Steve Donovan on MCA-I Madison’s :30 Film Festival

'How to Spot a Tell' took home first place at last year's :30 Film Festival

“They could play a hand of Blackjack against me if they wanted to trade in their topic. If they won the hand, they could pull another topic out. If they lost, they had to buy me a beer.”

You can think of it as a “warmup” for Madison creatives looking to make a career in advertising, but the :30 Film Festival isn’t limited to marketing students. Like the 48 Hour Film Project, MCA-I Madison‘s micro-short competition embraces submissions from all walks and backgrounds — with the caveat that every entry clock in at the half-minute mark. And like the 48 Hour Film Project, teams are assigned a genre and a key element inside a hard-and-fast deadline.

That’s where the comparisons stop, though. Starting up again this Fri Sept 25, the :30 Film Festival is only on its second year. Besides, there’s something particularly tricky about navigating such a small span of time in filmmaking and with such specific prompts. Create a commercial for the release of the Solidarity Singers’ first EP. Repurpose the lyrics from “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Make a music video for your favorite mechanic. Last year’s winner, How to Spot a Tell, uses a rapid-fire narrator and brisk cutaways to outline all the plausible (and not so plausible) ways of spilling the beans in a game of poker. The idea behind the competition is to have fun, with constraints breeding even more creativity from teams.

Steve Donovan, who both serves on MCA-I Madison’s board of directors and has a day job at Wisconsin Film Festival media partner Tweedee Productions, spearheads the event. Despite the sponsorship of the city chapter of the networking and media skill development organization, the competition was pretty new to me, so I reached out to Donovan for some clarification on the quickest film competition in Wisconsin. Ironically, he was anything but short with his responses.

All I know is that somebody won last year. Whose idea was the :30 Film Festival?

Steve: This is our second year. We got this idea to help engage the members into something more fun and break out of the norm of seminars, expert speakers and our programs. They’re informative and constructive to what we do as film and video professionals but the :30 Film Festival works to make our work fun again.

MCA-I Madison’s Programs Coordinator David Bensman and I had an idea for a short film contest. This was the most fun, accessible idea we could develop. It not only engages our membership but it brings hobbyists and students into it, too. Last year, we had a video professor, a marketing manager (along with her son and friends) and a film/video freelancer. We like to bring people to the table to produce content.

You’re drawing from set criteria and giving a narrow window of time to create the entries. Was the 48 Hour Film Project an inspiration for this?

Steve: Yes and no. We liked the idea of time constraints, and the 48 Hour seems to be getting higher and higher-end work with full production units. That’s tough competition. And we love what they’re doing. We partnered with them as sponsors to their contest.

Part of MCA-I Madison’s mission is to bring education and forums for education in our field. And this includes everybody. Students, amateurs, new grads, professionals, and anyone else who is hungry to find out more and meet like-minded pros in film and video.

So this isn’t limited to MCA-I members?

Steve: It’s open to everybody. We priced it that way. We kept it to :30 so it’s not a lengthy deal. We get animators and we get high school students.

Apart from the obvious — length of entries, shorter time frame — what separates this from the 48 Hour?

Steve: Cost. Our registration is much cheaper. It’s a local thing that goes to MCA-I Madison. It’s a grass roots thing that we do for the sheer fun of it. We want participants to have fun, too. [Last year] they could play a hand of Blackjack against me if they wanted to trade in their topic. If they won the hand, they could pull another topic out. If they lost, they had to buy me a beer.

Why 30 seconds?

Steve: It’s a very difficult thing to constrain a fun/funny/interesting piece into 30 seconds. Ask any ad agency who produces broadcast material.

It’s interesting that you bring up ad agencies, because that crossed my mind as well. Do you think this might double as an effective exercise for those interested or working in marketing or advertising?

Steve: Definitely a fun exercise for ad pros or those who would like to flex their TV advertising muscle. I try to reach out to the local Ad Fed in town as well as students in the field. They get assignments that challenge their knowledge and ability to trim a message down to entertaining, compelling messages that are effective to the judges.

There’s over a month between when submissions are due and the WAVE awards in November, when the winners are announced. Who’s judging entries and how much time are they spending looking at submissions?

Steve: For the WAVE Awards, we invited three unrelated judges from other major midwest markets to visit Madison for a long weekend. They come from different jobs: Producers, editors, copy writers, etc. We try to mix it up when it comes to a healthy panel. During that time, they spend about 18 hours inside a conference room looking at nominated pieces. There isn’t a full conversation about the work but there is an opportunity for the judges to ask questions about grading and anything included in the nomination’s paperwork. All nominations have the opportunity to see grade sheets and comments made. It allows transparency for how they viewed your work and gives constructive criticism for the creator.

Do you have any favorite entries from last year?

Steve: I have a couple. How to Spot a Tell was given the 1st place award. The team was run by a guy who is very funny and a talented freelance video guy. He was given this assignment: “Today, you chose a genre thanks to a deck of cards. You are assigned to explain to the viewer how to spot Poker “Tells”. You can do this through voice over/narration, on-air talent, animation or song.”

What have you found participants are getting out of the festival?

Steve: It’s a place to not feel a ton of pressure to deal with clients or teachers or other judgement calls. You can produce something that makes you happy when you’re working with a couple of your friends. There’s nothing else like it around Madison.