Here’s to Jon Gann

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Jon and me – I’m on the right and a little drunk.

Here’s to Jon Gann, who recently left the DC Shorts Film Festival after thirteen years at its helm. In 2015,  the festival showed 125 films from 26 countries in 17 unique showcases over 11 days to audiences of more than 9,000 people. DC Shorts was ranked as Moviemaker Magazine’s Coolest Short Film Festival for a reason – Jon created a festival that was for filmmakers, putting them at the center of the action.

I’m glad that I got to be a part of this unique event that brought so much joy to audiences and filmmakers. Meeting Jon literally changed my life – he’s one of the “superconnectors” who knows everybody and everything in the city. Need an event space for a 1000 people? Want the gossip on a local councilmember? Where can you find the best bagels in DC? Ask Jon and he’ll know.

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Crowd at DC Shorts Laughs.

I met Jon through a screenwriting group. When DC Shorts created a screenwriting competition, he asked me to help. I’ve done so every year since. The great thing about Jon is once he has confidence in you, he thinks you can do everything. I went from reading screenplays to managing the competition, a responsibility that put me on stage before hundreds of people – something I never imagined myself doing.

I loved being part of DC Shorts. I met actors, filmmakers and other creative types. It was  inspiring to see scripts go from the printed page to life on screen.  While I was never part of theater, putting on the live screenplay readings was like doing a staged play – it’s an exhilarating experience seeing the whole production come off.

Joel David Santner and Jon Gann
Jon awarding a $2000 check to Joel David Santner, winner of the DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition.

Once Jon discovers you are useful, you get lots more to do. I also managed event photography one year, supervising a couple dozen photographers as we covered the festival. An exhausting experience that taught me that I never wanted to be an event photographer! Having your picture snapped at a red-carpet event is glamorous. But for the photog, it means hours on your feet and lots of photos to edit.

Mary Kay Cook, Rocco Cataldo and Kati Mahalic
Sexy event photography

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I’m not going to say that working with Jon was easy – anyone who knows him would know that’s not true.

Every year, I saw him go through a roller coaster of emotions during DC Shorts. On the opening night of the festival, he’d be convinced that everything was going to be failure. Where’s the food? What happened to the volunteers? Will we get press? He’d reach a fever pitch of anxiety (one I steered clear of) on the second night before collapsing into acceptance on the third night. Then he’d disappear and go drink bourbon with Kelley Baker.

Jon Gann and Kelley Baker
Jon and Kelley

Me and Kelley Baker
Me and Kelley

Andrea Ellis and Kelley Baker
Andrea Ellis and Kelley Baker

By the time Sunday rolled around, he’d be content and verklempt, tearing up as he told the story of why he created the festival, before an audience of filmmakers who adored him.

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Gann gets verklempt

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Awards brunch

I’m surprised he lasted thirteen years!

But, after a while, everything has to end. In just a few short years, Jon took DC Shorts from an idea in his head to one of the largest short film festivals on the East Coast. Now he’s on to something new.

I volunteered for DC Shorts year after year because it was about helping filmmakers. Under Jon’s tenure, DC Shorts also had a commitment to quality, from the films selected to the drinks at the party. As a volunteer, you want to feel that your work has meaning – and I did, getting to select scripts and take photos.

I don’t know what’s next for Jon, but I predict it will embody the values of DC Shorts – helping, quality and meaning. Here’s to the next big thing!

Local Film “The Goblin Baby” Screens in Georgetown

So happy for Shoshana Rosenbaum and The Goblin Baby. This was a script I read last year for the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition – it was one of the finalists and had a live reading before an audience at the Atlas Theater.

Inspired by the DC Shorts experience, and with help from Women in Film and Video, Shoshana raised money through Indiegogo and made her movie, filming in the Palisades neighborhood of DC in the middle of our polar vortex winter.

This is what I love about DC Shorts – it nurtures filmmakers in Washington. You don’t need to be in Hollywood to make a film. With a little support, a little money and help from friends, you can make a short. We’re also lucky to have great local talent – several of the actors in The Goblin Baby also appeared in House of Cards.

The Goblin Baby posterA mix of archetypal fears and modern anxiety, The Goblin Baby is like an update of one of those Grimm fairy tales far too terrifying for children anymore. 

Over the years, I’ve read hundreds of scripts for DC Shorts. This is one of the few that stayed lodged in my brain. It’s spooky and works on an unconscious level, triggering age-old fears of darkness and abandonment. And with its smoky palette and things occurring just out of frame, the film captures the elemental dread that I enjoyed in the script.

Shoshana had a screening of her short film before a packed house at Ri Ra in Georgetown last night – they have a meeting room upstairs that was converted into a theater for friends and family. In addition to the baby crying on the screen, there was a baby crying in the back of the theater, which made the experience even spookier.

The Goblin Baby has been submitted to short film fests – good luck Shoshana!

Full House at DC Shorts Screenplay Competition

Full house at DC Shorts Screenplay Competition
Actors read screenplays before a full house at the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition.

It was standing room only for Friday night’s DC Shorts Screenplay Competition! Actors did a table-read of six short screenplays before a packed house at the US Navy Memorial. As a judge for the competition, I helped pick the finalists so I was very familiar with these short screenplays. But seeing and hearing an audience react to them being read – that’s always a surprise. Will people laugh for the joke on page three? Only a live audience can answer that.

After all the scripts had been read aloud, we counted the votes. Everyone had to vote for their two favorites, so that people wouldn’t just vote for their friend’s screenplay.

While we tallied the results, the audience watched The Goblin Baby by local filmmaker Shoshana Rosenbaum. This script was a finalist in last year’s competition; she made it herself, raising money through Indiegogo. Shoshana joins the long tradition of DC Shorts alumni who go on to do interesting things, inspired by the DC Shorts experience.

The audience selected Breaking as the winner. Canadian filmmaker David Feehan received a check for $1000 – he’ll get $1000 more when he turns his script into a film, plus automatic admission to next year’s DC Shorts. I was proud to be part of such a unique event.

I’ve entered countless screenplay contests myself – I even won one. But unless you win, you never hear anything back from them. The DC Shorts Screenplay Competition is different in providing written feedback to all entrants. And by giving the winner automatic entry into next year’s festival, it turns screenwriters into filmmakers. That’s what makes it one of the most unique screenplay competitions in the country. So, write a short script and enter it next year!

Pick the Winner of the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition

Come see the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition tomorrow night at the Navy Memorial. Watch a live reading of short screenplays and you get to decide on the winner. As a judge, I helped pick the finalists. But you get the ultimate choice of who wins $2000.

And while I’m counting the votes, enjoy The Goblin Baby by local filmmaker Shoshana Rosenbaum.

Three great local films at DC Shorts

Retirement, a film by Rob Rafferty.
Retirement, a film by Rob Raffety.

For 11 years, the DC Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition has screened the world’s top short films to audiences throughout the region. This year, the festival will showcase 135 films from 25 countries. It’s a great, local event that brings filmmakers and audiences together in the Penn Quarter in Washington. Not surprisingly, it’s been named the Best Film Festival by the Washington City Paper for three years in a row.

What makes DC Shorts great is that it’s a festival for filmmakers, providing new talent the opportunity to emerge – especially local talent. I’ve been glad to have been a part of DC Shorts as a judge, photo coordinator and other duties.

How do you decide what to see in this cinematic smorgasbord? How about some local films? Here are three that I like – plus a bonus flick!

Heal H Street
The transformation of H Street over the past decade has been astounding. But newcomers to the city may not be aware that H Street was not always yoga studios and taquerias. Documentarian Craig Corl uncovers the story of this neighborhood, from riot to renewal. Focusing on the accounts of the people who’ve lived through it all, he tells the real story of H Street. It’s a must for anyone interested in the urban history of Washington or just curious as to what the city was like in the 80s and 90s.

Voyage of Discovery
Nature has a perfection that art can never approach. Cells and viruses are not only beautiful under a microscope they are ideally suited for their functions. Three local female artists share how they’ve been inspired by the beauty of science. By showing how these women work, and the source of their creativity, this documentary by Carla Schaffer will inspire you to pick up a brush.

Retirement
If you work in downtown DC, you’ve seen Running Backwards Man. He’s the inspiration for this brilliantly edited comedy. Retirement by director Rob Raffety is like Office Space but set in Washington. If you’re stuck in a cubicle, you will relate – maybe a little too much.

Bonus: Come to the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition on Sept 19. Watch a live screenplay reading and select the winner of $2000. While I’m counting the votes, you can watch The Goblin Baby by local filmmaker Shoshana Rosenbaum. Her dark tale of motherhood was a runner up in the 2013 Screenplay Competition.

 

Friday Photo: DC Shorts Edition

In the audience for DC Shorts at the Navy Memorial #dcshorts
Ten years of the DC Shorts Film Festival.

The DC Shorts Film Festival returns in September! This year’s festival is truly SPECTACULAR: 135 films from 25 countries screened in 17 unique 90-minute showcases. Each show screens 7-9 films: comedies, animation, dramas, documentaries — and by filmmakers around the corner to across the globe.

MovieMaker magazine calls DC Shorts one of the coolest film festivals in the world. What makes it special is the opportunity to see a smorgasbord of cinema and meet interesting filmmakers.

It’s one of my favorite events of the year and something I’ve been a part of almost since the beginning. This year, I helped select the finalists for the Screenplay Competition, a live reading in which the audience gets to pick the winner.

You can be there too! The 11th DC Shorts Film Festival is kicking off ticket sales with a special offer: $2 off EVERY screening, party and special event ticket. Use the special code FIRSTLOOK14 — but hurry: this offer expires Saturday at midnight!

Every Communicator Needs a Real Photographer

Leica M9 and prosecco

This recent post by Vocus – Every Communicator Needs a Real Camera – highlights how important photography is for business. We depend on photos for blogs, web sites, brochures, tweets, Facebook posts and other kinds of marketing collateral.

Photos are a kind of shorthand, selling a product more effectively than a hundred lines of copy. They communicate who you are and what your brand stands for. Photos are essential to sharing your message with the world.

Despite this, photography is an unappreciated medium. Because free photos are widely available on sites like Flickr, and because anyone with an iPhone can take a picture, many organizations pay little money or attention to their photo needs. Yet, a compelling business case can be made for paying for photographers and photography.

A couple of examples:

1. At a company I worked for, the CEO received a major award at a trade show. We wanted to run a story on the web site about it. But the only photo we had was a blurry iPhone shot from fifty feet away. Without a good photo, we couldn’t do the story.

2. I was the photo coordinator for the DC Shorts Film Festival, responsible for managing a volunteer army of photogs who captured images of film screenings, crowded parties, red carpet arrivals and VIP events. This is an awesome event that you should attend. But don’t take my word for it – check out the photos and decide for yourself. In addition to helping attract attendees to the festival, these photos demonstrated to sponsors how their products were being enjoyed, were included in the annual report and were widely shared in social media.

The Vocus article states that communicators need a good camera. But a camera is just a tool. You need someone who knows how to use it. That person is a photographer. Look for one in your organization. Don’t make photography “other duties as assigned” but give them the time, money and equipment they need to tell your organization’s story. Invest in photography the same way you invest in web site hosting, email marketing and social media.

And if you don’t have a photographer, hire one through a group like APADC.

In this digital age, digital photographers are essential. Don’t miss the important moments in your company because no one had a decent camera. Hire a photographer to create images that you’ll use for years to come.

Mentoring Screenwriters at DC Shorts Mentors

Actors conduct a live screenplay reading at DC Shorts Mentors.
Actors conduct a live screenplay reading at DC Shorts Mentors.

I had the opportunity to be a part of DC Shorts Mentors, joining Joy Cheriel Brown, Greg Tindale and John Hutson in a panel on screenwriting. DC Shorts Mentors is a four-week long workshop on how to write, edit, produce and market a film.

On the panel, we spoke about our background in screenwriting. I primarily discussed my experience as a judge for the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition, sharing what we looked for in terms of a short script. A good story is the most important requirement, one that starts out with a problem and works its way through it. Using the proper screenplay format is necessary for the simple reason that scripts are really hard to read without it.

We don’t want bad Tarantino. You have a unique story to tell. Write your script, not some imitation of someone else.

For example, Five Days in Calcutta, which won the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition, is an example of a simple premise – two cranky old men bickering – that’s funny, well-executed and unique.

Joy and I also really liked DC Shorts finalist The Goblin Baby, a script that has the quality of a really dark fairy tale, one of those scripts that is very personal but with the universal themes of loss and horror. Writer Shoshana Rosenbaum just wrapped-up filming this short so hopefully we’ll see it at the DC Shorts Film Festival in September.

Next came the questions, which arrived fast and furious from the assembled class at Gibson Guitar Room – they asked about screenplay format, screenplay software (use Final Draft or Celx) story structure, books, classes, screenplay direction and a million other topics.

Next, the writers had to write. We gave them an hour to write a short script, with my fellow mentors there to work one-on-one with writers. That was fascinating. Some people squirreled themselves away and began writing. Others needed some help getting started.

After lunch, Greg led a crew of actors in a live reading of short scripts submitted from the class. Writers had a chance to hear their work read aloud before a live audience, as well as get feedback from their fellow writers and the actors – an invaluable experience. They got to see how actors can shape their words as they applied their craft. A good script must give the actors room to make decisions – not on the words, but in how actors deliver lines, stage direction and so on. Words on a page can sound very different when read aloud before an audience.

Film is an inherently collaborative medium. The word is not sacrosanct. If you’re a screenwriter, your work is likely to be changed by writers, producers, directors, actors, editors, just about everyone. Something to know before you begin.

But to write a screenplay, you have to actually write a screenplay – that was my advice to the aspiring filmmakers at DC Shorts Mentors. You can read books about screenwriting, take classes, hire consultants… but eventually you have to sit down and write. There’s no substitute for that.

You can still get tickets for DC Shorts Mentors, which runs until March 30. And don’t forget to enter the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition. The regular deadline is April 30.

How to Write a Screenplay: DC Shorts Mentors

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I was honored to be a mentor for DC Shorts Mentors, a four-week long workshop on how to write, produce and market films. Each weekend brings a different set of mentors on how to write a script, work with actors, shoot a film and then market it to the world.

I was there for a day to contribute my expertise as a screenwriter. I  won the Film DC Screenwriting Competition for my screenplay Mount Pleasant. For winning the contest, I had a chance to visit the set of The West Wing during its final season. I’ve also taken part in the 48 Hour Film Project, interviewed filmmakers for On Tap and generally been a part of the local filmmaking scene – including being a judge for DC Shorts and other screenplay contests.

The screenwriting advice I shared at DC Shorts Mentors is simple:

1. Read books about screenwriting – but not too many

You can spend your entire life reading books about screenplays. From saving the cat to getting past the reader, a whole industry exists to instruct aspiring screenwriters (and take their money). I read a bunch of them and they created a cacophonous racket in my head. There’s so much advice, it’s overwhelming.

Stick to the basics. Stick with Syd Field and Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Field is the master; everyone else is a lesser copy.

And if you have formatting questions, Elements of Screenwriting Style is indispensable. It’s like Strunk and White for screenplays.

2. Read screenplays

My screenwriting journey began when I friend of mine gave me a couple of scripts to read. We had been in a writers’ workshop together, discussing short stories in a basement conference room. She shared with me the classic of the genre which, believe it or not, is the script for Rocky. Yo! It is the archetypal hero’s journey.

Luckily these days, plenty of scripts are online at sites such as Simply Scripts. Find the scripts from your favorite films and read them. I read a bunch of them – On the Waterfront, Taxi Driver, Swingers, Raising Arizona, Fisher King. Read them closely, study how they begin, how suspense is maintained and how they conclude.

2. Write

Find the writing habit that works best for you. I like writing in coffee shops – something about watching other people work makes me feel like I better work as well. And I love coffee. Turn off social media and tell yourself that you’re going to write for the next couple hours, even if it’s just a single word.

Beginning writers get hung up on screenplay format. It is tricky and different from what you’re used to seeing. You’re going to need software to turn your story into a correctly-formatted screenplay. Fortunately, there are numerous options in screenwriting software, from the free Celtx to the industry-standard Final Draft. I also like Montage, which is for Macs.

Remember, buying expensive software doesn’t make you a screenwriter; completing a screenplay does.

3. Edit

You will not catch your own typos or idiosyncratic turns of phrase. You need an editor. Find a friend, loved one or a disinterested party to read your finished script. Does it make sense? Do they understand it? Is everything spelled correctly?

The simple step of reviewing your work is something that most people don’t do – and will be appreciated by screenplay contest judges.

4. Find a community

Writing is a solitary art; filmmaking is not. Find a community of writers and filmmakers to join. This can be an online community, like Done DealZoetrope or Amazon Studios.

Or connect with people IRL. Volunteer with DC Shorts to meet fellow film fans and help select movies for the festival. Join Women in Film and Video. Take classes at Arlington Independent Media or the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. In the DC area, the opportunities are endless.

5. Enter a screenplay contest

The dream of every screenwriter is to see their work on the big screen. And there are an endless number of screenwriting contests promising a chance at that dream. A lot of them are… questionable.  What screenplay contests will make a difference in your life?

Austin Film Festival and Conference – It’s a great festival and a great conference that attracts major Hollywood players. Winners go on to have careers in the industry.

Nicholl Fellowships – Sponsored by the Academy Awards. All you need to know.

Sundance Screenwriters Lab – If you have an indie mind-set, this is the contest for you.

DC Shorts – Yes, as a judge for this competition, I am hopelessly biased. But the finalists get a live reading before an audience and the winner gets $2000 to turn their short script into a film. That’s a great deal.

6. Make it yourself

Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to make a movie. These days, anyone with a DSLR or an iPhone can be a filmmaker.

Think you need a lot of money to make a film? The delightfully creepy Man in 813 won Outstanding Local Film at DC Shorts and cost $100 to make. It was shot on a Canon Rebel T2i, a digital camera you can get at Costco.

Think you need a lot of time to make a movie? Join a filmmaking team and make a movie over a weekend for the 48 Hour Film Project.

Think your no-budget film will look like crap? Read The Angry Filmmaker to get tricks of the trade.

In summary, the screenwriter’s journey is a difficult one. You are conjuring something from nothing. But movies depend on it for they begin with the written word. By studying your craft, taking it seriously and doing things yourself, you can bring your vision to the screen.

Mentoring at DC Shorts

writers at DC Shorts Mentors

For the second year, I’m going to be a screenwriting mentor at DC Shorts Mentors. I’ve been a judge for the DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition, won the Film DC screenplay competition and interviewed filmmakers for On Tap, so I’m glad to share my knowledge with budding screenwriters. I’ll be speaking on a panel on March 8 with other writers.

What I like about DC Shorts Mentors is that it’s 100% focused on the practical elements of filmmaking. This is not a class on theory. These weekend sessions are led by people who have made award-winning films. If you want to learn how to write a script, work with actors, light and shoot a film and then market it to film festivals, then DC Shorts Mentors is for you. These are workshops – not just a sit back and listen experience – where you will be expected to write, work with perfomers and share your ideas.

The objective of DC Shorts Mentors is to develop the skills necessary to create outstanding short films that can be accepted into film festivals. Workshops are designed for filmmakers of all levels and take place over four weekends in March. All for just $200.

Classes are small and take place at the super-hip Gibson Guitar Room. Last year, there were people of all ages and experience levels – everyone from retirees making documentaries to webisode-crafting millennials. If you’re interested in joining DC’s indie filmmaking scene, DC Shorts Mentors would be a good place to start.