Scanning the room Sunday night at the 48 Hour Film Project party, I flashed back to a conversation I had about the contest with someone close to the now dormant Duke City Shootout (DCS), the original Big Dog of run-and-gun filmmaking contests, which started in 1999.
In 2001 I heard about the national 48 Hour Film Project for the first time on an NPR profile. Curious, I went to the 48 website, and while entirely unimpressed with the winning film, a small voice in me was like, Watch this situation closely. Someone is onto something here.
When I mentioned this to my Duke City Shootout friend back then, his response was, “It’s a gimmick.” It was dripping with sarcasm.
Nice gimmick. As they say in sports, the scoreboard doesn’t lie. And from here, the 2009 Albuquerque filmmaking scoreboard says: “48 Hour Film Project: 44; Duke City Shootout: 0.” As in, the amount of local film teams who signed up for the “gimmick” this past weekend versus what the Duke City Shootout offered this year.
This is not a dance on the Duke City Shootout grave. As a former board member, producer of a film ("Something Red” in 2004), member of the script selection committee and a bunch more, I have history. And memories. Some fond and glorious, some flat-out infuriating to this day. A lot of us here can claim the same over its nine-year run. But there is a fascinating paradox, gimmick to gimmick, frankly, that’s worth noting.
Basically, what gave Duke City Shootout its juice in the first few years was that feeling of being involved in an insurgency. It was exciting. There was an enemy—the bloated film industry—that needed a ladder thrown against its wall and to be stormed with the new weaponry of affordable digital video cameras and home editing systems.
Stories had to be told that did not need the permission of the filmmaking orthodoxy, and DCS was the first of its kind in the nation to do something about it.
There was an enemy that needed a ladder thrown against its wall and to be stormed with the new weaponry of affordable digital video cameras and home editing systems.
But a tragic thing happened along the way. DCS became “The Man,” with an “either you’re with us or agin’ us” attitude. It became an orthodoxy of its own making. A hegemony complete with an inflexible, slow to change (and narrowly focused) leadership with a coterie of “friends” more than willing to go with the flow, and enemies (real and imagined) shown the door who were unwilling to toe the line. And the entirety of its existence dependent on (taxpayer) money of the state and city.
It started to look and sound and feel rather opposite of “independent” in tone and spirit.
At a particularly vulnerable moment for DCS (following an unfruitful relationship with Christopher Coppola), along came 48. And a fateful decision.
Namely, in a spirit of generosity, DCS folded in the winning 48 film as part of its gala night of DCS screenings. A lovely humanitarian effort on paper, but in 2007, the decision became something akin to inviting the fox into the henhouse.
“Sweetie,” the 2007 48 winner by Trifecta + Films (written and directed by Scotty Milder and brilliantly acted by Chad Brummett and Emily Villela), proved that it’s not the process; it’s about results.
Meaning, since its inception, DCS has asked us to get turned on by the process of filmmaking and not judge the results too harshly, lest you be the bummer in the room. The sell was the "doing." Ironically, "On the Lot," the horrific 2007 independent filmmaking reality show on Fox, asked the same question. It tanked.
Here’s the problem. With two-thirds less crew, equipment, time and money to make a 48 (vs. DCS) film, one would naturally expect the result to be two-thirds less in quality for 48. But the result was “Sweetie,” an elegant and simple one-location, two-person drama.
Simply, DCS had ended up trying to emulate what one could expect to experience working “in the business.” The tragic irony is they succeeded. It had become bloated, with a crew count of more than 30 on some shoots. Worse, the script selection process had lost its collective balls. Edgy stuff started to lose votes to family-friendly fare. Something went dead flat, artistically.
Meanwhile, the Trifecta + crew did its thing with about a half dozen people and ended up in France at Cannes, where “Sweetie” screened the next May.
So where do we sit now? The 48 screenings are Wednesday and Thursday night, July 15 and 16, and there will certainly be the usual share of cover-your-eyes dreck and budding brilliance, but the question yet to be answered is: Wither Duke City Shootout?
Will it come back in 2010 for a grand 10th edition? Or should we all just give it our thanks and move on? Glancing around the crowd at the 48 parties this past weekend, it’s a virtual DCS alumni party. A lot of us got our start with DCS, yours truly included. That is not to be dismissed. But the question lingers.
Some gimmicks survive the test of time and others don’t. In four years, 48 has gone from 23 to 44 participants in Albuquerque. Globally, 48 is now in 70 (!) cities, while the brain trust at DCS could never get another city to bite on its idea, much as it tried to replicate it. Not one.
The 48 Hour Film Project looks like it’s here to stay. Or until the next filmmaking insurgency shows itself. It’s tough at the top.