It’s been called the 72-Hour Film Festival, the Short Film Competition and now the 253 Short Film Party. But throughout its 10 years, the annual festival organized by The Grand Cinema has offered the same challenge to local filmmakers: Create a short film in just three days. But it also offers community and motivation, and this year’s 253 Short Film Party — which screens all 31 entries Friday night (May 6) at Urban Grace Church — has seen more filmmakers than ever.
“I appreciate the opportunity The Grand provides, and the community spirit,” says first-time entrant Sean Lundblad. “It’s part of what I love about Tacoma.”
“It gives my friends and me an excuse to be creative and gives us a deadline,” says six-year veteran filmmaker Jeff Axtman. “And somehow we manage to do it.”
Doing it is, in fact, the biggest challenge.
Film teams gather at The Grand on a Friday evening to hear director Philip Cowan read out the four surprise criteria that must be included in each film. Cowan chooses them fresh every year in four repeating categories; this year they were a toothbrush as a prop, the dialogue line “That’s all she wrote,” the character trait of an allergy and the inclusion of any Tacoma business as a featured element. The criteria prevent too much advance filmmaking and start the clock ticking as teams fan out over greater Tacoma to plan, shoot, edit and submit their film before 7 p.m. the following Sunday evening. Films must be 253 seconds — or less — a play on the local area code that works out to slightly more than four minutes.
“The event’s goal is primarily to give a platform for local filmmakers to hone their craft and share their work with the community,” says Darcy Nelson, the Grand’s director of communications and marketing.
Films are judged by a panel, which this year includes Cowan, Grand board member Troy Christensen, and academics David Coon and Priti Joshi, and by an audience choice vote at the event. The top prize for jury and audience winners is $500, plus cinema rental and inclusion in the Northwest Film Forum’s Local Sightings series. Other awards include best use of prop, of dialogue line, of character trait and featured element, each worth $100 and four cinema tickets. The films screen at a party that includes door prizes, a photo booth, Washington beer and wine, local pizza and desserts, plus salads and snacks.
The competition is popular — this year saw entrant spots completely taken three weeks in advance, with six teams on the wait-list. But it definitely isn’t easy for veterans or newbies.
For Lundblad, who works by day with the state Department of Ecology, it was a learning curve in just how big movie files can be — even just 253 seconds’ worth. He and his team of four went into the 72 hours with a basic plotline: a love letter to Tacoma, told by four friends who, disillusioned by the city, happen to buy a magical game called Tacomanji that rekindles their love of the city. Sharing camera, acting and editing duties, they filmed the whole thing on Lundblad’s iPhone 6, inserting overdubs and music later in iMovie to compensate for poor audio.
And then, at 1 p.m. on the Sunday afternoon, Lundblad got a shock.
“It took four hours to upload it to The Grand’s FTP website,” he says. “I don’t have a fast Internet connection. Eventually we exported it as a flash file — even then it took two hours. In the end I dropped off a flash drive to The Grand, just in case.”
But, says Lundblad, “it was an absolute blast.”
For veterans like Axtman, the competition is still challenging. His film about a struggling used-car salesman who consults an Eastern guru to learn an important sales lesson used All American Motors on South Tacoma Way as the featured business.
“We chose it because it had the right look,” Axtman says. But as a professional videographer (he works for KBTC), walking up to a random car dealership and asking to film “wasn’t something I do a lot. It was a bit awkward.”
And, like most teams, Axtman’s crew worked late into every night storyboarding, scripting, shooting and editing.
“We had very little sleep,” he says. “But we’re all very busy people, and it’s hard to just get together and make a film on a whim. This gives us a structure … so we’re hyper-focused.”
For Nick Butler, the genre itself is the challenge. This is the sixth competition year for Butler, an artist who also makes animated films, and he’s got it down to a fine art.
“I can do 36 scenes with limited animation in three days,” he says.
Not that he does it alone: He develops the storyline with his wife, seeks out friends and family for feedback and uses his kids as voice actors.
“For me it’s an opportunity to get some instant gratification,” Butler explains. “Professional animated films take years and hundreds of people. As a solo artist, my projects can take two to three years. So this festival is like exercise for me, like a sprint versus a marathon. You need to practice your sprints to understand how to do the marathon.”