As I continue to play an endless game of “catch-up,” I am finally getting this report on the Memphis Film Prize (August 4-6) done and out there. And I feel it is important to give the fest/contest/experience a proper shout out, because (along with the Louisiana Film Prize down in Shreveport) it is a rarity.
Last year I was asked/recruited by Film Prize founder Gregory Kallenberg to be on the jury for the Louisiana Film Prize and help decide which “lucky” filmmaker was going to take home a whopping $50,000. That amount of money was exactly half of the shooting budget for my film, THE LADIES OF THE HOUSE. $50,000!!! So, I was thrilled to do it and see what this film festival/contest/ experiment was like. Let’s face it, I have been working with film festivals in one capacity of another for more than a decade. Every size, length, genre, style, culture, ethnicity, etc., etc., etc. Not a single thing new under the sun as far as film festivals were or are concerned as far as what I had seen and/or experienced.
Except there was. This was different in some very key ways. And exhilarating as well. So much so, that when Gregory came back to me and asked me to come on board as the Film Prize publicist and consultant and do the things that I do to help spread the word and do what I could to let everyone in on the coolness of the “experiment”, which I now knew was an “experience,” (And you thought I had made a typo earlier, didn’t you?) I was thrilled to do so.
And then, while beginning that work this year, he asked me if I wanted to be on the jury for the Memphis Film Prize. An offshoot of the brand that handed out a $10,000 check to the winning filmmaker. Yes, yes, yes!
So, off I went to Memphis (where, incidentally, I also do the PR for the great Indie Memphis film festival in November), to join fellow jurors; Melanie Addington (the Executive Director of the wonderful Oxford Film Festival, another one of my PR clients), Oxford’s beloved veteran acting couple of Johnny and Susan McPhail, who have appeared in nearly everything filmed south of the Mason-Dixon line, the South’s hardest working man in showbiz, Richie Montgomery, and Academy Award-winning animator Brandon Oldenburg.
Now, there are three singular elements to the Film Prize that set them (whether it be in Louisiana or Memphis) apart from any other film festival. Those three things are 1) Gregory Kallenberg’s maniacal insistence that everyone have the greatest damn time that he and the rock-solid and loyal staff can will into existence right in front of you, 2) the fact that the filmmakers must – by design – campaign and sell themselves and their films to each and every audience member and patron and participant of the Film Prize they possibly can throughout the duration of the fest, and 3) that awesome – and strikingly, emotional – moment when a huge-ass check (both in amount and literal size) is handed to the winning filmmaker.
1) Let’s start with Gregory Kallenberg. Yes, every film festival wants you to have fun. And yes, every Executive Director and/or Artistic Director and/or Head of Programming have been great hosts and oftentimes all kinds of fun themselves. But Gregory is so single-minded in his insistence that there be smiles all around that he truly is beyond compare in that respect. There are toasts, and there are dinners, and there are field trips, and there are introductions to all of the competing filmmakers, and there are hosted panels, and, of course – there are the screenings. And among all of that, Gregory is coaching the filmmakers along, and pumping them up, and teasing them, and frankly – teaching them to be good salespeople on their own behalf – somewhat by design, and somewhat by osmosis.
2) Which brings us to the second part of why and how this Film Prize thing is so important and essential for every single filmmaker out there: Making the sale. As filmmakers, we have to pitch all of the time, to the people that might invest in our films, to the audiences that may pay to watch our films, even to the people that make work with us on our films. If we have a great idea or if we’ve made a great film, we still have to communicate that to everyone else. And now, more than at any time, we are increasingly on our own to handle that task. So, the secretive, shy, retiring artist bit just won’t work unless you are a trust-fund baby or have a wealthy husband or wife happy to finance your cinematic joy rides.
Nope. Nope. Nope. That’s all on you now. You have to be filmmaker AND carnival barker, you need to balance being an auteur with being a charming raconteur ready to talk up your latest project to anyone AND everyone.
That’s just the way it is, Skippy. So, why not get some practice in here and then maybe win thousands of dollars if you have managed to hit the sweet spot of really good movie and really good “presence in the room”?
3) The big reveal. The handing out of the huge – both in amount and literal size – check. After a handful of days watching the films and talking about them with our fellow Film Prize audience members, debating the merits and accomplishments of each, after meeting almost all of the filmmakers themselves and getting to know them, finding out their backstories and ambitions, after all of that – everyone finally finds out who the winner is. It’s emotional. Bottom line. By that point, you are invested in all of it and all of them. Let’s face it, there is a lottery aspect to all of this, except YOU have quite a bit of influence over who gets that big-ass check. I feel like I am saying the same thing over and over again here, but the fact is that the culmination is a genuinely affecting moment that sweeps every single person involved up into it. And THAT is the magic of Film Prize.
So, back to this year’s edition of the Memphis Film Prize. I personally felt all of the films were solid efforts. Each either had a good concept, a good central idea, some talented actors, some smart or clever and always, economical filmmaking, and professional execution. Not all of them had each of those elements, but there was a lot to work with, so to speak, as a jury member.
Ultimately, the winner (and recipient of the $10,000 check) was revealed to be Matteo Servente’s WE GO ON. Tracy Facelli’s FAVORITES, and Robb Rokk’s THE GAME were the two runner ups and therefore received invitations to screen at the Indie Memphis Film Festival (November 1-6).
Servente’s WE GO ON is about two elderly men in hospice care, and their ongoing dialogue about what it feels like to be staring down the end of their days. But the film is more than that, as it serves as a meditation on how the certainty of our mortality can actually spur us on to greater and richer insights, and yes – appreciation for the life we live.
Facelli’s FAVORITES focuses on a man distraught following the tragic death of his wife. As he struggles to reconcile with the idea of a life without her, he discovers that she had made his favorite dessert and left it for him in the freezer. That dessert serves as more than comfort food, as it gives him an avenue to move forward, even as he is reminded of the special moments they shared.
Rokk’s THE GAME takes us through the set up for a sinister sex trafficking ring, where a seemingly charming young man snares unwitting girls at a high school. In this case, the mark happens to have a suspicious best friend. But her warnings are rebuffed and her help may come too late this time.
Now, Servente’s WE GO ON was my first choice, so I happened to be right there with my fellow jurors who chose it (the Film Prize juries do not vote as a unit) and the audience members who placed it high on their lists, as well.
Facelli’s FAVORITES also was one of my top three choices. For me it was the most emotionally rich, and effective of all of the films.
But Rokk’s THE GAME, while solid and ambitious in what it was attempting to accomplish in scope, was not on my top three list. No, that third film, for me, was….
Will Robbins’s DRIVEN, about a man so obsessed with the idea that his wife could cheat on him that he begins to have intense dreams about that very scenario playing out. Those dreams continue to plague the man until they don’t just tear his marriage apart, but become a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way he could never have imagined.
What inspired me to vote for WE GO ON, FAVORITES, and DRIVEN, were that each film shared a complexity. Each went beyond a basic concept, and layered that central theme or idea with details and grace notes, style, and ability to achieve a multi-layered film in the short format. As one more benefit of taking part in the competition, and in this case, having me on the jury, I invited WE GO ON, FAVORITES, and DRIVEN to the Inside the Loop Film Festival, debuting this year in Sharonville/Cincinnati on October 6-8.
Cash prizes, guaranteed screening slots at future film festivals – there aren’t many concrete benefits filmmakers can get anywhere these days. The Film Prize, whether it be in Memphis or Louisiana, is a rarity.