Film Fest Kicks off 21-Day Competition
The scene is like another Saturday in the one of the upper-level lounge rooms at the Lucky Strike bowling alley. People mingling, chatting each other up and trying to hear one another over loud pop music in a dimly lit space. Tides of people are passing each other, passing along a few handshakes after an introduction, or a hug to reconnect after not having seen each other for a while. The sound of an occasional bowling ball taking out a set of pins breaks through the music and conversations, and once in a while, a booming voice over a microphone calls out raffle numbers for prizes ranging from gift certificates to one of the local gastro-pubs, to CDs full of license-free stock music and sound effects.
Everyone who comes through the lounge wears a name-tag, but not the usual default tag with a “Hello” found at an office supply store. Over the white space filled in with the name of an individual or a group, there was one of the following titles: Filmmaker, Actor, Animator, Crew, Writer, or Musician.
Project Twenty1, a non-profit group that holds film events throughout the year, put together this gathering, the official Launch Party to kick off their biggest event, the 21-Day Film Competition. Twenty-one teams compete to make a short film in 21 days; the finished product is showcased at the annual Philadelphia Film and Animation festival.
For the past five years, amateurs have come to connect, network…and even search for team mates. For some, it’s the first time competing this year, but others have competed annually since the festival’s inception. One of the party’s attendees, Andre Bennett is competing for the 3rd year in a row; this is the first year as a Filmmaker, so this time around, he’s leading a team. In the previous years, he’s worked on other teams as an extra and a production assistant. Bennett has also supported Project Twenty1’s mission since the beginning, and everyone he’s known in the film community he met through Project Twenty1. “It’s always been this well of talent in the film community here.”
So how does it feel to lead a team for the first time? “It’s frightening,” he says. “I[‘m] very nervous but at the same time…I am excited, it’ll be great just to kind of do it.”
Doug Seidel has competed as a Film Maker for four years. He also has his own film company, Justice Productions. He’s done mostly comedy films for his past projects, and even a “choose your own adventure” film.
“The thing that keeps us coming back is the overall environment of it. Everyone’s friendly, everyone wants to know each other.” said Seidel. “The fact that they do events like this…this networking event is awesome because you get to meet other people who do the same thing [and] love the same thing we do.” Seidel has also worked on other films outside of Project Twenty1 by making connections with fellow competitors. Some of the actors that he’s met through Project Twenty1 have worked with him as his crew.
Project Twenty1’s founders, Matt Conant and Stephanie Yuhas move among the crowd, chatting up newbies to the competition and catching up with veteran competitors, all while taking turns reading numbers for the raffle.
Project Twenty1 started in 2006. The primary mission of the group is to be “EPIC” Exhibit, Promote, Inspire, and Connect aspiring film makers and animators with not only their annual competition, but also year-round workshops, networking events, and even “open-mic” nights for short films. The “Connect” aspect of their mission is online resources and social networking…which is how they first met.
Conant and Yuhas, both Magna Cum Laude graduates (Temple University, and Philadelphia University of the Arts, respectively) met on MySpace in 2006. Both of them discovered that they shared the same views about screenwriting, films, and the independent film scene in Philadelphia. They also realized that they shared the same disappointments when they had their work screened at other festivals. “We had similar experiences competing in film-making competitions ourselves and having our work screened at some other festivals, and we felt like we might be able to improve on the formula a little.” said Conant. They also saw that many of their friends from film school put aside their dreams for the 9-to-5 grind, with hardly any outlets to showcase their talent.
In the first year of the competition, they had positive responses from loved ones, but also a fair share of resistance from outside of their circle, including one of Conant’s former professors after he asked him to help spread the word about the festival. “Instead of passing along our info to his students, [he] actually wrote back a laundry list of ‘problems’ he saw with our concept, including the fact that other competitions already existed, and said (in so many words), ‘Why bother? You can’t compete.’”
Because they couldn’t find sponsors, they funded the first festival with their own money, with doses of “adrenaline and sheer stubbornness.” according to Yuhas.
“We couldn’t find any sponsors because we didn’t have enough ‘marketing data and collateral,’” said Yuhas “So we funded the thing out-of-pocket through borrowing, begging, and more begging. Even with cash in hand, most local movie theaters would not rent us their space or even return our phone calls.”
A friend of a friend had a connection with the International House, a student residence hall and events venue in West Philadelphia. To this day, it’s still the home of the group’s annual Film and Animation Festival.
There was also unexpected support from the architectural firm Johnsrud & Associates, Yuhas’ employer at the time. They not only let Yuhas use their large-format printers to make posters, but also recruited other employees to attend the first screening and donated the first prize.
Conant and Yuhas might have gotten through their inaugural year with their sanity intact, but the third year was the biggest challenge.
When trying to partner with other companies that they thought shared their vision, the responses were akin to a license-free sound bite of crickets. Volunteers were either unreliable or shady to the point where one eye was always kept on the box office till. And even though Innovation Philadelphia, an economic development group for creative industries lauded the group: “Project Twenty1 presents unique opportunities to showcase Philadelphia as a premier industry location, perfect for both indie and big-budget films., the city wouldn’t work with them in order to offer perks to out-of-town festival goers, some who’ve come as far as the Great Britain and China.
After getting over the mountain of 2008, Project Twenty1 started to thrive.
“If it wasn’t for our community, the amazing films that came out of the process, the teams that consistently made the 15-hour drive to Philadelphia, and the volunteers that DID show up and really knock it out of the park, there is no way that Matt and I would have had the personal strength to continue growing this organization to the level that it is today” said Yuhas.
Conant and Yuhas describe the Project Twenty1’s mission in five words, “Not Just a Film Festival.” The group commits themselves to following up with contestants, and helping them promote their films in other outlets, as well as networking and building relationships in the film community. One way to get connected is with “Susie Filmmaker” the group’s online resource for filmmakers and artists to find last-minute cast and crew, as well as an internship program for young women wanting a career in the film industry.
Project Twenty1 also branched out to the Philly suburbs with Movies on the Hill, a movie-screening event in the arts district of Norristown. When Conant moved to Norristown in 2007, a friend of his connected him with the local drama company, Theatre Horizon. After a town hall meeting, where Conant talked with some of arts, business and community leaders who wanted to revive the area’s art scene, they formed the Norristown Arts Council, who launched the Norristown Arts Festival in 2010. Because of Project Twenty1’s involvement, they upgraded their offices from Conant’s basement to a commercial property in downtown Norristown, inviting other artists to share their space. Even though they’ve built a solid support system of sponsors, volunteer, and even managed to have several interns throughout the year, they still have a way to go before Project Twenty1 switches from a labor of love to a day job.
Project Twenty1 has been a team effort for half a decade, but both founders also have their own side projects. Yuhas has her own animation company, Shiny Grape Studios, and releases a biographical project, American Goulash. Conant owns Crystalline Studios, and is the creative director of Cinevore Studios, a production company that specializes in genre-bending narrative fiction.