Natalia Megas is a Washington, D.C. freelance journalist who turns biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives into screenplays that have won awards and placed in contests like Austin Film Festival, Sundance Labs, and PAGE International. You can follow her on Twitter @DameWriter.
The D.C. Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition, an 11-day event that includes film screenings of shorts, Q&As, filmmaker workshops and free family screenings in Washington, D.C., is considered to be one of the top-tiered short film festivals nationally and around the world, and for budding screenwriters, the unique perks it offers are hard to pass up.
During the 13th annual D.C. Shorts this past September, 94 short screenplays were submitted, making it the most competitive to date. Included in the submission fee is script feedback, which always comes in handy.
“There are only X-amount of film festivals that stand out on the film festival circuit, some that people remember and talk about. D.C. Shorts is one of them… You have to compete with a lot of good short screenplays,” says Lukas Hassel, who was a finalist for his thriller short, The Son, The Father, which since then has gone on to win awards. He says the competitiveness of D.C. Shorts is what motivated him to submit. “If I proceeded to be a finalist, I’d know I had achieved something as opposed to getting in because [the fest] didn’t have many scripts.”
After the final 12 screenplays are dwindled down to a final six, screenwriters at D.C. Shorts audition professional actors for a live read of their short screenplay in which the audience then picks the winner.
“A huge benefit from the D.C. Shorts experience was hearing my piece performed by live actors at the table read, and gaining the understanding of the flow of the piece and where the emotional turning points are,” says Stuart Creque, whose short drama, One Child Born was this year’s screenplay competition winner.
Hearing your script read out loud by professionals makes all the difference. When writing duo Alicia Lomas-Gross and Steve D’Arcangelo were finalists in 2015 for their comedy short, “Claus v Hollywood,” they say seeing the script performed helped them “pinpoint jokes that were working or not working.”
Hassel says, “I could hear what professional actors had difficulty with, due to my writing, and what worked. Invaluable.”
Josh Goldman, who won the 2015 screenplay competition for his short, Lift, piggybacks that idea. “I was really most excited to hear my screenplay read out loud and to gauge reaction from the audience,” he says, adding that while the preparation for it is hard work, requiring a number of careful rewrites and picking the right actors, it was all worth it.
For participating table read screenwriters, the added bonus is getting more constructive feedback from the audience, says Joe Bilancio, director of programming who is part of the new programming team after founder and former program director Jon Gann passed on the leadership roles this year.
“Here in D.C., the audiences are not shy to ask questions and make comments, good and bad, and I think that a willingness to listen to these can go a long way in the honing of one’s craft,” he says. Like in the case of Creque.
“We had the good fortune of drawing the last slot in the reading, so the audience would have our piece fresh in their mind during their voting,” he says. “But the moment I knew we had won was during the reading when one of the characters tells a henchman to burn down the house where a pregnant woman is hiding. An audience member audibly gasped, ‘Oh, no!’”
Like all audience-selected winners, Creque received $2,000 to shoot his project and an automatic entry for his completed film to screen at D.C. Shorts next year.
“For our fest, it’s the feedback and the fact that we help with production,” says Bilancio. “So, if someone is truly interested in directing, or seeing their written words come to life, we are a prime location for them to submit.”
Bilancio adds that while part of the screenplay competition is to ultimately produce the screenplay, they only look at the merits of the written word and how to complete the film is up to the screenwriter.
“Certainly, the clichéd answer [of what we are looking for] is simple: a good script. But that comes in many forms. A great, well-told story from a unique voice is great, but there are many standard stories, yearning to be told again,” he says.
The film festival, which received over 1,300 film submissions from over 40 countries, finally screened 131 films from 33 countries.
“Just going to a film festival is a marvelous experience [for a screenwriter],” says 2016 finalist, Joe Dzilkiewicz (Silent Sentinel). It also helps with making connections, he says. “D.C. Shorts provides good avenues for learning.”
Dzilkiewicz says that the D.C. Shorts Mentor’s program was really helpful, a program that spends a month on weekends teaching various aspects of filmmaking, from screenwriting to directing to camera work and fundraising. “One of the best things I’ve done to learn filmmaking,” he says.
As the new year arrives for D.C. Shorts, Bilancio says they hope to continue to increase the number of submissions from the under-served population, as well as genres that they do not get many submissions from, like animation.
“We want to continue to engage the audience not only through the screenings but to use the films as tools for engagement in topics at top of the mind. We also hope to continue to educate filmmakers and future filmmakers in the industry,” he says.
Early screenplay submission ends December 1st 2016 with final submissions on April 30, 2017.
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