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Will Success Spoil the 48 Hour Film Project?

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in January, director David Butler and his motley film crew set up shop in a cavernous yellow brick building on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore’s Little Italy. The team, known collectively as Bargain Basement Films, started straggling in at about 7 a.m. that morning to begin shooting Maestro Percival, a short about a violin-playing zombie who terrorizes the staff at a photography studio, sexually harassing one employee and then literally devouring another.

Lynda Meier, the film’s gregarious producer, is energetic despite the fact that she’s coming down with a cold and stayed up past midnight on Friday working on the script. “Don’t eat the props!” Meier shouts, pointing to a table on set covered with bottles of Perrier, assorted Danishes, a fruit basket piled with bananas, grapes and oranges, and Milano cookies arranged neatly in a blue bowl. The crew’s real snack table is littered with bags of popcorn, a jar of assorted nuts, soda and juice boxes. “They’re leftovers from an anti-smoking commercial I worked on this week,” Meier says.

In the kitchen, two prop masters cobble together bloody hunks of raw meat into the shape of a dismembered hand. Across the room, on set, Butler—a laid-back yet professional 40-something wearing sneakers, a fleece pullover, and jeans with a bottle of water shoved in each back pocket—shouts instructions to Ken Arnold, the actor playing the zombie, who’s standing on the other side of a bathroom door.

“Let’s have a couple of quick groans,” Butler yells, and the zombie complies.

“Now some scratching and biting at the door.”

The noises from the bathroom get louder.

“Now some scratching and biting without groaning.”

The racket reaches a fever pitch, until Butler yells out, “Cut.” The room bursts into laughter.

It may sound like a typical day on the set of any low-budget zombie flick. But the circumstances are anything but ordinary. As contestants in the 48 Hour Film Project’s HD Filmmaker Showdown, Butler and his unpaid crew had only two days to write, shoot, and edit a short film between four and seven minutes in length. The contest started promptly at 7:00 on Friday night, when Butler’s team met at a Mexican restaurant called Holy Frijoles to receive the required elements for their film: a genre (comedy), a line (“Cut the nonsense. Let’s get to it.”), a prop (an electric razor), and a character (a violinist named Edward Percival). The team synchronized their watches and started brainstorming ideas. If everything went according to plan, they’d have a finished product by 7 p.m. on Sunday. “This is a fabulous exercise,” says Sandye Kay, Bargain Basement’s fashion stylist and makeup artist. “It opens your filmmaking senses, like a good shot of wasabi.”

Nurse maid to a short film renaissance

Short films are sexy again. Video-sharing websites like YouTube have exploded, offering filmmakers a new way to screen movies. At the same time, digital video cameras and affordable off-the-shelf software like Apple’s Final Cut Pro have slashed the cost of making films. “The DV format has made things possible in filmmaking that weren’t possible ten years ago,” says Chris Tiné, executive producer of RipFest Collaborative Film Project in New York City. The technology has been a huge boon for independent filmmakers, who no longer have to worry about costly film processing and editing. “It used to be too expensive to take risks,” Tiné says. “Before, you couldn’t afford to have anything go wrong.”

Meanwhile, advertisers seeking alternatives to traditional 30-second TV commercials are experimenting with consumer-generated content and original programming on the Web. Indeed, advertisers are expected to spend $1.7 billion on Internet video streams to PCs and TVs by 2010, according to Adams Media Research in Carmel, California. Al Gore’s network Current TV solicits viewers to create user-generated advertisements. And though it has struggled, Anheuser-Busch’s Bud.TV promises to be an online network featuring a handful of original series. Finish Our Movie, a reality program produced by LivePlanet, the production company started by Project Greenlight creators Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, will let viewers submit ideas to flesh out the middle for a movie that already has a beginning and an end. The winning entrant will be flown to Hollywood to shoot the script—and the entire process will be taped and aired on Bud.TV.

Even the Hollywood elite is getting in on the action. This winter, director Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett, creator of Survivor, began accepting video submissions for On the Lot, an American Idol for aspiring filmmakers that aired on Fox this summer. Each week, teams produced short films in specific genres and viewers decided who would be eliminated. The last filmmaker standing—Will Bigham, a film editor from Glendale, California—won a $1 million development deal.

The timing couldn’t be better for Mark Ruppert and Liz Langston, who founded the 48 Hour Film Project six years ago to encourage independent filmmaking. Since then, more than 50,000 contestants around the country have participated in the grueling two-day experiment. This year, the contest will take place in 55 cities in the United States and abroad, from Tulsa to Tel Aviv. Last fall, Ruppert and Langston launched a beta version of 48.tv, an online entertainment network featuring more than 3,000 short films created as part of the contest. In March, indie success story Alexander Payne gave the keynote address at Filmapalooza, the competition’s first annual film festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To top it all off, 48 Hour Film hosted a private screening of 17 contest entries at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “Every seat in the theater was filled,” Ruppert says. “We ran into people who were very surprised that something of such quality could be made in just 48 hours.”

Yet despite the outward appearance of success, the reality is much less glamorous: Ruppert and Langston are still struggling to pay the bills. “If my wife didn’t have a full time job, I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” Ruppert says. Langston, for her part, recently quit her day job as a traffic safety researcher in Washington, D.C. and moved to Albuquerque to become 48 Hour Film’s full time executive producer. The partners have a lot riding on their ability to drum up more corporate sponsorship over the next year. “It’s already a viable business, Ruppert says. “The only question becomes whether it will pay real salaries.” Boston Beer and Panasonic have sponsored secondary competitions, and Visa recently signed on as sponsor of the national competition, as well as the Visa “Life Takes” Invitational. But will more companies line up to support a relatively small operation like the 48 Hour Film Project? And, if they do, will their participation—and the demands large and small that, as sponsors, they are sure to make—change the fun, freewheeling, independent spirit of the competition?

“That’s what we’re really here for anyway.”

Christina Ruppert, Mark’s sister, is munching on french fries at Viand, an old-fashioned coffee shop on New York City’s Upper East Side. As director of operations for the 48 Hour Film Project, she helps the local producers who run competitions in various cities, providing them with detailed 30-page handbooks and fielding questions about everything from where to hold the Friday night kick-off party (usually at a local bar) to arcane contest rules (Are sound effects allowed in silent movies? Answer: Music and sound effects are permissible, but natural sound is prohibited.). It’s late January and Christina is gearing up for the 2007 tour, which begins in March. This year, she’ll oversee 55 local producers, 20 more than last year. It’s a bit nerve-wracking, she admits, but also exciting. “When we can reach more film communities, we can reach more filmmakers,” she says. “That’s really what we’re here for anyway.”

When Ruppert created the 48 Hour Film Project in 2001, many independent movie theaters had disappeared, replaced by corporate multiplexes devoted to mainstream fare. For most aspiring filmmakers, film festivals were the only way to screen movies before live audiences. Ruppert wanted to provide another venue for films by organizing movie-making contests in cities around the country capped off by an official screening and awards ceremony at a local theater. The catch? Teams would have only two days and nights to complete the films. “We wanted to know if a person could make a film in 48 hours,” Ruppert says. “And if they could, would it be watchable?”

Ruppert and Langston met nine years ago at a filmmakers happy hour in Washington, D.C. Langston had just written a movie script and Ruppert, a freelance film editor, was eager to hone his directing skills. Over the next two years they made two 15-minute long romantic comedies and produced a live late night talk show at the Warehouse Theater, a small performance space and coffee shop in D.C. The pair also hosted multimedia parties at the Warehouse, projecting movies made by local filmmakers onto the exterior of the building.

In 1998, Ruppert read a story in the New York Times about two women who founded a 24-hour play competition. With a bit more time, he thought, the same concept could work for filmmaking. Two years later, met three of his film friends at a pizza parlor in D.C. to gauge their interest in competing. They gave the thumbs up and he booked a small independent theater called Visions Cinema for the screening. Word spread quickly throughout the D.C. film community and, one Friday night that May, ten teams converged on a bar/coffee shop in Adams Morgan to receive their genres and required elements: a severed body part, a repo man named Max, and the line “I made you who you are and I can just as easily break you.” The 48 Hour Film Project was born.

“Oh, you’re the 48 Hour guy.”

Ira Livingston first heard about the 48 Hour Film Project in 2002 when he was studying film at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The contest sounded like the perfect antidote to the Twin Cities’ short film production season, which is usually limited to the summer months due to Minnesota’s frosty climate. Even when the weather is warm, Livingston says, few major productions come to town other than the occasional Grumpy Old Men. “You wonder what to do while you’re waiting,” he says.

With that in mind, Livingston began to e-mail the 48 Hour Film Project to find out when it was coming to Minneapolis. By late 2003, he was getting desperate, demanding to know, “What would it take to get you to Minneapolis?” He finally got his answer a few weeks later: The contest would come to his hometown, if he were willing to produce it.

Livingston was part of an aggressive overhaul of 48 Hour Film’s business model that began in 2003. The project was expanding rapidly. In 2002, the competition took place in six cities, including New York, Austin, and Los Angeles, with the winner of each locale squaring off in a national competition. That number nearly doubled, to 11, the following year. Ruppert and Langston spent the better part of each spring and summer jetting around the country to run the competitions. It was grueling, but educational. In the early days, screenings took place on Monday night, giving Ruppert less than 24 hours to assemble the master tape of the entries. On one occasion, Ruppert’s computer crashed during the rendering process at 4:30 p.m., when the tape was only half done. “Here I was with two and a half hours to go and no tape for the screening,” he recalls. Ruppert completed half of the tape in time for the screening and another editor scrambled to finish it at a nearby studio. “I was praying that the end would show up,” Ruppert says. It arrived in time, but after that night, Ruppert decided to hold screenings no earlier than Tuesday to allow for glitches. “That’s how we gained the experience to figure out what it takes,” he says.

By 2003, the partners realized they could no longer keep up with the rapid expansion into dozens of cities across the country. “We just knew from the response we were getting that this was something that appealed to a lot of people, and we wanted to share it,” Ruppert recalls. “But there was no way we could do it ourselves.” Instead, he and Langston decided to hire local “producers” to handle the competitions for them—recruiting contestants, hiring judges, planning screenings, processing paperwork, and dealing with the snafus that inevitably pop up along the way. Letting outsiders take over responsibility for the project at the local level was risky, but Ruppert, whom Langston describes as “the business mind” of the partnership, saw the franchise model as a smart growth strategy—one that would allow 48 Hour Film to ramp up growth and boost revenue from entry fees, which have hovered around $150 per team. In exchange for their work, producers would receive a flat fee and a percentage of ticket sales from screenings.

Livingston, for his part, produced the first 48 Hour Film contest in Minneapolis in 2004 and has launched contests in Fargo and Chicago since then. The pay isn’t much—he’s still a retail manager at Target by day—but the networking opportunities have been invaluable. “I went from a film school graduate who nobody knew to a producer with three years of experience under my belt,” says Livingston, who has written and shot two corporate videos in the past two years. “Now I can pick up the phone and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re the 48 Hour guy.’”

“The model works on its own. Or, you could say, it doesn’t work.”

In some ways, the franchising model made perfect sense. It allowed the 48 Hour Film Project to expand into 25 cities in 2005, which resulted in more contestants, more entry fees and more ticket sales. But most of the revenue generated went right back into renting theaters, mastering tapes for screenings and paying producers. There was barely enough left over to pay Ruppert and Langston meager salaries. “The model works on it’s own,” Ruppert says. “Or, you could say, it doesn’t work.”

Then YouTube and MySpace exploded onto the scene, which gave Ruppert an idea. “We had a ton of content created over the past few years,” he figured. “Why not try to get it on the Web?” Earlier this year, he partnered with BrainBox Enterprises, a D.C. production house, to create an online television network called 48.tv. Visitors to the current beta version of the site can watch and rate more than 3,000 short movies created by 48 Hour Film contestants. The official site will be a kind of MySpace for the film community, allowing users to create profiles, locate filmmakers, and write reviews. If all goes according to plan, users will be able to buy downloadable “best of” videos starting this spring, with filmmakers receiving a cut of each sale. So far, the site has only 2,000 registered users. But the majority falls into the coveted 21 to 35 age demographic, notes Nick Panagopulos, CEO of Brainbox. “We’ll be able to tell advertisers that we have X amount of people who are this old and drink this kind of beer,” Panagopulos says.

The online entertainment network is 48 Hour Film’s riskiest initiative yet. “Until we have paid advertisers and downloadable videos, it will be a money-losing proposition,” Ruppert says. As Anheuser-Busch has learned, featuring beer-related content on the Web can be dangerous from a legal perspective. Shortly after the launch of Bud.tv in February, attorneys general of more than 20 states fired off a sharply worded letter to Anheuser-Busch, complaining that the network was too easily accessible by people below the drinking age. There is also the added complication of compensating filmmakers. The Screen Actors Guild recently decided to let members participate in the 48 Hour Film Project without being paid. If 48.tv starts raking in advertising revenue, the guild—and, for that matter, contest participants—may begin to feel less generous.

Of course, breaking through the clutter of online videos won’t be easy, especially when a clip of a football team completing 15 lateral passes or clip of Britney Spears shaving her head is more likely to make a splash than an earnest five-minute short. Ruppert hopes that very distinction will help attract advertisers and sponsors looking for high-quality content produced by real filmmakers. “Work with us and we’ll put you in contact with filmmakers that are virtually guaranteed to give you a good product,” he says. “Our filmmakers are a cut above the general stuff that’s out there.” At the same time, he adds, the website offers increased exposure for contestants. “That’s what most of our filmmakers are looking for,” he says. It’s unclear just how much exposure they’ll actually get. As Bud.tv has proven, driving traffic to online ‘television’ networks isn’t easy, even with A-list Hollywood partners like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Kevin Spacey. The number of unique visitors to the site plummeted from 250,000 after the launch in February to an average of just 50,000 per month. After rumors of a shut down, Anheuser-Busch recently said it plans to keep the site alive through at least 2008.

Luckily for Ruppert, 48.tv is just one element of his new master plan. For the past few years, he has been busily wooing corporate sponsors. Back in 2004, Avid, a digital media software company, became 48 Hour’s first national sponsor. In 2005, Panasonic signed up, hosting a secondary competition called the HD Filmmaker Showdown, during which award-winning teams from five cities compete for the chance to win a Panasonic HVX200 high definition camera worth $5,000. Then, last year, a marketing executive at Boston Beer who heard about the competition from a local filmmaker called to talk about doing a deal. In November, during a special competition called the Fall Shootout, top teams from cities around the country competed for a $500 cash prize and a chance to work with Boston Beer in the future. This time, in addition to a prop (an electrical cord), a character (a cartoon voice-over artist named Tony or Tammy Tipparino), and a line (“Good luck with that”), teams hoping to win the cash prize were required to incorporate one more element: a bottle of Samuel Adams beer.

This spring, Ruppert landed another major sponsor: Visa. In early September, the 48 Hour Film Project invited the top ten teams from the San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles competitions to take part in the first annual Visa “Life Takes” Invitational. Later that month, Visa flew two members from each of the 30 teams to San Francisco for a film screening and awards ceremony. The stakes were higher than ever: The second and third place entries won $2,500 and $5,000, respectively, and the grand prize winner, San Francisco’s Team BP, won $10,000 for its short film, Terms of Use! The restrictions were tighter too: Submissions had to be G rated, run three minutes or less and feature a Visa card and the fill-in-the-blank phrase “Life takes…”

Such blatant product promotion may seem like the very antithesis of the independent spirit that Ruppert set out to promote. But contestants, many of whom make a living doing corporate video production, don’t seem to mind. Rather than cringing at corporate sponsorship, they like the idea of winning cash prizes and meeting potential new clients. Case in point: Jeffrey Ford, head of Magnetoscope Pictures, the Cincinnati outfit that won the award for best product integration at the 2006 Fall Shootout. Even though the rules required Magnetoscope to show a bottle of Sam Adams Winter Lager only once during the film, Ford and his team decided to make the product integral to the plot, which centers on a voice-over artist who places a gadget in a bottle of Sam Adams to turn his Smurf-like falsetto into something more akin to Superman. The decision paid off: Sam Adams hired Magnetoscope to produce commercial content for them this spring. Ford, who produces commercials, documentaries, and corporate videos by day, has a pragmatic take on the 48 Hour Film Project. “A lot of people in this competition have aspirations of being indie filmmakers,” he says. “I have a degree of that in me, but I am not completely hell-bent on that being the only thing that will mark achievement in my life. I’m into it more as a creative outlet, something that helps reset me in a physical and emotional sense.”

Ruppert, for his part, isn’t about to apologize for trying to earn a living. “We’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this project and we’ve enjoyed it 99 percent of the time,” he says. “But, like anyone else, we like to be paid for what we do.” Ruppert sees corporate sponsorship as a win-win situation that generates income for him and Langston and prizes and opportunities for participants. In some respects, however, those very prizes are a cause for concern. “Certainly we fear as we grow bigger and as we continue to improve the prizes that some of the participants will get more competitive,” Ruppert admits. “What we try to do is emphasize the fun of the event.”

Ruppert is well aware of the other problems corporate sponsorships can create and he’s trying to finding ways to achieve the best of both worlds: a fun, creative filmmaking competition that’s also a financial success. To maintain the pure spirit of the city competitions, for example, he limits product placements to secondary events like the Fall Shootout and the Visa Invitational. In last fall’s Shootout, Ruppert even made the Sam Adams bottle optional because the beer sponsor came on board after teams had registered for the event. That won’t be an issue this fall: The marketing executive at Boston Beer who signed the sponsorship deal with 48 Hour Film has since left the company. “Once the champion of our cause was gone, other people didn’t know how it fit it to what they were doing,” Ruppert says.

Best in Show

Back in Baltimore, in a cozy stone cottage at the bottom of a hill, Butler slumps on a chair in Clean Cuts music and sound design studio as an audio engineer brings Maestro Percival to life with gasps, screeching brakes and the sound of a zombie chewing human flesh. “At what day job do you get to put zombie sounds in a movie?” muses Butler, who stayed up all Saturday night editing the film, operating under the assumption that the last take of everything would be the best.

As Meier fills out the required paperwork for the contest—releases, feedback forms, and the like—screenwriter Sean Murphy pops by to see the film for the first time. “Do we have any spies?” he asks, wondering if there’s any way of getting information on the four other films competing for the Panasonic camera. “You care much more about that than I do,” Butler replies, laughing. “Just do the best you can do.”

That night, an exhausted Butler made it back to Holy Frijoles to hand in Maestro Percival with a half hour to spare. He screened the film for the first time a week later at Bedrock, a Baltimore pool hall with a large flat screen monitor. The next time Butler saw the movie was in May at Filmapalooza, the 48 Hour Film Project festival in Albuquerque, which he attended with director of photography Regis Becker. The film was well received—the audience laughed—but the competition was stiff. “After watching all five films, I turned to Reege and said, ‘We don’t have a chance,’” Butler recalls. Two days later, at the awards ceremony, he was stunned to win first prize. “I was pretty shell-shocked,” he says. “It was a thrill.” He got another thrill during a cocktail party after Alexander Payne’s keynote address. “I had the good fortune of talking to him for 20 minutes about movies and production,” Butler says.

Butler decided not to direct another 48 Hour entry this year. “It’s too soon to be asking for all those favors again,” he says. But he did make his acting debut, playing a serial killer in The Harbinger and Henry Lee, a submission from another Baltimore team. His current indie project? A documentary about an abandoned 33-acre African American cemetery in Baltimore, which he’s shooting on Bargain Basement’s brand-new, high-definition Panasonic camera.

Nadine Heintz is a contributing editor.

Related links:

Watch Maestro Percival, the film that won top honors.

Read “The 48 Hour Picture People”, the Independent’s last article on the group, written by Derek Loosvelt in 2004.

And to learn more about the 48 Hour Film Project, visit the group’s website.

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