Here’s to Jon Gann

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.

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



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.

Gann gets verklempt

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!

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.

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.

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.

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: Where to Eat, Drink and Chill in the Penn Quarter

DC Shorts starts on Thursday! Now in its tenth year, the DC Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition returns with 153 short films from 23 nations — including the country’s largest collection of short films by emerging Russian filmmakers.

Thousands of cinema aficionados will be on the streets of the Penn Quarter, going between the E Street Cinema and the Navy Memorial, the two main venues for the festival.

I’ve told you how to get the most out of Washington’s best film festival. Now here’s my advice on where to eat, drink and chill in the Penn Quarter. These are my favorites. Plus, what not do while you’re in DC.

chicken curry at Teaism
Chicken curry at Teaism.


  • Teaism. 8th and D St NW. Located next to the Navy Memorial, this is a great place to get Asian-inspired cuisine. While their bento boxes are works of art, I’m a fan of the Thai Chicken Curry – it’s tasty, nourishing and magically restorative.
  • California Tortilla. 728 7th St NW. Our local burrito chain. It’s called “California Tortilla” because “Bethesda Tortilla” didn’t sound right. The food is quick, fast and good, which is all you want out of a burrito joint. I always get the same thing – the Honey Lime Burrito.
  • Taylor Gourmet. 624 E St NW. Another local chain, Taylor features high-brow hoagies made on bread from Philly. You want to get the 9th Street Italian or Lombard Avenue, possibly with a side of Risotto Balls.
Our local brew - DC Brau.
Our local brew – DC Brau.


  • Iron Horse. 507 7th St NW. They have a great selection of beer and happy hour specials even on the weekends. Hang upstairs if you want to people-watch at 7th and E. Go downstairs if you want to play skeeball and high-five frat boys.
  • District Chophouse. 509 7th St NW. Located right next to Iron Horse, the Chophouse is a high-end steak joint. It’s a classy place to drink a Manhattan and listen to Sinatra, no matter your age.
  • The Passenger. 1021 7th St NW. Home to the local hipster set, The Passenger is a true original featuring exotic cocktails and the best bartenders in the city. Go early.
The very mellow courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery.


  • National Portrait Gallery. 8th and F NW. Have time to kill between shows? The Portrait Gallery is open from 11-7 and features interesting photography, modern American art and one of the most beautiful courtyards in DC. Plus, there’s a little cafe with salads and sandwiches.
  • Renaissance Hotel Downtown. 999 9th St. I love a good hotel lobby and the Renaissance Downtown has a great one, featuring comfy couches, a bar, a Starbucks and even a little library to hide out in.
  • Chinatown Coffee Company. 475 H St NW. Regularly voted one of the best coffee places in the city, this indie shop makes great cappuccino. Plus, they serve beer, wine and absinthe!
january biking in DC
Tourists on distinctive red Capital Bikeshare bikes.

Bonus: What to Avoid

  • Harry’s. 11th and E NW. There’s a fine line between a dive and a dump, and this place is way on the wrong side of the line.
  • National Archives. 7th and Pennsylvania Av NW. I wish I could say, “Go see the Constitution!” But to do so means enduring metal detectors, hordes of tourists and certain claustrophobia.
  • DC Taxis. Dirty, unsafe and they don’t take credit cards. Avoid. It’s not a big city so walk, get a bike from Capital Bikeshare  or arrive in style in a private car from Uber.

DC Shorts is more than just a film festival. It’s a chance to explore the city. This weekend, do more than just see films – try some place new.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.