Marathon Moviemaking

“Marathon” fests, Digital Technology, and the Obsession with Speed

IN THE AGE OF HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTERS, where a single big-budget item can spend years in the making, it might be refreshing to know there is a new trend providing some degree of balance. Timed film competitions, or “marathon festivals,” are a growing breed in independent film circles, one that brazenly challenges participants by asking the question: Can you write, direct, and edit a movie in 72 hours? How about 48? Or even 24? We dare you.

Challenging, yes. But is this a natural progression of the film festival blueprint that has stood the test of time for so long? Grubb Graebner, creator of Digifest Southwest, thinks it is. “It was time to do something different,” Graebner recalls from his office in Albuquerque, NM. “I was a screenwriter here, and I teamed up with my partner who used to put on trade shows. Our first year, we produced ten movies in one week, which really was just crazy.”

Now in its fifth year, Digifest (formerly Flicks on 66) was among the first of its kind—effectively condensing the festival process down to a mere seven days from production to screening. Other events have since taken the concept to shorter and shorter time limits. Organizers of these sped-up festivals believe the frantic pace sparks contestants’ inventiveness.

“Filmmakers benefit from this experience, because it forces them to get creative fast,” says Kryshan Randel of The 24 Hour Film Contest. “They learn how to keep it simple, tell a good story, work as a team, and complete the basic paperwork needed for a short film.” Looking for ways to gain practice with hands-on learning, Randel started the Vancouver-based competition while still in film school. He went public with the event in October 2001, and has since watched it become a popular draw for the city’s sizable number of up-and-coming filmmakers.

Randel describes a typical 24-HFC applicant as young (20-25) and relatively new, if not to the film industry in general, at least to the creative side of it. With that in mind, the deadline is meant to push filmmakers to imagine something completely impulsive and unpredictable. “It’s also a great way to find out who’s up to the challenge of filmmaking,” Randel adds. “Use the information you learn here before moving on to larger projects.”

That said, it might be easy picture marathon festivals primarily as a launching pad for beginners looking to get their feet wet. Not the case, according to John Sylvain, co-founder of LA’s Instant Films. “Most of our participants work in the entertainment industry,” he says. “All of our actors are working actors. Many of our writers work on television shows like Will and Grace, The West Wing, and Scrubs. Some of our directors have features under their belts, while others work as camera operators in Hollywood.”

Inspired by comparable events for live theater, Instant Films is an invitation-only festival where producers handpick applicants to act, write, and direct the projects in a period of 48 hours. Practically all other aspects of the production, from the movie’s props to its settings, are selected at random shortly before the event begins.

Similarly, the New York-based Rip Fest also has its roots in theater. Artistic Director David Rodwin, a composer by trade, saw starting a film festival as a good way to combine several different elements of the performing arts. “I did collaborative workshops for musical theater and thought the same process seemed to apply to film,” he says, remarking how Rip Fest includes many professional stage performers looking to make the jump to the screen. Again, those chosen to participate are restricted only by the randomly selected guidelines.

The process of choosing themes and genres at random is a common thread in the marathon festival circuit. Organizers at NYC Midnight Movie Making Madness have a similar fondness for the serendipitous results achieved by chance. Competition Director Charlie Weisman, who co-founded the event in 2002, had made numerous frustrating attempts to penetrate traditional festivals without the advantage of stellar attachments or funding. “The realization was creeping in,” he recalls. “If you don’t have a decent budget, no serious festival will take notice—though they will be more than happy to take your entry fee.”

Though only its second year, participation in NYC MMMM increased sevenfold in 2003, to include 279 teams from 6 countries around the world. First-round teams have two weeks to complete their movies before competing for the chance to come to New York for the 24-hour (midnight to midnight) round. A $1000.00 award is given to all finalists to help defray travel costs. With the strict time limits in place, Weisman and company hope to level the playing field for all budgets involved. “Working together as a team under such difficult constraints will benefit any moviemaker, beginner or professional,” he explains. “We just provide a competition where storytelling is rewarded over a big name in the credits.”

If by now there isn’t already a marathon festival taking place in your area, there is at least one that may be passing through. From its home base in Washington, DC, The 48 Hour Film Project is set to venture out on a 12 city international tour this coming year. As an event going into its fourth run, it’s one of the more seasoned marathon festivals out there. “We’ve bumped into a few that predate us, but we definitely feel like one of the granddaddies,” says creator Mark Ruppert. “And as far as I know we’re the only one that travels around like this.”

The sprawling world tour aside, 48-HFP has other unique methods to keep things challenging for entrants and interesting for audiences. Their random genre selection includes some unconventional choices (the superhero genre for one). Additionally, teams are given props, characters, and specific lines of dialogue, all of which must appear in each film. From a crowd-pleasing perspective this seems to work. According to Ruppert, in every city so far the films have screened to a standing-room-only audience of crews, friends, and exhausted filmmakers.

Exhausted filmmakers, of course, are to be expected. Organizers acknowledge that marathon festivals breed a high-energy, high-intensity atmosphere, and participants should know that going in. Independent producer Chris McDaniel, who is currently entered in his second marathon festival this year, happens to prefer it that way. “I think a lot of people thrive on deadlines these days,” McDaniel says. “I’m one of those people that has so much ambition but wants some kind of theme or deadline to motivate me. Plus, I was in need of a project I could produce while still holding my regular job.”

Producer Elizabeth Spear, whose film won the 2003 grand prize in Chicago’s 72 Hour Feature Project, agrees with the motivation factor. But she also admits that, while the experience has definitely made her a stronger filmmaker, this will probably be her last marathon festival. “I’m still a big believer that things that are real and lasting take time to culture,” Spear adds. “This is a sort of anarchist movement in film. Can cinematic genius be made in 24, 48, or even 72 hours? Do these films go head to head with major motion pictures, or must they compete in their own weight class?”

One thing everyone seems to agree on is the role digital technology plays in making marathon film festivals possible. All the events mentioned are either exclusively digital festivals or strongly encourage the use of digital media. Adds Weisman, “People should learn everything they can about digital. This technology makes it possible for anyone with a creative mind to make a great movie in a day.”

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Originally published in MovieMaker magazine, January 2004

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