What would happen if you brought six of the world’s most powerful leaders from the past and placed them in a room with the board game Risk? Who would you pick? What would their personalities be like? How would they react to each other? English film studies junior Tristan Johnson chose Genghis Kahn, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun and a rather pompous Teddy Roosevelt and brought it to life in a movie he created two years ago. Like most of his movie ideas, he thought of this randomly and made sure to write it down, just in case.
[happy]It’s a good thing he did; his half-hour movie, “Risk,” won him an award in 2006 at the MSU film festival. Regardless of Johnson’s pride in the movie, there are some aspects he realizes he should have changed. “I would’ve replaced at least one actor and shortened it,” he said. “I don’t know if people are ever happy with [their movies] in the end.” This could be because there is so much that goes into producing a film, however long it may be. For small festivals like MSU’s, most films are under 30 minutes, typically running approximately 10 minutes.
Film festivals provide a needed outlet for young filmmakers to hone their skills and show off their stuff for an audience. Starting out at the college level allows for creativity, mistakes and growth as a creator, before moving on to aspirations of city festivals, both near Lansing and around the state. The most time-eating aspect of filmmaking is usually the writing of the script. Adding words and actions adds minutes to the film’s length. But shorter movies are easier to film and edit and aren’t as stressful on the wallet. Johnson also explained that in some cases, shorter films are better for the audience as well. “No one wants to sit through a terrible movie that’s going to run for an hour,” he said.
The strategy of successful film execution varies among festival participants. Johnson focuses on writing a clever screenplay, while telecommunication and English film studies senior Marvin Hudgens’ passion is filming and working with the actors. “Some people get down and frustrated,” he said. “And I’m just like, ‘Let’s go!'” Hudgens prefers to work with experienced actors because he feels they are easier to direct and are more professional. He’s even gone to Facebook to search for good actors to use. If they have friends in common, he’s not hesitant to ask for their help. He usually only has a few actors in a given movie because small casts are not as difficult to control and it’s less stressful to arrange schedules. Johnson, on the other hand, normally just uses his friends in his movies because they are more likely to spend more time working on the film and are often more reliable.
Jeff Beachnau, a friend of Johnson and recent English and film studies graduate, has been in a couple of Johnson’s movies. In “Risk,” he had the honor of playing Attila the Hun, so unlike a lot of the other actors, he had very few lines and didn’t have to sing during the musical number. “We all had a fun time, and [Johnson] was easy to work with,” he said. But because of the small cast, Beachnau’s contributions were more than just acting; he and the others had to help out with the set-up and, for one particular monologue, hold up a cue card.
For both Hudgens and Johnson, editing and music choices are the most difficult part of the film-making process. Like most film and telecommunication students and festival participants, they take advantage of the Communication Arts and Sciences building’s computers and cameras. Since the necessary technology is expensive, these resources are endlessly helpful while perfecting their films. One aspect of filmmaking where technology can only go so far is music production. The right equipment can put key songs in the movie, but finding fitting beats is the first step. Most festivals enforce copyright laws, so music has to be composed specifically for the film. For one festival in the past, Hudgens entered a silent film as a solution to the dilemma. Many music students are ceaselessly busy and rarely have the time to write and play music for competition films. The MSU festival, however, allows copyrighted music, which eliminates that piece of the filmmaker’s puzzle.
As a whole, the MSU Film Festival has a longer process than the individual movies. The festival planning begins in the fall semester. Organizing the rules, advertisements and people involved is all done well ahead of time. The application process takes a couple of weeks after the due date of March 28. Last year, there were about 25 applicants and 10 films were chosen for the festival. The same film committee that chooses the weekend movies for Wells Hall picks the best films to play at the April festival. There also is an introduction film and a brief synopsis of each film’s director.
This year, entering filmmakers will have slightly different requirements in terms of content for their movies. First, there are no longer film length categories of long, medium and short. Instead, every film must be under 30 minutes, or it will not be accepted. UAB Films Director Matt Mergener explained there were never many long movies submitted and the audience tends to enjoy the shorter films because it is difficult to make a quality hour-long movie.
Another difference this year is the addition of a panel of judges that will be made up of film committee members, film students and other possible experts. This is to give the filmmakers a bit more of a challenge “instead of having a popularity contest,” Mergener said. They aren’t, however, dropping the audience vote altogether, because they do still want to reward the film that got the best audience reaction.[mallory]
The film festival organizers also received a budget increase from last year, so the joint UAB and RHA film production will be able to do more advertising. Last year, 300 people showed up to the event, but Mergener hopes this year will be “bigger and better.”
Gaining popularity can be difficult for new festivals, but if “one can find a niche audience,” it can take off right away, according to film studies professor Bill Vincent. Vincent specifically mentioned the horror genre with Screamfest. There had not been anything like it until it came along, so it had nearly instant success. The genre’s filmmakers were searching for their own showcase. Big names also draw people to certain festivals. Michael Moore founded the Traverse City Film Festival, and it probably would not have had the large crowd response without his involvement.
The East Lansing Film Festival, which happens around the same time as MSU’s, has continually become more impressive and has been drawing in more people. It has several categories, including Documentary, Short, Feature and even a Student category. There also is a separate competition earlier in the season called 48/5. It gives participants two days to write, film, and edit a five-minute film with certain requirements like mandatory props or lines of dialogue. Hudgens competed in it for the past two years, and he said it is really stressful to cram in several weeks’ worth of work in 48 hours, but the challenge of the process is fun and exciting. “[The MSU Film Festival] has kind of fallen in the shadow of the East Lansing Film Festival,” Johnson said.
From a contestant’s perspective, the small size lessens the prestige of the competition. Johnson said that over the past few years it seemed like whoever brought the most friends to the festival usually won because it was judged by audience vote. The panel of judges is intended to encourage people to take it more seriously. This is Hudgens’ first time entering the MSU Film Festival, but he has participated in other festivals like the East Lansing Festival and studied abroad in the United Kingdom and filmed a movie there. Will Hudgens’ entry this year, “A Grand River Story,” give the other contestants more competition than they are used to? Or will Johnson’s consistent success and large cast give one of his potential films for this year give him an edge? With the higher standards and aspirations for perfection that have come to characterize the area film festivals, plus the influence of objective judges, it’s anybody’s game.

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