For the past 12 years the Almost Famous Film Festival has been challenging Arizona filmmakers to show what they can do in a 1 to 5 minute film. A3F founder and president Jae Staats and co-director Jason Francois continually created new challenges; competitions that would highlight a filmmakers flare for horror, or bring out their comedic side. Filmmakers were tasked with presenting their musical abilities and tested on their chops for creating a good horror movie. Sometimes participants had the luxury of 72 hours before their film had to be turned in. For two challenges, the turn-in time was a scant 24 hours. The 48 hour film challenge was always the most popular, with films turned in from across the U.S after an intense weekend of frantic filmmaking. In times of economic ease; the films often presented optimism and a mild serenity. During economic struggle, they were permeated with violence and anger. After 12 years, this valuable forum for Arizona filmmakers to express themselves, vent, celebrate and enumerate has come to an end. I spoke with Jae Staats recently to understand what led to the demise of the Almost Famous Film Festival; to look back on the past and to get his take on the future of independent filmmaking in Arizona.
Indie Films Examiner: What was your goal when you created the ﬁrst A3F ﬁlm challenge?
Jae Staats: My brother Kai and I entered a local 48 hour ﬁlm challenge in the summer of 2004. We had never done something like this before and really enjoyed the experience of making a ﬁlm with such a short deadline, working with friends, hiring actors, ﬁnding locations, writing a movie and even asking my parents to help out, it was a family affair! Our ﬁlm won a few awards and overall it was just such a cool, fun twist on ﬁlmmaking but the one thing I didn’t enjoy was the way the event was run, it just felt very corporate to me (among other issues). So on the way to the parking lot after the screening, I turned to my brother and said, “I’m going to host my own ﬁlm challenge!” and the A3F was born. A few months later, we premiered the ﬁrst A3F 48 Hour Film Challenge in February 2005 and the rest as they is history.
I.F.E: The A3F quickly became the premiere ﬁlm challenge and sold out quickly. To what would you attribute the popularity and NECESSITY of participating in this challenge.
J.S: I know this might not be the best reason to start something, but I was so motivated to make the A3F different from the event we entered that prior summer, I believe that really pushed me to be creative and think outside-the-box which appealed to the ﬁlmmakers in the valley who were looking for something that had that indie vibe. Our ﬁrst screening was held in the Ice House in downtown Phoenix and it was just so cool. We rented chairs, speakers, and a projector, had a long red carpet so the ﬁlmmakers felt like they were at a real Hollywood premiere, hired a jazz band to greet people as they arrived, sold cans of soda for $.50 cents, had kettle popcorn, and the walls were covered with posters that were screen grabs from the ﬁlms playing that night. I believe all of those little things added up and stuck in the minds of the audience and ﬁlmmakers and word about this new ﬁlm festival started to spread. As we entered our second year, we grew so fast that we moved to AMC Theatres in downtown Phoenix for our Top 20 Public Screening and had 64 teams participating. We were featured on the front page of the Arts and Entertainment section of the Arizona Republic, the local news channels covered our kick-off parties and the A3F really took off. We also started to draw the best teams from around Arizona, Southern California and neighboring states as the A3F became a measuring stick for teams to test their talents versus other ﬁlmmakers. As we only showed the Top 20 ﬁlms, this created a true ﬁlm competition which made our awards and ﬁnal placements even more important to those participating. As we entered our third year in 2007, the A3F became the event to participate in if you were a serous ﬁlmmaker. We had 81 teams and sold out a 465 seat theatre in just a couple of days for our public screening. We were in the papers, on TV and had local businesses signed up as sponsors as everyone wanted to support these talented ﬁlmmakers. And through it all, we made sure to keep the A3F about the ﬁlmmakers and never about us. I think that was the key to why we enjoyed so much success. Just those little things like answering emails quickly, handing out t-shirts, dog tags or wristbands as tickets, posters, and building a personal relationship with the ﬁlmmakers and audience, it all adds up in the end!
I.F.E: What are some of the highlights of the past 12 years?
J.S: Wow, there are so many memories that stick out it’s really tough to narrow them down to just a few but I do have some that I think back upon and smile. The ﬁrst would be in 2007, we sold out our public screening with more than 465 people in attendance and there were 150 more people on the waiting list so the manager of AMC Theatres in downtown Phoenix let us show the ﬁlms a second time that night. I remember Jason (A3F Assistant Director) and I sitting in the theatre with all of these people who were just excited to watch independent ﬁlms and at that moment, we just smiled and thought, “Wow, we just turned the indie-ﬁlm scene in Phoenix upside down!” It was so cool. Another memory that stands out are just the young ﬁlmmakers who came through the A3F and took such pride in their achievements. To see an 8 year-old actress win an award and then watch as a sold-out theatre audience gives her a standing ovation, was just a wonderful thing to witness. Also, I ran into some parents of one of our young directors one year and they told me that the A3F was the reason their son got into ﬁlmmaking and that he was now in college studying ﬁlm and was planning on making this his career. So cool. Another would be a young ﬁlmmaker, Bonnie Sowle, who started with the A3F when she was just in high school and she had the tenacity and strength to always ask for the judges’ feedback and took those notes and made sure to get better with each ﬁlm and eventually after several years of trying, she made the Top 20 and even won a challenge. Was just wonderful to watch and so proud of her. There was also a ﬁlmmaker who shared with me one year that he was battling some severe depression and was even thinking about ending his life but after discovering the A3F and his passion for making ﬁlms, it gave him something to believe in and hope for a future and really changed his life around. For me personally, all the friendships I made with the ﬁlmmakers, judges and audience members meant a lot to me. Some of my closest friends are from the A3F and I’m just very thankful for these opportunities. But the one memory that does stand above the rest has to do with Brock H. Brown, who was a part of team Matter of Chance. He sadly passed away a few years back so we named the Best Script Award after him and so every challenge we hosted, this became the most sought after and meaningful award for the ﬁlmmakers. Brock’s family also became heavily involved with the A3F, donating time and money to the festival and it was always the highlight of every screening as we honored his legacy.
I.F.E: What are some of the low-lights.
J.S: I think the low-lights for me mostly had to do with what the ﬁlmmakers would create in their short films. Over the course of 11 years and 23 ﬁlm challenges, it was a bit dis-heartening to see all the movies that centered around guns or people being killed. It was always amazing to me that we had very few ﬁlms with any type of an on-screen kiss or of a sexual nature but characters running around shooting each other was so prevalent. Also, since we showed only the Top 20 ﬁlms, we always had several teams upset they didn’t make the public screening. But to me, this only meant that they cared and most of them came back the next year and tried even harder to make that coveted Top 20. Another low-light was just the difﬁculty of ﬁnding sponsors or after we became a 501(c)3 non-proﬁt in 2008, it was tough to get donations. I really envisioned the A3F growing to the point where we would have a community center with editing bays and workshops, annual scholarships and just more opportunities to give back. Raising money though is not easy and there is a lot of competition in the valley for people’s donations.
I.F.E: What happened to the A3F ﬁlm challenge? Why did it end?
J.S: Great question and I’m still not even quite sure. We kept growing until 2010 and then for the next few years, our numbers would dip slightly but then rebound, we consistently had 50+ teams competing in our challenges up until 2015. That year, we saw a huge drop in our participation so we tried to shake it up a bit in the fall of 2015 but our efforts didn’t pay off and so we decided to halt the festival. I think there are a number of reasons: the valley is over saturated with ﬁlm challenges and events, we lack a true “arts community” here, the ﬁlmmakers who participated in our events over the years have moved on to other ventures and no one has stepped into their shoes and carried on the tradition, and the prevalence of YouTube and social media, I think people are making videos and ﬁlms and want to instantly show them off to their friends and family. But most of all, it seems like the excitement and energy we experienced in our early years has disappeared and I’m not sure if that’s just because everyone is on their phones or if it’s this new generation of ﬁlmmakers and audience but that level of sheer exuberance is no longer there and when that’s missing, it’s time to stop, reﬂect and try and think of something new. It’s tough to not have the A3F in my life as it was such a huge part of me and what I did twice a year for the past decade so I am a bit lost right now as well and would love to bring it back but just not sure what would work in today’s environment.
I.F.E: What is your take on the future of ﬁlm challenges in Arizona or anywhere?
J.S: I should be politically correct here but to be honest, there is nothing even close to the A3F here in the valley. I remember when the national 48 Hour Film Project came to Phoenix back in the early days of the A3F and they basically closed down operations because of us and our dominance in the market here. I don’t say that with any disregard to the other organizations here that host ﬁlm events, but the A3F was one of the largest ﬁlm challenges in the country and it was because we always made our festivals about the ﬁlmmakers, said no to the corporate sponsors who wanted to take over our events, did all of the little things to make each ﬁlmmaker, whether they were a ﬁrst-time hobbyist, a student, or a seasoned veteran, feel special and it all just came together to make the A3F the event to enter and be apart of. Over the years, several individuals and companies tried to start a new challenge but nothing ever stuck. That said, the local chapter of the IFP (Independent Film Project Phoenix) does a really good job and hosts several ﬁlm related events and workshops each month along with their twice-annual challenges. So there are deﬁnitely outlets for ﬁlmmakers here. I think the future of ﬁlm challenges will move to online and social media just as everything else is going in that direction as well. It also seems like online exposure and possibly monetary prizes will be needed to convince people to participate. The days of just seeing your ﬁlm on the big screen at a real theatre seems to have passed and is not as important these days. I think ﬁlm challenges can always be popular for those who just have fun making silly videos and ﬁlms with their friends, but with the A3F we tried to get those who participated to step it up a notch or two and become “true” ﬁlmmakers and that’s the demographic that seems to be missing now days and if that’s true, then the future of ﬁlm challenges sadly might be in trouble.
I.F.E: After 12 years you have seen it all. How do you see the future of ﬁlmmaking in Arizona?
J.S: Although I am sad to see the A3F take a break and hope that one day we can come storming back, I am actually quite positive on the ﬁlmmaking scene in Arizona as I have seen so many talented individuals come through and they are now living their dreams either as an actor, director, writer, producer or even getting immense joy from working grip on a movie set. And that’s what it’s truly about, if we measure ﬁlmmaking in Arizona by the number of Hollywood movies being made here or local productions, we won’t like the results but if we instead focus on the people who are living out their dreams in front or behind the camera, then Arizona has a bright future and I look forward to seeing more people become Almost Famous!