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.

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!

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.

How to Write a Screenplay: DC Shorts Mentors

screenplay photo

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.

Five Days in Calcutta Wins DC Shorts Screenplay Competition

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.

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!