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.

Five Days in Calcutta Wins DC Shorts Screenplay Competition

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Jon Gann (left), director of the DC Shorts Film Festival, congratulates Fred Perry (right) on winning the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition. Photo courtesy of DC Shorts.

Think screenwriting is a young person’s game? Fred Perry proved otherwise as he won the 2013 DC Shorts Screenplay Competition.

The DC Shorts Screenplay Competition is a very different kind of screenwriting competition. A panel of local judges (including me) reviewed 145 screenplays and selected six finalists. These finalists then received a table read by local actors before an audience of more than 150 people at the Atlas Theater.

The audience then voted on the winner. They selected Five Days in Calcutta by Fred Perry of Los Osos, California. For winning DC Shorts, Perry receives $2000 to turn his script into a short film plus automatic entry into the festival next year.

Five Days in Calcutta is a wry and funny comedy about a failed artist, a suicide attempt and a dog that may or may not be dead. One scene, two actors, one location – about as simple as you can get. But what really shined in the production was the dialogue. Before he took up writing, Perry was an actor. His lines have a naturalistic quality that are a delight to hear read aloud. The script is filled with crackling exchanges between a pair of grumpy old men that left the audience laughing.

(The title comes from a joke about the artist only having one gallery show that played for five days in Calcutta.)

At the end of the reading, Shenanigans, the winner of last year’s screenplay competition, was played for the audience. I read this script, watched it being performed, and now it’s a hilarious short film – can’t get more inspiring than that. This process of making dreams reality is what I love about DC Shorts.

Look for Five Days in Calcutta on the big screen at DC Shorts 2014! And if you’re a writer, stay in touch with DC Shorts and see your short script turned into a movie.

Bonus: see photos from DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition.

Can You Find Success as a Filmmaker Outside LA?

In the audience for DC Shorts at the Navy Memorial #dcshortsCan you find success as a filmmaker outside of LA? That was the theme of the DC Shorts Film Festival,  based upon conversations I had with directors attending the festival.

Now in its tenth year, DC Shorts featured 153 films from 23 nations. The festival is known as a “filmmakers festival,” where directors are given VIP treatment. Get your film into the festival and housing, food and parties are provided. This is in contrast to other festivals, where directors sometimes have to buy tickets to watch their own film being screened.

I talked to filmmakers from DC, New York, Ireland, Russia and elsewhere. Again and again, the same question came up – can you make it as a filmmaker outside LA?

For example, Shenanigans screened in the festival. This won the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition (full disclosure: I was one of the judges). It was written and produced by a bunch of young AU grads – who now live in New York. They had experience looking for actors in DC and NYC and said that in DC, they might get one good actor for each part while in New York, they found four. That’s the advantage of working in the theater capital of the world. If you are a serious young actor, you’re going to LA or NYC. The same holds true if you’re looking for a producer, editor or screenwriter – LA has thousands of people available in every category of moviemaking

But does that mean that aspiring directors, writers or actors should move there? Not necessarily.

A brilliant little film in the festival was Uisce Beatha (Whiskey/Water of Life). It’s a bit of an Irish joke, moving and funny all at once. Beautifully shot, it was made for just a few hundred dollars over three days. Uisce Beatha won the Filmmaker’s Choice Award at DC Shorts and is certain to play in festivals around the world. It’s a simple little film that works perfectly.

Another example is Pishto Goes Away, a Russian film that was voted one of the best of DC Shorts. The director spent three years working on the animation. Funny and fatalistic, it defines the Russian soul.

A way outside of LA effort was Mile High Pie, a sweetly moving documentary about towering meringue pies. Winner of the best food film at DC Shorts, it’s the kind of heartland story that you’re not going to see on the Kardashian Channel.

So, can you find success as a filmmaker outside of LA? With award-winning films from around the world, DC Shorts answers positively, “YES!” If you want to make movies, then make movies, no matter where you are.

DC Shorts isn’t over yet. You still have time to see a Best of DC Shorts screening this week plus come out to the Screenplay Competition on September 27.

DC Shorts Survival Guide: How to Get the Most Out of Washington’s Best Film Festival

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Angelika Theater – photo by Sami S

For ten years, the DC Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition has screened the world’s top short films to audiences throughout the region. From September 19-29, the festival will screen 153 films from 23 nations in venues from the E Street Cinema downtown to the Angelika in Falls Church.

What makes this event special is that it is locally-produced by film-lovers like you. The films have been carefully selected by volunteer judges. It’s a place where you can see Oscar-nominated shorts and the debuts of first-time directors. Filmmakers value the festival to such an extent that 120 of them are showing up for it.

I’ve been a part of DC Shorts for years. I’ve judged films, managed the screenplay competition, been a “master blogger” and photographed parties for the festival. I’ve been behind the scenes at VIP parties and rowdy midnight screenings. And I’m going to tell you how to get the most out of the largest short film event on the East Coast.

Find the Right Films
Use the film sorter to find comedies, dramas, documentaries or anything else you’re interested in. Some listings even include video previews.  Also check out the blog for interviews with filmmakers and other information to help you make up your mind.

Get the All-Access Pass
Want it all? Then get the All-Access Pass. At $100, it’s a bargain. You get entry to all the screenings and parties you want plus a swag bag full of goodies. The All-Access Pass also allows you the opportunity to schmooze with filmmakers at a VIP party.

line for VIPs and filmmakers
Line for VIPs and filmmakers

Go (Early) to the Parties
DC Shorts throws two great parties. The CityView Party takes place on September 20, 9-11 PM, and features an open bar of Stella Artois and gorgeous rooftop views of the city. The Grand Bash on September 21 is at the Navy Memorial and offers a chance to drink more Stella and enjoy a spread from Whole Foods.  These aren’t parties to show up fashionably late. Go early and enjoy yourself.

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CityView Party

Find a Photographer
At these parties, look for event photographers. It’s a chance to get a professional photo of you and your friends in front of the DC Shorts backdrop to remember the occasion. All photos are posted to the DC Shorts Flickr page.

Talk to a Filmmaker
Look for people with badges around their necks – they’re either a VIP or filmmaker. Ask them about their film. They’d be glad to talk about it and you’ll learn something about the creative process.

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Filmmakers (note the blue VIP badge) at the Grand Bash.

Learn Filmmaking at a Free Seminar
How do you make a film, anyway? How do you get into a festival like DC Shorts? Indulge your cinematic dreams with a free seminar.  Make a film and you could be at DC Shorts next year.

Pick the Winning Screenplay
DC Shorts also has a screenplay contest. Attend the reading of the finalists and decide who gets $2000.

Peter Kimball (center) and the cast of Shenanigans
Peter Kimball (center), winner of the 2012 DC Shorts Screenplay Competition, and the cast of Shenanigans

Watch DC Shorts Online from Anywhere
Not in DC? No problem. Attend the festival virtually with the DC Shorts Online Film Festival.

Stay in Touch with DC Shorts
Learn about free film screenings, drive-in movies and other fun events by staying in touch with DC Shorts year-round. Get connected through their Twitter and Facebook accounts.

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Volunteers at DC Shorts. Photo by Sami S.

DC Shorts is a great opportunity to see unique films, meet creative people and party in downtown DC. Don’t miss it.

And if you have questions, let me know! I’d be glad to answer them. Look for me at DC Shorts!

Volunteer with DC Shorts!

Volunteers hard at work.
Volunteers hard at work.

Great events like the DC Shorts Film Festival require great volunteers. Photographers, ushers, party crew, ticket-sellers and guerrilla marketers are all needed for the East Coast’s largest short film festival, now in its tenth year.

I’ve volunteered with DC Shorts for years, in a variety of roles. Last year, I was the photography coordinator and had the opportunity to work with some amazingly talented photogs.

Trust me, the volunteers have fun (see above). Volunteers receive one film ticket per shift worked, and a volunteers-only thank you party.

Volunteer today!

Judging the AU Visions Festival

Each year, The American University School of Communications’ Visions Festival celebrates outstanding student work in the categories of film, photography, broadcast and new media.

I was a judge for the short screenplay category. My fellow judges and I selected Pinheads (PDF) as the winner. Congrats to Jacob Motz and everyone who participated!

And check out the rest of the winners from my alma mater – I particularly liked America’s Wilderness, a gorgeous short film from Rocky Mountain National Park.

Free Workshop for Libertarian Filmmakers in LA

taliesenContemporary movies have a depressing sameness about them, a core set of assumptions that are never challenged:

  • Making money is evil
  • Lawyers are the most important of professions
  • Criminals are always unjustly accused

This homogeneity is boring. Being an artist is about questioning age-old assumptions and coming up with something new. Rather than “speaking truth to power,” Hollywood films reflect the narrow mindset of the Malibu class.

With cheap cameras, the Internet and social media, we have a chance to change all that, and bring true diversity – diversity of thought – to a staid industry.

The Filmmakers Workshop is a free, three-day workshop in August for young filmmakers interested in freedom. Through a sequence of panels, work sessions, and discussion groups, faculty will share their accumulated experience and industry know-how with students. Sessions feature such topics as How to Pitch Your Idea, How to Land a Job on a TV Writing Staff, and How to Fund an Independent Film.

I attended an earlier version of this workshop several years ago. The program is not political but focused on the standard stuff of film/TV workshops – writing a script, pitching to producers, working in television. The attendees were primarily libertarians – people who felt that government had come to dominate too much of American life. A lot of them came from Washington and some of them even worked in government. They (like me) were familiar with the maddening waste and inefficiency of the federal bureaucracy.

The Filmmakers Workshop is a great opportunity for someone who has made a short film or written a script to get an introduction to filmmaking in LA. And unlike other workshops, it’s free. Apply by June 14.

Let's Make a Movie: DC Shorts Mentors

screenwriters at DC Shorts MentorsDC Shorts Mentors is a great new opportunity for aspiring filmmakers to learn how to make movies. Over four weekends in March and April, you learn how to write, cast, shoot and market your cinematic vision.

I had the chance to speak at the March 3rd session, which covered screenwriting. Joined by some great panelists, including Hollywood vet Monica Lee Bellais and local screenwriter Khris Baxter, we shared tips and techniques on how to translate a story into a fully-realized screenplay.

It was very informal. After brief introductions, we took questions from a class of around 4o people in the super-hip Gibson Guitar Room. We covered topics such as screenplay formatting, breaking into Hollywood, pitching to producers, television writing, treatments, agents versus managers, local resources (such as WIFV) and working on documentaries.

Monica had a wealth of information on getting your script read by producers. To get past jaded Hollywood gatekeepers, your script must be more than a just great story – it has to be in the right format and pitched to the right people. Khris stressed that you can be a screenwriter outside of LA, and offered the example of Sunshine Cleaning writer Megan Holley, who lives in Richmond.

I’ve written six screenplays and won the Film DC Screenwriting Competition. The experience of going to LA taught me that it’s better to do it yourself than wait to be discovered. I suggested writing a short script and entering it into DC Shorts. Or getting a team together and making a film for the 48 Hour Film Project. You can make a film with an iPhone these days – why not do it?

After the panel, things got interesting. The writers had an hour to write a short scene which would then be read aloud by local actors. It was really fascinating to watch the reading – the actors were pros, who did a great job with material they had just been handed. The writers learned a lot too. It can feel embarrassing the first time to hear your words read aloud. But it’s an inevitable part of the process. If you’re a screenwriter, your work will (hopefully) make it to the big screen where people will see it.

I’ve been part of DC Shorts for years as a judge, photographer, volunteer wrangler, etc… I’ve stayed with it because Jon Gann does things in a professional yet casual way – it’s all about the artist. But what I really liked about DC Shorts Mentors was the focus on the practical. This wasn’t some screenwriting seminar selling an impossible dream for an outrageous price. This wasn’t theory. Instead, these inexpensive seminars offered hands-on instruction from people with real experience.

Bonus: see photos from the March 3rd class.

Learn How to Make and Market a Film with DC Shorts

The DC Shorts Film Festival has a great new tagline:

DC Shorts champions short filmmaking.

Marketing taglines are a lot of times so much fluff, filled with words like “leveraging” and “cross-platform” and other tired buzzwords.

But “DC Shorts champions short filmmaking” really communicates what the festival is all about – it’s a celebration of short film and filmmakers.

And now the festival is trying something new: DC Mentors. Taught by film professionals and peers, these interactive sessions are designed to build upon one another, creating skills needed to better compete in the festival circuit. Over four weekends in DC you can learn how to write a script, find actors, shoot your film and then market it to film festivals – you can sign up for the whole program or just take individual classes. And at $160 for seven classes, it’s literally .01% the cost of film school.

And I’ll be one of the writer-mentors for the March 3 class on storytelling. I’m a writer who won the Film DC Screenplay Competition and has been a judge for DC Shorts and other local festivals. I like helping writers. There’s so much “fear to start” among new writers that can be overcome with a little bit of encouragement and practical advice. I can provide that.

Sign-up for DC Mentors and learn filmmaking over four weekends in spring.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Nominated for Best Picture Oscar!

beasts of the southern wildBeasts of the Southern Wild has been nominated for Best Picture! I had a chance to interview director Benh Zeitlin over the summer and write about the film for On Tap.

Beasts was a labor of love for Zeitlin – he spent two years editing it – and the film features non-actors in lead roles, like Quvenzhané Wallis, who was nominated for an Oscar for an Actress in a Leading Role. This brave little kid is the heart and soul of the movie, the eyes through which we experience the story.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a crazy film and unlike anything else you’ll see all year.