’ve logged on and
paid-it’s $3.50 to vote.

MM: So then how does the voting work: is it just vote
for your favorite, and write your comments?

NM: There are no comments. It’s pretty much you pick one
film and then press enter. What will happen in the park when you
do press enter: for 60 minutes after the festival-the voting is
only open for 60 minutes-a screen inside Luna Restaurant in Union
Square will be projecting from a Website which will be updating
those votes every minute. So everyone in the Park can watch, have
a drink at Luna and see who’s going to win a feature film!

MM: Yes, from what I know your grand
prize is one of the largest offered to a short moviemaker.
Let’s talk about what
that person will get.

NM: Since the festival’s inception, our idea was to find
the best short filmmaker in the world and take it to the largest
audience in the world and give that filmmaker all the ingredients
to make a feature film. We started this back in 1998; it’s been
through simple trial and many errors that we’ve developed this
package. We had a lot of film to give to the prize-winner in the
past, and a lot of equipment. The one ingredient that was missing
was money. Now the prize is huge: it’s cameras and lenses
and developing and color correction from Technicolor; it’s all
the lighting, grips and generators; it’s a $30,000 sound package;
it’s eight weeks of editing at Goldcrest. It’s really below the
line, it’s a huge prize to give to a filmmaker, but it does not
pay for cast and crew and that is always the downfall of any of
these such prizes.

So the Internet became like pay-per-view in
realizing that a percentage of the money collected will go into
the production of the feature.
But also, the festival will come in as a producer with that money.
So the festival can start becoming self-supportive. It’s a free
event; it’s a free event in the park; it’s a free event in the
city-it’s the worst business model in New York. And so it’s our
model as we grow to find cash and equipment to put back into the
art. And if it should succeed, all parties involved benefit.

MM: There’s obviously a very intense
selection process going on here. How many entries did you receive
this year?

NM: About 555.

MM: And you chose just 12?

NM: Yes.

MM: How do you program the festival? What is the selection
process like?

NM: There’s a group of people who have been involved with
the festival for about four years, so they know the animal. But
we’re inside Union Square Park. There are some films that are very
beautiful, and inside a cinema they would really grab you. But
in this park, with so many people there and so much going on, if
Olivier came down from heaven (or up from hell or wherever he is)
and did Hamlet, after two hours he’d be up on stage spilling
blood, but people would turn away to look at something else.

MM: So what is the ideal fit for
the festival, given the event’s location?

NM: From the first second you’ve got to know why you’re
watching the film-you don’t have five minutes to find out why.
It’s funny, too, because it’s why I love watching Alfred Hitchcock.
In the first three minutes you know why you’re watching his films.
And it’s kind of the same way I think of this festival and the
films we show. You can’t have a film that takes six minutes to
tell why you’re watching it.

MM: In addition to the actual event,
which doesn’t take
place until Sunday, what are some of the other events you plan
for your moviemakers-who are flown in from all over the world?

NM: Well, it’s really planned around them. It’s rather
intimate and then rather big. On Friday, we have a small party-maybe
50 or 60 of us-that is held on the rooftop of a hotel. But it’s
very intimate-it’s not like 300 or 400 people dancing-so you can
talk to anyone.

Then John Henry, who is the director of the
festival, puts the filmmakers on a minibus and gives them “The John Henry Five Borough
Tour.” It’s good because it gives the filmmakers time to gel and
get to know each other and talk and relax. We show them a few Son
of Sam hit spots and take them out to Coney Island. We show them
where scenes from famous films were shot, like The French Connection, and
go out to Brooklyn. That starts at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, and
then we have a fairly small dinner that night. On Sunday morning
they’re on their own, but then it’s into the park to say hello
to a couple of thousand people watching your film.

It’s been quite successful because they get comfort from each
other. And really, by the end of the evening, they don’t care who
wins. When they first walk in, they really hope they win the festival.
At the end, these filmmakers become very close to each other-they
start talking about productions they can do with each other-and
they really don’t care who wins.

MM: Any final words to all the people reading this interview
right now?

NM: Just log on and watch. I hope you
agree with the cause. And just have an opinion, and then simply
let it take you. I hope
you enjoy the show and the filmmakers hope you enjoy the show.
It’s new ground for us, and I hope it’s new ground for you.

For more information on the Manhattan Short Film Festival, visit www.msfilmfest.com.

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