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Before I started programming mini-film festivals for local conventions, I attended mini-film festivals at local conventions. However, they were never quite what I expected and they weren't generally sustainable.
The best film events at Arizona conventions, in my humble opinion, tended to be the ones where a filmmaker brought in their own short film, screened it and talked about it afterwards, perhaps with members of the cast and crew present. I often enjoyed such presentations greatly (and still do), but they offer depth rather than breadth.
To achieve breadth of material, a few conventions did attempt what I call mini-film festivals today, but they tended to take a very different approach. Often they would use a submission-based model which generated them a small amount of income, perhaps offset a little by the cost of awarding a prize. This didn't work well, mostly because of the small size of these conventions. It might work for Phoenix Comicon but at the smaller events, few films were submitted and quality was never guaranteed, so these screenings tended to be both poor and short. Audiences drifted away.
I couldn't help but compare these experiences to the short film sets I frequent at film festivals. They fill a feature length slot with short films and, while quality and coherence does vary, such sets are usually enjoyable and there are usually at least a couple of stand-out films to amaze and impress. Often there are many more.
So when Bob Nelson brought me in to program a mini-film festival at LepreCon 39 in May 2013, I chose to ditch their old model entirely and replace it with something a little closer to the film festival experience.
I put together a 90 minute set of short films and a feature, sourced from film festivals, friends in the industry and research online. I included local films and one foreign film, from the UK. I also included a Q&A in between the shorts and the feature with a few local filmmakers who kindly agreed to come out.
This approach guaranteed a decent running time, quality material and the opportunity for audience members to meet some of the filmmakers. I also asked for my set to be on opening night and to be open to the public free of charge.
The goal was to show that everyone can win:
My mini-film festival at LepreCon 39 worked well and the audience enjoyed it and participated eagerly in the Q&As. I was particularly happy to see some of the Guests of Honor in the audience because they'd arrived at the convention but had nothing else to do until opening time in the morning.
Perhaps the best indicator of success was that I was asked at LepreCon 39 to program a similar mini-film festival for CopperCon Revolution three months later. So, after one event, I was off and running, even though I hadn't considered such growth previously. It certainly got me thinking!
After LepreCon and CopperCon, I put together a similar mini-film festival for DarkCon in 2014, expanding the sci-fi to varied punked genres, as befitted that particular convention. That proved to be only the first expansion of many.
Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention III was my first mini-film festival outside the Phoenix metropolitan area, as I was given the honour to present short films from the stage of the historic saloon at Old Tucson Studios, where many western legends had shot their films. This was also my first multi-set experience, as I was given three 45 minute slots on successive days.
After a return to LepreCon for a second year, I combined all the local Arizona sci-fi shorts into a set for the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, an actual film festival, rather than a convention. I followed that up with a short set at a charity show, hosted by Geeks4Good for Oakwood Creative Care.
October 2014 saw me expand out of Arizona to host a couple of steampunk sets in California for the San Diego Comic-Fest.
I've been going to the Phoenix Fear Film Festival (which morphed into Phoenix FearCon) since its second event and Dee and I have been getting more and more involved behind the scenes ever since. I was proud to handle their short film programming for their sixth event, Phoenix FearCon de los Muertos! in November 2014, mostly from submissions, another new experience for me, as was the opportunity to program in the horror genre.
Since then, I've returned to old favourites like CopperCon, Wild Wild West Con, LepreCon and Jerome (I'd have returned to others too if they had held new events), while adding new ones like Phoenix Comicon, Westercon and Gaslight Gathering. Those two mini-film festivals in 2013 became eight in 2014, seven in 2015 and six in 2016.
Westercon is a regional convention, owned by LASFS in Los Angeles but held by different groups in different cities around the region. I put two sets together for Westercon 68 in San Diego and another for Westercon 70 in Tempe, for which I was the vice-chair. My next expansion will be to Colorado for Westercon 71 in Denver.
I've learned a lot doing these mini-film festivals.
I've learned a lot about conventions, for a start, about what the audiences really want and when they want it. They want short films more than features, as they can dip in and out as they want to enjoy around other programming. Opening night sets work very well, as long as the publicity is right. I've found it beneficial at small cons to start sets an hour after the vendor hall closes, so that vendors can take a break for food after a long day standing up behind their tables and booths, then sit down for some passive enjoyment. At larger cons, the evenings may be more problematic because the parties take over.
I've learned a lot about putting a set of short films together, something that's as much an art as a science. While I used to appreciate the individual films I saw in short film sets at film festivals, now I can also see whether their programmers are good at their jobs or not. Sets need a strong opener to get audiences focused on the screen at the outset, and if it doesn't rely on dialogue, the rustling of finding seats and perhaps shuffling popcorn won't affect anyone's enjoyment of it. Sets need to flow well, with each film leading into the next in some way and contrasting or enhancing as needed. A good programmer balances films by length and emotional arc. A strong ending film is important too.
I've learned that the event is as important as the films too, so I try to connect the audience with the filmmakers, something that just isn't possible (or at least easy) outside of a live event.
While I've learned a lot, I'm sure there are still things to learn, whether they be revelations or nuances, and I hope I can continue to improve my mini-film festivals over the years to come. Follow the Apocalypse Later Roadshow and see how I do.
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