Sunday, June 27, 2010

Meet Jon Gann of DC Shorts

Jon Gann is a filmmaker, the founder of the DC Film Alliance and the creator of the DC Shorts Film Festival. He and I talked last week and we hit on a number of subjects.

KB: How did all this come about?

JG: In 2003, I traveled around the globe to support my short "Cyberslut" -- at the time, the most successful gay-themed short film, playing over 50 festivals. After visiting a few dozen festivals over the course of a year, I was disillusioned by the whole festival circuit. It was clear that many festivals were concerned about money and sponsors and patrons and parties, and caring about films and filmmakers — especially those who created short films — was not a priority. One festival, the Ashland Independent Film Festival in little Ashland, Oregon was an amazing exception. If you made your way to the festival, the organizers made sure you were fed, housed and had access to all of the filmmakers and films. It was an eye opener. By the time I made my way back to DC, the seed was planted. I called my dear friend, Gene Cowan, who had previously helped me with motion graphics for a few films, and is a techno-junkie. I told him my idea and he laughed! Then in typical Lucy-and-Ethel fashion, he acquiesced and joined me.

It was around this time that I already created the DC Film Salon and was making headway into DC's previously closed film community. I just figured a festival in with my idea of opening up the industry to as many people as possible. After a few years, with the help of some friends and supporters, I formally formed the non-profit DC Film Alliance as an umbrella organization to manage all of these pet projects.

KB: What can filmmakers get out of DC Shorts that they wouldn’t get at others film festivals?

JG: DC Shorts was designed to be about the filmmaker. From our detailed, yet easy-to-understand rules and entry information, to the bug event in which every visiting filmmaker is fed, housed, and offered entry into every film screening and party. But what I am most proud of is our unique judging process -- and our amazing feedback system. Our judges use a proprietary software program we developed which not only helps us choose films, but at the end of the selection process, is opened up so everyone can see the judges scores and comments. This feedback, if used and understood, can help a film in its path to success.

KB: What is Script DC and how can someone apply?

JG: Washington, DC is a big film town -- probably the third largest in the country. With an industry that large, we have many organizations -- all of which were programming screenwriting conferences. I felt that 5 conferences a year -- all offering the same courses -- was a little much, and very taxing on resources. I worked with these organizations to create ScriptDC -- a single regional screenwriting conference. One weekend, many courses for writers of every level -- and plenty of opportunities to hear scripts read aloud, pitch producers, and network with filmmakers.

KB: You consult on Film Festival Strategies for filmmakers. What does that entail and why is it important?

JG: Every week, I receive calls from young filmmakers who are looking for answers to why their film is not succeeding as they anticipated. For some, it is the film itself. For others, it is their festival strategy. And for many, it is unrealistic expectations of the industry. A few years ago, I started Reel Plan to help independent filmmakers plan the future of their film. Our consultants have many years of experience as award-winning filmmakers, festival judges, script analysts, directors of major film festivals, and successful media strategists. We have traveled the world attending film festivals, screening events and broadcast launches.

In order to determine if a film will benefit from our services, we begin with a written interview, which is followed up by a phone call and a viewing of the movie. From this information, we provide a quick analysis, some simple suggestions for how to start a new strategy, and a determination if your film is a proper fit for the next step.

Of the hundreds of short films we watch every year, only a small percentage of films have the chops to make the festival circuit pay. If we take you on as a client, it means we believe in you and your film. And we are going to do what it takes to help you achieve the success you deserve. While we can’t make any promises or guarantees, we can assure you that our strategies do work for most films.

KB: You screen a lot of movies, what is the biggest mistake you see filmmakers make?

JG: Well, it seems that we fixed the picture issues of the past. Inexpensive HD cameras are everywhere (including your cell phone), so the look of today's shorts is incredible. The biggest faults are: sound design and story.

I still see beautifully filmed projects which sound as though the microphone was a block away. Or music mixes which drown out the dialogue. Audiences will forgive bad picture, often thinking it was an artistic choice. No one can forgive bad sound -- as soon as an audience member thinks, "what did he say?!" you have lost them -- probably for the rest of the film.

Filmmaking is visual storytelling. All films -- even experimental -- rely on a coherent and compelling story. Most film schools are quick to stress the technical aspects of filmmaking -- and often forget about the writing. It shows in their students' work, and it shows on screen. Concentrate on the story, and the rest will come together.

KB: If I want to know about how you can help me, how can I get hold of you? Or can I?

JG: While I try to help every filmmaker who emails, I often need time to concentrate on DC Shorts or other projects I am managing. My consulting practice is online at -- and there are links there to email me with your questions or comments.

KB: What obstacles did you have to overcome to make the DC Film Alliance work?

JG: I found that other festivals were concerned about how a new event would affect them. Many had been around for a while and invested a great deal to ensure their continued success. I think they were amazed that by adding a new festival, it created more demand to attend other film events.

Since starting the DC Film Salon and DC Shorts Festival and then rolling them into the DC Film Alliance, I have found that organizations are reluctant to share resources for fear of becoming irrelevant or having to use their energy to compete. The truth has been that as the film community has become more open (in part to the digital revolution), organizations are seeing memberships increase, and their role as more influential than before. I honestly believe that if we all played in the same sandbox, we'd all be a lot happier, and maybe relaxed.

KB: Was there a moment when you knew that DC Shorts would work?

JG: The night before the first screening, we sold out the show. Then the phone began to ring with people clamoring for tickets and to be put on the wait list. When I arrived at the theater at 10 AM the next day, there was a line to be included on the list for the 3 PM show. That’s when I finally began to relax.

KB: What did you gain from creating film festival?

JG: My hair went grey faster, and I gained a few pounds. But seriously, I think the experience — and the planning of subsequent festivals has allowed me to put my talents into perspective. I see hundreds of short films every year. I see some awful crap, and a few films of true genius.

I might be a good film director, but I am not a great director. It’s better that I help talented filmmakers to reach for a higher level — linking them with the right people and community. In helping them achieve greatness, I get the satisfaction of making the industry a little better. And the praise is more than enough for me.

KB: I understand that you are going to be touring with me for part of the Fall Tour, are you and Pilot the opening act, or am I?

JG: I think we are both the opening act for Pilot. In my opinion, there are few people in the industry as genuine and honest as you -- which is precisely the reason why you (and I) are sometimes shunned by the so-called "insiders." Filmmakers deserve honest and clear answers to their questions. I think that this is the quality which endears us to audiences -- and why people often come to hear us speak.


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