Friday, August 7, 2009

Thoughts on judging the 48 Hour Film Project

So last night myself, my Film Yap co-conspirator Joe Shearer and several others served as judges for the 48 Hour Film Project contest here in Indianapolis. It was a fun but exhausting night, watching a few dozen short films in a row, and then rendering a verdict. We didn't get out until almost midnight.

For those who don't know about the 48 Hour Film Project, it's a national contest where local filmmakers are loaned equipment and given two days to make a movie, with a certain amount of the criteria set. The winner goes on to the national contest, with some big bucks at stake.

We selected "Gno Man Is An Island" as our overall winner. It's about a guy trying to find out who's sabotaging his garden gnomes. We sent in our ballots this morning for the individual category winners like best directing, editing, acting, etc. Those should be announced later today.

We rated the films on a scale of 1 to 10. I won't divulge exact numbers, other than to say "Gno Man" was the clear winner, distancing its runner-up -- "I'm Not Talking to You" -- by a number of points. There were several also-rans that followed right up behind, however.

The judges were fairly much in agreement on some movies, and all over the map on others. One film that got a "1" from me and a "2" from a couple other judges got an "8" from another. Always interesting to see how opinions will vary.

The filmmakers drew lots to see what genre they would receive -- drama, comedy, horror, holiday, family, etc. Not surprisingly, several of the films deviated wildly from their assignment. Perhaps the best example was "Bunny," the entry from The Super Aggro Crag, which clearly wanted to do a horror film, and did so despite pulling the "holiday" category. Never have I seen the Easter Bunny associated with so much death. Another film labeled a comedy was not even remotely funny, although kind of interesting in a deranged way. And one of those who did pull the "horror" card decided to do a surrealist hobo fantasy instead. It was like Salvador Dali meets Ingmar Bergman meets Jim Jarmusch.

Each film also had to include three randomly selected elements: a character who's a professor with the name Shirley or Sherman Kane, a ball, and the line of dialogue "I'm not talking to you." Interestingly, many of the films decided to use the professor Kane character as a psychologist, so we had quite a few scenes of people on couches. There was also a mathematics professor, some English profs, and a guy who studies deer. No one decided to make their professor character a mad scientist.

Well, none of the films in competition, anyway. There was one with a guy who invents a time-travel machine, but it was one of the "late" films. Apparently, some people miss the 48 hour deadline and are shown at the screening, but are not eligible for judged prizes. They are eligible for the Audience Award, and one late film, "Magic 8 Ball," won that for the first group of films. ("Coming Soon" won in the other group.)

The judges discussed the late films, even though we were not scoring them, and we agreed that "Magic 8 Ball" would have had a good shot of winning the top prize if they'd submitted in time.

Beyond the set categories and three things they must include, I noticed a lot of similar themes occurring in several of the films. Clowns were a clear favorite, appearing in at least a half-dozen films. There also seemed to be a lot of people carrying around really big bottles of liquor -- I always thought people stuck to smaller bottles when they're getting drunk, but one guy must have had a gallon jug of Johnny Walker.

Altogether I was rather impressed with the level of talent and originality displayed for our local filmmakers. There was only one movie I thought was truly bad; most were pretty decent, a bunch of good ones, and two or three outstanding.


  1. I directed/co-wrote Magic 8 Ball. Our team leader/editor dropped the ball(pun not intended). It was pretty heartbreaking. Needless to say we won't be working with him again next year.
    We're glad you enjoyed our entry. Hope you had a great time last night, we certainly did. You can watch our other work under the video tab at

  2. "where local film makers are loaned equipment and given two days to make a movie." Well this is not entirely true, we have two days to make a movie with whatever eq we have, no one gave us anything!

  3. I live in one of the cities that has been doing the 48HFP for many years. I have participated in several of them as an actor. For the most part, I've enjoyed it. But as time has passed, I've started looking at it through a more critical lens (sic) and I find that I have major concerns about what is actually judged.

    Given the time constraints, an very imaginative team could have a clear winner on their hands but runs out of time to complete the project with a satisfying product due to unforeseen delays, delays that they have no control over. Thus, they have to choose whether just to submit their half-baked product by the deadline and let that be an example by which to judge their skills and creativity or keep working past the deadline and create a real winner but not be eligible for judging and thus, not make it to the final "Best of" screenings. In essence, only teams who beat the deadline have a chance to make it to the top of the heap. By this means, your pool of films to judge has excluded great films that missed a deadline, sometimes by seconds.

    If I were to gather a team and sign up for the 48HFP, I would not only have to have people who work together like an A-Team (and probably done practice dry runs in advance to prepare themselves), I would have to make it clear to the team that if we were definitely going to miss the deadline but had the makings of an excellent little film, we would just keep working, finish the film and remove any references to the 48HFP. If we had to choose the latter, we could at least submit it to other film festivals where having to pump it out in 48 hours is not a prerequisite for being judged.

    The way I see it, all the 48HFP does is reward speed over substance and style. I've known crackerjack teams who've cranked out technically perfect films but the story is very weak. I've also known the reverse: teams with a fantastic story but who had to do a rushed, sloppy job just to beat the deadline.

    My advice to anyone who wants to form or work with a team is to consider the risks I've mentioned above. If you think you can crank out something that boosts (or at least, doesn't harm) your reputation(s), go for it. Just be prepared for the unexpected.