Four Things I Liked, and One I Disliked, About the LA Film Prize

I attended the LA Film Prize a few weekends ago, on October 4-8th, in support of a film I Assistant Directed this past May called Shakespeare on the Range. Before working with Christine Chen, director of Shakespeare, I had never heard of the Film Prize nor why anyone should care about a tiny festival taking place in Shreveport, Louisiana. Yet when I heard about this unique competition, I immediately wondered why this wasn't a topic of conversation on every filmmaker's lips, so I knew I had to attend to find out if the rumors were true. What I discovered was a film festival so innovative it could impact the independent film industry in ways that haven't been done since the invention of the DSLR. Attempted alliteration aside, I understand that's a bold statement, but that's why I returned with a few things I liked (and maybe some things I disliked) about the Film Prize that I'd like to highlight.

The Louisiana Film Prize, or sometimes just Film Prize, or Prize Fest, or whatever iteration one could arrive at by assembling any combination of the three, celebrated its sixth year of existence this October. For those who are uninformed, as I was, here's the basic gist of the competition: 20 Short Films at 5-15min. compete for a grand prize of $50,000 (Cash. USD.) Besides the time limits on the final films, there is only one restriction: production must take place in a clearly defined area of Northwest Louisiana. That's it. No themes. No genres. No writing restrictions. Just film.

So I bet you're probably wondering, either as a filmmaker in general or as someone in ATX who lives a mere 5ish hour drive from said area of Louisiana, "How have I not heard of this before?" Exactly. Perhaps it's bad marketing, or perhaps the filmmakers who do attend selfishly want to keep it to themselves (More on that later.); regardless one can already tell that this competition (Film Festival?) is unlike any other, and after spending two days on the streets of downtown Shreveport I'm ready to sing it's praises. Without further ado, here's what I liked about the LA Film Prize.

FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS.

 Final Toast @ LA Film Prize 2017.

Final Toast @ LA Film Prize 2017.

Obviously.

I'm not exactly sure how such a small film competition has the funds to make this a reality, annually, but I hear it has something to do with Government subsidized grants. I attempted to visit the website in order to confirm exactly where these funds come from, but they have yet to return to a design that wasn't created to exemplify this year's competition. Still - who the F*** cares where it comes from - we just hope, at the end of the day, they make like Jerry and show us the money.

Regardless, it's not just the monetary value of the grand prize that makes this so special, it's what the incentive means for the competition. With so much cash on the line, you'd think that it would bring out the most creative/talented filmmakers from all across the country, and you'd be right. Some of the 20 short films I saw in one weekend have been the best I've seen in my entire life. The last time I felt this passionately about a short film was "Cashback" in 2004 (which went on to become a less positively received feature in 2005. At least the short garnered a lot of attention.), and that was back before you could find a new short of the week on Vimeo or even the plethora of amazing content by creators on Youtube. Basically: short films nowadays are a dime a dozen, but finding a truly great short film is a lot more difficult. Normally you have to attend a prestigious film festival like Sundance, Telluride, or Cannes in order to catch something amazing, but at Film Prize you can see a handful all in one place. 

Not only does it bring out the best, but the Film Prize attempts to give back in more ways than simply a giant faux check. The incentives it doesn't boast about are equally as exciting, such as the "Top 5" films (including the grand prize winner) getting various festival entry fees paid for by the Film Prize as well as distribution in various other slates and programs including some networks on television. There's also the Founder's Grant, this year expanded to seven films from the normal five, which gives filmmakers $3000 to go towards production should they choose to return the following year.

All-in-all, no other competition attempts to give back to the filmmakers in such a huge way. Other film festivals are stuck offering exposure, possible distribution, or simply a laurel (if you're lucky), but each comes with a heavy cost of passes, travel, and the amount of kissing up you have to do at the various parties (if you even get in.); whereas the Film Prize wants you to walk away with something more substantial without all the hoops to jump through. A tangible reward that shows skill. Though the grand prize is offered for a more practical reason, to bring jobs, culture, and more filmmaking back to a state that desperately needs it (sound familiar?), one can't deny that $50,000 is more than enough to get every filmmaker interested and itching to take it home.

COMMUNITY.

 Greg @ LA Film Prize 2017 - Courtesy Lemontiki

Greg @ LA Film Prize 2017 - Courtesy Lemontiki

Gregory Kallenberg, the founder of Film Prize, has gone on record saying he hated attending film festivals, so he decided to create his own.

What's abundantly clear from the moment you find yourself on the corner of Texas St. & Louisiana Ave., with your first Rhino Coffee in hand, is this is a film festival for filmmakers. Everything is centered around one downtown location, including the booths of every Film Prize contender, and out in the open for everyone to see. The red carpet, interview tent, and VIP lounge are all very welcoming, with the latter being closed off to only the correct badge holders. Still - attendees don't feel disconnected from the filmmakers themselves, and running into judges, directors, and even the founder of the Film Prize itself is actually a common occurrence. Because you're able to talk directly with those who worked on the film, one feels that they can actually be a part of the conversation, and possibly gain some insight into just how much work or passion went into the production.

Yet considering it's a competition, it all seems very...friendly.

Filmmakers are not just there to promote their film, they are also eager to support those of their peers, many of which have been part of the competition since the beginning. Past contenders are recognized by name. Many of the films in the top 20 actually came together because of the connections made during previous years. Film Prize, in reality, ends up being more of a giant networking event than a film festival. It's no wonder everyone is congratulating each other on their achievements, giving each other pats on the back, and handing out compliments on what they witnessed on the screen; because Film Prize facilitates that openness by not creating a barrier between those who see the film from those who make it.

This is also made possible by how filmmakers are treated once they are considered finalists. Each film must be seen, IN FULL, in order to cast a vote. Every cast/crew member is invited to the red carpet and will have their photo opportunity with the official photographers. Each director has a chance for a Q&A within the same time frame. No one feels left out, lesser than, or not invited to the party. This isn't about headliners or secret screenings or "this is the party to attend" that other festivals like to revolve around. Film Prize is centered around the filmmakers themselves, and that's a breath of fresh air.

BEST ACTOR/ACTRESS CATEGORIES.

 Me talking about Shakespeare on the Range during LA Film Prize

Me talking about Shakespeare on the Range during LA Film Prize

I'm biased. As an actor myself I'm always appreciative when a film festival or competition chooses to recognize the actors and actresses involved in a project. After all, the actor is normally the face of any production, and films can often live or die based on their performance. Worse still is the fact that good acting can often be diminished by terrible writing, uninspired directing, or lackluster editing - all of which are often out of control of the actors themselves. This is why Film Prize chooses to nominate a single actor or actress for every film in the top 20. Though this manner of nomination is one I both respect and have qualms with, in this case I can understand the reasoning: GOOD acting is also present in BAD films.

Nominations, however, can often be nice sentiments in other film festivals. That's why the LA Film Prize gives the winning actor AND actress $1000. (Finally. A paid project in the independent film market.) 

I'm sure you're wondering: what about the best Director? DP? Editor? Sound Design?

While I don't want to speak on behalf of the Film Prize, I'm sure those things are coming. Considering this is a film festival in it's kindergarten stages, it's not hard to imagine that they are trying to test the waters and find how to make it work first. That's what makes them choosing to recognize actors so applaudable. It's easier for competitions to recognize good directing or cinematography, the former being dependent on getting all cylinders of your machine going, and the latter often getting misconstrued with expensive equipment. Acting is an art often overlooked in the independent film industry, where directors treat us as glorified puppets or writers have less character developments and more character ideas, and when all we want is to be liked, those factors often work against us. So it's nice that the Film Prize chose to start here.

As an actor, it gives me something worth working towards, and I think that's saying something.

JUDGES.

While the Film Prize likes to call itself a film festival at times, it is, first and foremost, a competition. As with any other competition worth enter, it is only worth as much as the judges it invites. That's why I was so impressed with who they actually chose this year.

Amongst the 14 judges were programmers for Tribeca, the Florida Film Festival, Austin Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, Sound Unseen (music festival), and the Cleveland International Film Festival. These were film critics, authors, professors and journalists having been writing about or talking about films for decades. Others were directors, showrunners, and producers with multiple films under their belt. One oversees and offers Oscar qualification for the Academy since 2006. These were seasoned veterans, and people who's opinions matter. Other competitions? You're lucky to have one so called "celebrity" judge. Here there were multiple, and though Film Prize likes to claim these guys with celebrity status, they were far more than just a name to promote, and I was more than excited to hear from them.

That's the kicker: We actually could! Not only were they attending screenings alongside everyone else, walking the same streets as the rest of us, but they were invited to panels about subjects we cared about. These were not voiceless entities, separated from the masses because of their all important status, but film lovers and excited guests just like the rest of us. After all, the films that do well here, and those that make them, are actually worth noticing - and it's great when those who get to notice have the power to do something about it.

The best part? They only account for 50% of the vote.
The other 50% is based on everyone else.
Every badge, pass, and ticket holder in attendance.

That's worth mentioning; because this isn't just some "audience choice" award. This places you with some significant power over that $50,000 grand prize. Luckily it's not ALL the power (then this would be a glorified popularity contest) but having some say in the matter definitely levels the playing field. 

THE THING I DISLIKED.

Lack of competition.
Let me explain.

Though 127 films were submitted to the Film Prize this year, many of the filmmakers who made the top 20 were returning competitors and previous winners. Our own director, Christine, has been to the festival multiple times as a finalist, and she would remark that she knew who her main competition was in the upcoming slate. Though it would stand to reason that previous finalists would continue making outstanding films, the truth was that out of all the films I saw, the best amongst the bunch were indeed from past winners and reoccurring attendees. So that begs the question: Where is the competition?

Don't get me wrong. I love seeing good short films. As mentioned earlier, there were definitely some winners within the top 20 that I became truly ecstatic about, but they definitely weren't ALL winners. I also enjoy the small family this Film Prize has started to build amongst it's returning filmmakers, but if they are the only consistent voices year-after-year, then we're not truly experiencing anything new, are we?

I don't know if it's a lack of marketing or even a lack of word-of-mouth, but the fact that I've only heard of this festival, with it's benefits, this year seems to be quite the oversight. Shouldn't this competition be garnering submissions fromthousands of films instead ofhundreds? Wouldn't it be great to say that all 20 films were fantastic?

The competition this year was good. I had quite a tough time determining which films I wanted to vote for. However, I wish it was a conversation about 10-15 films for me, as opposed to 3-5 that I truly enjoyed and were extremely well done. I'm not even saying the other films were bad. Just that they didn't live up to the quality that one would think a competition this big would draw out. Some were no better than a 48hour short, and while that's not a knock on that competition, one can understand my frustration. If you have practically an entire year to make a short film with almost absolutely no restrictions, then you better take the time to make sure it's good. 

In the future, I want more competition, and I want more people coming out to make this film festival one of the best weekend experiences ever. There's a possibility of blowing away other competitions and film festivals in terms of quality, where seeing a short film here means being on the forefront of the conversation. Who's up-and-coming? What's getting buzz on the festival circuit? Imagine seeing all these films become Oscar Contenders the following year and being able to say you saw it first at Film Prize.

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As you can see, there's a LOT to love about this tiny little film competition happening in Shreveport, LA. Ihope I've represented it well, because my hope is to see many an Austin filmmaker get their films accepted into the competition, and hopefully get their hands on that $50,000 grand prize. My other hope, in the future, is to figure out how to bring these same incentives and competition to a film festival here in Austin. Who knows? Maybe Parts&Labor can have it's own competition.

In any case, the LA Film Prize is representing the power of small film festivals, and doing great things for the filmmakers who attend by giving back to them in HUGE ways. This is more than we can say for the Texas Film Industry at the moment. Even though they are only in their 6th year, there's a lot we can learn from them, and there's only room for them to grow from here.

#VIVALAFILMPRIZE and let's keep telling great stories.