A few months ago, I got an out of the blue invitation to serve as a judge on a short film festival in Shreveport, Louisiana called the LA Film Prize. To be honest, my only knowledge of Shreveport at this point was that it is where the wolves of True Blood come from. But looking over their request and their website, I was intrigued, so I said yes. The event took place this past weekend over four days, and while I went to get a taste of the culture of "the other LA"--as its local film industry calls it--I found a festival extraordinary on so many different levels that I was frankly flabbergasted.

In my experience smaller film festivals either focus on star-speckled indie features that will draw in audiences and please their cultural base, or they attempt to focus on the creatives within their own community, encouraging local culture with special awards and attention. LA Film Prize is the latter, but to a degree I have never seen before. Its model offers huge cash prizes, and an incredible ability to give back to the community. Filmmakers and other fests should take notice now.

LA Film Prize Is For Filmmakers
Typically, festivals are costly affairs for filmmakers. First you make a short for several thousand dollars. Then there are fees to submit to festivals. Then if you get into a fest, you have to pay to advertise your film there with postcards, flyers, posters, buttons, and what-have-you to draw people to your movie's screenings. Add to that the price of travel, hotels and meals for your cast and crew to attend and help advertise, and the costs skyrocket pretty quickly. However, at LA Film Prize the 20 filmmaking teams whose shorts are selected are instantly awarded $500 that can be used toward promotion or finishing their film.

I saw these funds used in a variety of ways, from booths handing out promotional paper fans on a steamy October afternoon, to clever posters like the ones above, which teased a comedy called El Gato about a cat who overruns the life of his owner. There were T-shirts emblazoned with eye-catching poster art from Necrophilia: A Love Story, and a spattering of zombies popping up throughout the venues for the horror short Last Call, along with their mesmerizing onscreen slayer played by one Johnny McPhail.

Beyond the swag and living dead floating around the festival, the filmmakers have additional exposure help in the Prize's voting rules. While some festivals hand out a scorecard before every film slate to allow audiences to vote (say on a scale of one to five), LA Film Prize demands all voters—be they judges or general audiences—watch both slates, then provide proof at the voting booth by presenting a card punched upon exiting each slate. Clocking in at two and a half hours each, I worried the slates wouldn't draw crowds. But I totally underestimated the movie lovers of Shreveport who turned out in force, filling one theater after another all weekend long, forcing some judges to scramble to get seats!

LA Film Prize founder Gregory Kallenberg told me that a major point of pride of the festival is its earnest attempt to "break down the walls" between its contestants and its judges. In a string of events that ranged from brunches to panels, live concerts, sound stage tours, and pub crawls, my fellow judges and I were repeatedly offered opportunities to get to know the people behind the shorts we were watching. We, who came from areas of writing, critique, marketing, production, and distribution, had the chance to pick their brains, and vice versa in a casual environment infused with energy from the local community. But perhaps most alluring to hungry young filmmakers are those big prizes.

Aside from the $500 awarded for being accepted into the fest, there are several chances for filmmakers to go home a winner. The judges pick five films/filmmakers they feel could grow with a bit of funding and these teams are awarded $3,000 in grant money toward their next production. There's also a special award given to the film the judges feel was a cut above the rest in editing, The Crosscut Editing Award. This honor comes with a whopping $20,000 prize in the form of an editing opportunity.

Then, the top five films voted most popular by the judges and the general audiences (with each representing 50% of the vote) get guaranteed entrance to five notable film festivals, including the ones in Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis and Los Angeles. These shorts will later be made available on iTunes through Shorts International, the distributor behind the Shorts HD channel and the annual theatrical run of Academy Award nominated shorts. Finally, the film that comes in at number one wins its maker the biggest cash prize any fest gives for a short film: $50,000 no strings attached.

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