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!

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!

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!

Bureaucracy Kills Filmmaking in DC

U.S. Capitol at dawn
You can’t film here.

“As a result of this new policy, film and television producers will think twice before deciding to film in the District,” Palmer wrote. “Why? In a word, ‘Bureaucracy.’”

That was Crystal Palmer, head of the DC Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, on the failed effort to get House of Cards, a DC-based series, to actually film in DC.

I don’t blame Palmer. As the article indicates, filming in DC isn’t the one-stop shop it is in other states and cities. Producers have to deal with countless government agencies (state and federal), various police forces (state and federal), DC councilmembers looking for payoffs, organized interest groups and the NIMBYest of neighborhood organizations in the nation. And they have to navigate these competing bureaucratic interests on their own.

Instead, producers come to DC, shoot a couple of exteriors and establishing shots (like the great opening credit sequence in House of Cards) and then decamp to Baltimore or a California for the rest.

As a Washingtonian, this bothers me. House of Cards does not look like DC to people who live here. The city in the Netflix series looks too gritty and worn – like Baltimore. And we don’t have a Cathedral Heights Metro stop. I stopped watching 24 the season it was set in DC because it was obviously, ridiculously LA – the buildings were too tall and DC does not have a sprawling waterfront district that looks like Long Beach.

TV viewers may be surprised to learn that Washington does not have the sandy hues of a Burbank back lot. It’s greener. There’s more marble. It rains.

We’re no longer able to depict this nation’s capital on film due to the leviathan security state that has grown up over the past decade. The U.S. Park Police, Secret Service, Capitol Police and other agencies have blocked off vast swaths of the city that used to be open to the public and to filmmakers. They’d prefer a capital without people. The loss is not just to directors and producers – it’s to all of us who deserve to see Washington on film.

Middle Men: Stories of Purgatory in LA

“I look at you and I think: middle management.”

That was that was the insult a friend of mine received. It was perfect. After all, no one in America aspires to be a middle manager. Why would you? Middle man – the title alone speaks of failure. You couldn’t make it to the top so now you manage the work of other people. You spend eight hours in a cubicle and write TPS reports.

Middle men are also replaceable, the type of jobs that get supplanted by technology. Instead of going to Sears and talking to a middle man, you just order what you want from Amazon.

middle menIn his short story collection, Middle Men, Jim Gavin explores the world of men stuck somewhere between their dreams and reality. Appropriate for a book on purgatory, these stories are primarily set in Los Angeles. The sun-blasted landscape of the city looms large in Middle Men. Characters escape to the freeway or Del Taco to ease their troubles.

In an interview at the end of the book, Gavin explains that Middle Men is about mastery. It’s about growing up, learning a trade and accepting your fate in a very uncertain economy. The men in the book start out young dreamers – they’re slackers and standup comics and aspiring screenwriters – and end up grizzled vets grimly hanging on to their piece of the American dream.

There are a couple of great short stories in the book – Illuminati and Elephant Doors – that perfectly describe the entertainment business in Hollywood, stripping away the glamor and revealing an industry in which very few find success. As a failed screenwriter in the book says, “Nothing always happens. The literature of Hollywood is depressingly consistent on this point.” Middle Men should be required reading for anyone seeking fame in LA.

You root for the men in Middle Men, trying to make it in a strangled economy with few opportunities. You believe in them. They’re trying. They haven’t given up the idea that they can be better. And that America can too.

 

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.

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.

Ten Films from Ten Years of DC Shorts

In the audience for DC Shorts at the Navy Memorial #dcshorts

The DC Shorts Film Festival has a special holiday gift for cinephiles everywhere – ten years worth of short films from the festival are now online and free to view. Watch more than 330 films from the comfort of your laptop. It’s an incredibly diverse range of short films, from every genre, and from all over the world, with one thing in common: they’re all just a few minutes long.

I’ve seen a lot of them. Here are my favs:

  1. The Bullfighter and the Bull – Just four minutes long, this Spanish comedy is a great introduction to DC Shorts.
  2. Everything is Incredible – One of the best short documentaries I’ve ever seen, it’s like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel come to life.
  3. First Date – Not for the squeamish, this story of romance and gastric distress won the festival’s First-Time Director Award.
  4. Friend Request Pending – Judi Dench demonstrates that you’re never too old to get anxious about Facebook.
  5. Harry Grows Up – Imagine a Woody Allen film, but with toddlers.
  6. Man with a Bolex Movie Camera – I’m biased, because this is done by AU grads, but it’s a funny and sexy short.
  7. Mile High Pie – This food doc is a country-fried slice of charm.
  8. Schrodinger’s Box – No cats were harmed in making this sci-fi short. I think.
  9. The Leeward Tide – This is just a gorgeous film. After watching this at E Street during the festival, I had a chance to talk to filmmakers Brett Eichenberger andJill Remensnyder in front of the theater. It was one of those moments that can only occur at a film festival. This Portland couple went on to make the feature Light of Mine, another dreamily beautiful film.
  10. The Man in 813 – Think you need a big crew and expensive gear to make a movie? This creepy short was made over a weekend on a DSLR.

These are just a sample of the delights waiting for you in the DC Shorts film archive. Comedy, drama, documentary, experimental, thriller, animation – you’ll find them all online and for free. They’re short slices of some of the best cinema from around the world.

Coffeeneuring #5: Peregrine and the Perils of Grad School

Cappuccino at Peregrine on Capitol Hill
Cappuccino at Peregrine on Capitol Hill #perfection

After last week’s episode of bad coffee in Bethesda, for this week’s coffeeneuring adventure, I was determined to get a good cappuccino.

I knew exactly where to bike to: Peregrine Espresso on Capitol Hill.

And not only was it delicious, it was artistically perfect, as you can see from the photo above. The work of a good barista is indistinguishable from magic.

Peregrine gets a bad rap for being a hipster haven, of being home to skinny jeans, ironic facial hair and hipper-than-thou attitudes. But it’s not the staff that’s the problem, I realized as I looked for a place to sit. It’s the patrons.

I had to perch on a stool in a corner because the tables were occupied by grad students with laptops. While I’ve  done my share of work in coffee shops, I would never choose a busy store like Peregrine. And I certainly wouldn’t occupy multiple chairs with my textbooks, knitware and electronic devices.

Nobody cares about your grad school dissertation – that is what I felt like shouting. Ten years from now, you will not even remember what that paper was about. And your thesis advisor, the only other person to have ever read it, won’t remember either.

Grad school won’t get you a better job. I’d be more impressed by someone who managed a Wendy’s than someone with an MA. The Wendy’s manager had to get people to show up and work every single day – that’s really hard, and much more impressive accomplishment than going to classes.

Besides, all those old rules and gatekeepers are coming down. Our most successful companies, like Facebook and Apple, were founded by college dropouts. There is no reason to genuflect before some academy before you can do what you want. You can do so now.

Avoid the trap of grad school. Instead, take advantage of the opportunities that cheap tech and the internet have brought us. Want to be a director? Go shoot a movie with your iPhone. Aspire to run a company? Use Kickstarter to raise the money. Want to change the world? Use Meetup to start organizing people.

If for no other reason, avoid grad school so you can enjoy Sunday afternoons outside. Ten years from now, you’ll remember sunny fall days like today – not the time you wasted hunched in front of a computer.