Film Around the Clock

The Grand’s annual film contest to invade the Rialto.

By Christopher Wood on May 1, 2008

Tonight 30 teams of filmmakers will converge on The Grand Cinema in Tacoma. They have all anticipated this night for weeks, maybe months. They cram into the theater lobby, receive their instructions, then rush out the door again. Their mission: create a short film entirely from scratch in only 72 hours.

A deceptively simple task. For one thing, creative inspiration doesn’t always adhere to such strict deadlines. “The biggest challenge is coming up with a good idea,” says Jeff Axtman of Kent, who has entered The Grand’s annual competition for the past two years. “Those first few hours after we are given the contest criteria are brutal.”

Uncooperative shooting equipment can also frustrate even the most prepared director. The final scene in Bryan Johnson’s short from last year (which won Audience Favorite) almost didn’t make the final cut because of a faulty camera battery. Pressure mounts with the realization that the Rialto will screen every film publicly this year on Friday, May 9 at 7 p.m. The judging panel — comprised this year of a UPS professor, a local film reviewer, and others — will scrutinize every work and vote for their favorite. That night artistic pain becomes voyeuristic pleasure for the rest of us.

The entrants get more out of the experience than performance anxiety, however. Local amateurs have returned time and again in the contest’s four-year history for reasons beyond winning first place. Axtman likes “the intensity,” while others go for the astounding variety of content that fellow artists produce within the contest’s parameters. Corky Coleman, who walked away with the top prize in the first year, remembers, “It was kind of cool to see my film displayed on the big screen.”

The festival began with this spirit in mind. Several years ago, former managing director for the Grand Erik Hanberg and others looked for ways to encourage the talents of aspiring artists in the community. Around this time, Hanberg says, “We felt there were no opportunities for filmmakers in Tacoma. I wanted to do everything I could to premiere locally-made films at the theater.”

So the first 72-Hour Film Contest opened in late 2005. The initial screening included only 12 films; these days The Grand could easily accept dozens more (though staff has limited the number of entries to 30). Hanberg is thrilled with the ever-increasing positive response to his initial concept: “The second year of the contest … I was blown away at how big the event had gotten. I love that it keeps growing and attracting filmmakers.”

Film festivals are unique in that they turn competitors into potential future collaborators. Settled in an area lacking opportunities for nonprofessionals, The Grand has created a much-needed space in which participants can express themselves, learn new techniques from their colleagues and make contacts. “We (the Grand staff) want to create as many avenues for local filmmakers as we can,” says Philip Cowan, the theater’s current executive director.

The competition may exist primarily for the artists, but the subsequent screening serves as an event for the whole community. It’s a night to enjoy the creativity of our neighbors and celebrate our common love of film and Tacoma itself. Former entrant Jeff Bass is grateful for what the event brings to his neighborhood: “Tacoma is getting better at supporting its film community thanks to this competition. I love it!” Kurt Kendall, a previous winner, shares Bass’ sentiment. “Tacoma was LONG OVERDUE for something like this,” he believes. Their works, along with 28 others, will play on the Rialto’s screen in two weeks.

So whose video will win over the judges? Pile into the Rialto Theater on May 9 and root for the local artists. Grand Cinema members get $2 off the $11 general admission fee.   

[Rialto Theater, Friday, May 9, 7 p.m., $9-$11, 310 S. Ninth, Tacoma, 253.572.6062]