Interview: The Minds Behind the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival

By  · Published on April 22nd, 2010

As a member of the film press, I find myself at times taking for granted the opportunities that are afforded me when I participate in film festivals. I show up, my room and board are either free or deeply discounted, my meals are generally taken care of, I have a space to work and write, and I get to see lots of films at no cost to myself. Festival-goers have a level of this as well. They pay for days of entertainment, enjoy catered after-parties, great films, and get to experience what is more often than not a well oiled machine that caters to their wants. It’s easy to treat the film festival experience like something that simply is, rather than a massive undertaking with many moving parts that need constant care and attention.

The LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival is still very young at two years. It is still held in a single venue, but again ‐ moving parts. There are PR representatives constantly sending out information on the events, calling panel members and their reps, making sure people are going to be where scheduled, and making sure they have what they need to get there. There are technical concerns like lighting, sound, projector quality, and any other number of things that ensure a smooth festival experience, and there are a lot of hands in that no matter what the size of the festival.

More than that, however, before anything happens at all…the festival has to be planned and executed by the brain trust; a job that begins many months before we set foot in a venue, and ends only after the last person leaves.

In the case of the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival, that brain trust consists of festival director Jeannie Roshar, artistic director Gary Anthony Williams, and festival producer Ryan Higman. I sat down with the three between screenings to talk to them about what it means to put on a festival, the growing pains of being a new fish in the pond, their role in bringing fledgling filmmakers, screenwriters, and actors into the spotlight, and what it takes to build their brand.

Thanks for talking to me folks. Let’s jump right into this. So, second year. How is this year different than the last as far as getting everyone together, getting your sponsors ‐ has it gotten easier, or as it has gotten bigger have the difficulties mounted?

Jeannie Roshar: I think last year we had the benefit of ignorance. So, we didn’t know what could possibly go wrong, and because of that, um…maybe there were a lot more pleasant, happy surprises. This year we knew more of what to look out for, so I think there was more pressure this year. It wasn’t like, “Oh, this is the second year, let’s relax.” We knew we had to work even harder.

Ryan Higman: I think just because we had the experience of last year, and…we were kind of repeating some of the same venues and stuff like that, we were counting on that, like things like the schedule being consistent. We would be like, “Oh, no problem. We’ll just do what we did last year.” Well, the company that we used last year, they went out of business two months ago, and we had no idea what to do to get the schedule up online. So, we had to do a huge rush, and didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars doing so, so I had to go and just manually build all of the film detail pages and the schedule and everything online. It’s just little things like that that just made us go, “Oh, hey, we can’t really just do what we did last year.” We realized we had to keep on thinking of new solution.

Gary Anthony Williams: Yeah, there were headaches that popped up, but that’s always going to be true of last minute changes and stuff like that. Still, it’s nice to know that you already have an audience that’s aware of you, so you don’t have to really completely remake yourself, and that was good. The other difference this year is like, you know…we had different panelists and different subject matter, but for some reason it just feels like the panels we did this year seemed to really just hit home with the audience.

JR: Yeah.

GW: We zoned in on that really good. Also, we all seemed to gain the power of flight this year. Literally, all three of us fly…

RH: Which comes in handy.

Seems helpful, yes.

Jeannie: It is.

My last experience with a film festival was the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which was great ‐ but it was huge. While the panels were relatively informative, and it’s great seeing people like James Cameron, Jason Reitman, Mark Boal…all of those folks, you feel really separated from the conversation. Here, there was a level of intimacy that I really appreciated. There was a lot of really great interaction with the attendees and the panelists. I would imagine that that’s really a large part of the charm of this; that you are really having a very interactive experience.

GW: Yeah, well…we definitely would like to be large, but we certainly don’t want to become homogenized. There is a specific product that we’re putting out there and it’s something we’re all interested in and that we all love and love watching, seeing, and doing ‐ but we don’t want to get whitewashed with what we’re doing, that’s for sure.

JR: Oh, it is about race?

RH: [Laughs]

GW: Oh, yes, we also don’t want anymore white people involved with the festival.

RH: You mean me too?

GW: Yes.

I promise not to cover this film festival ever again.

All: [Laugh]

JR: You know, it is nice how intimate and personal it is at this size, even though we have no problem with becoming more successful. Someone said to me last night, “Someday you’re going to look back on these days and think how cool it was.” I like that we have one event at a time, so everyone kind of stays together in this group, and you notice that by the end of this weekend there are a lot of people that have become friends. That’s one of the things I really love about it. Everyone sees the same events, and goes to the same parties, goes to the same screening. That’s what’s going on, and that’s not splitting people off.

RH: Yeah, but…the disadvantage that I see, and it’s something that’s been bothering me since last year is that, we can only show a short film one time. That’s tough because, maybe someone’s film is up in the first block and they showed it, it was fun, but then it’s over. People will want to know about it and see it, um…but they miss it. Fortunately a lot of these short films are online.

JR: And eventually they’ll be in our online film festival on, or they can go on in the future.

RH: Yeah, that’s true. That’s cool. But yeah, I do think that’s sort of the advantage right now, like you’re saying, that it’s more like a shared experience. We have one venue, one theater…but as we grow larger obviously, we’re going to have to expand that. That has other challenges, but it would be nice to allow filmmakers, because this is so short and sweet, and awesome and we love them, but it would be great to have mutliple screenings so people wouldn’t have to miss something great. It would be great to get people back if there is some buzz with a short, and it would help ticket sales as well.

Clearly New Media, online media is eventually going ‐ it didn’t really hit the ground running, it sort of hit the ground dragging a leg, but…eventually the other shoe is going to drop and it’s really going to blow up and become an integral part of everyone’s media experience. The people that use this to get their work out have really seemed to find a home here with you guys. When you started this, was that something you saw in your head, that you could be a launch pad for these guys that have been putting themselves out there online? This seems to be an experience where, these guys that have been building their audience can take it to the next level, and potentially be talking to an agent in the lobby after their short. Was that planned?

GW: We definitely didn’t start it for Youtube, or Funny or Die ‐ we didn’t start it for online media to have a place. We started it for any short comedy filmmakers to have a place, so it wasn’t specifically for online media to have a place, it was for everyone. But, what you said about online media starting by dragging a leg, I’m guessing all media did. I remember listening to a lot of old time radio, and I can’t tell you how many times they made fun of television, and how nobody was watching television. The new thing that’s coming along, and they’d be broadcasting some horrible little comedy that everyone was laughing at. You know, I think it all started sort of dragging a leg. Nobody knows what’s going to happen with New Media, that’s for sure, but somebody is going to be watching movies somewhere, be it on their computer, television, movie theaters ‐ and the fact that you can watch a lot of stuff on the computer and then you still fill a house here, people watching this is an amazing thing.

JR: And just the fact that shorts are really, um…they’re what you can theoretically fund yourself, I believe a lot of the people coming up today are going to be starting with shorts. You know, not many people have a family member that will write them a check for a million dollars, you know. Still, new voices were coming up even before the internet was an option, and now especially with where technology has come where you can even make a film using your phone and it can get so many views ‐ this is really the wave, but as people have said this weekend, we really can’t forget what it’s like for people to come together in a community. It’s great to watch online, and it’s a great resource in how the world is working, but…you know, the guys at Funny or Die said last year and again this year, that it’s been so great for them to see their films that they’re used to watching on a computer monitor on a full sized movie theater screen, and hearing where people have the laughs. They know the stuff the bring is funny because it has millions of hits, but hearing where the laughs are and knowing what works, they really appreciate that feedback.

RH: Also I think that all of the filmmakers, when they’re creating this product, I have to think they’re not imagining it on the iPod screen. They’re thinking, “This is a movie, I’m seeing this being watched in a dark theater, full of people.” This is creating that experience that you can’t get online. No matter what happens with technology, I don’t see that ever replacing the human element of seeing a movie in the theater, and for festivals, the parties ‐ all those things that you mention, the community that’s created here, that’s something that you cannot get with the online experience.

JR: You can play beer pong online, but I’ve done it, and it’s not a lot of fun.

GW: Nope, and you can fry your motherboard with all of that beer.

All: [Laugh]

RH: That’s true.

GW: Tom Hoffman from Atomic Wedgie, uh, the Freemantle guy…last year he hooked up with three people and made deals with them after seeing their films. What I feel good about, and I guess Ryan and Jeannie do too, is we’re able to give an opportunity to people that would really have to have gone around some high hills and back alley to get that opportunity.

JR: This is the festival that, after we made our film, my heart would have started racing if I would have seen it online and gone, “Oh my God, this is the festival that we need to get in!” That’s really been our motivation for doing this. These are the opportunities that I wish had been there for us, and that’s why we did it. It seems a lot of times with festivals, comedies aren’t a priority, and it’s nice to have something so specifically focused. I mean, the panels may even be my favorite part. Our audiences are great, our panelists are great, and I honestly feel like they’re really helpful, more than ‐ you know, talking about how successful they are. I feel like our panels are useful, and I learn from them. They’re enjoyable, everyone is having a good time. There are people here looking for content, agents here looking for people, um…it just kind of reminds you that people need content, people need good stuff.

GW: Yeah, Hollywood can’t run itself.

JR: Yeah.

That’s the thing about these panels as opposed to some of the larger ones. A lot of those Q&A sessions turn into conversations about the guest’s personal lives, which is fantastic…

JR: Right.

…but I want to know how they do what they do, where they came from, and find a way to connect that to my experience as a writer, or someone’s experience as a producer ‐ the discussion about how they got there and what we have to do as people working toward our place in the industry is important. And, hey, not everyone there is interested in being a part of the entertainment industry, but that’s the great thing about these intimate panels ‐ everyone gets to ask a question, and listen to great stories. They get what is important to them out of the experience. I think no matter what, everyone is getting really valuable feedback.

JR: Yeah, I think so too. I’m proud of that.

GW: A lot of festivals are not doing panels, or fewer. We talked to some of the guys that do festivals at this big summit for people that run them, who were thinking about cutting their panels out.

JR: And we told them they need to just make their panels interesting!

RH: Yeah, they just needed to make sure their panels weren’t boring.

JR: People are interested in panels if they’re, you know… interesting.


GW: So, obviously we have everything figured out. We know everything, and nothing goes wrong.

JR: Well, we did overestimate the number of women’s t-shirts this year. We got too many.

GW: Right, the only thing we can better ourselves in, the only thing is getting the t-shirt count right.

All: [Laugh]

GW: Once we get that, we’ll be the perfect film festival.


JR: I have to jump in three minutes.

Okay, almost done here. We folks come to these things, and we sort of take for granted that we can show up, be fed, sometimes have a place to stay, walk into a theater and have our films start on time ‐ what are your, you know…this is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off. People need to understand what it takes to get this off the ground and make it functional.

JR: How much time do you have? This is the thing, and I understand because we’re filmmakers too and I’ve been on the other side but, it does…people do not understand the sheer amount of hours all three of us put in, and all of us do other stuff as well, but it really is a labor of love. It’s the worst get rich scheme you could ever try is putting together a film festival. Um…it’s just not understanding that it’s just the three of us doing everything, so you might be one person asking a question, but we’re getting that question times eighty, and there are thirty sponsors, and we’re trying to keep everyone happy while trying to publicize the event on a shoestring budget. So, that is incredibly difficult. And then, “Hey can’t we just come for free, and are we going to be fed?” I have one guy that always ask how much food he’s going to get at each event. And, listen, I’m from Wisconsin, I want everyone to eat, but I can’t be responsible for five hundred people getting fed three times a day when our cash budget is, like…we couldn’t even buy a decent car with it. We’re working so hard to get as much good stuff as possible, but when people never want to pay anything, yet want to eat and drink all day, everyday…go to every event, and they want a bus, but again…don’t want to pay anything, that is hard for me to hear. [Laughs]

GW: And that’s easy for me to hear, because I agree with them. Let’s give them more free stuff and buses. I actually want every member of the audience to have a bus next year. That’s where Jeannie and I differ.

JR: Yeah, we’ll work it out.

GW: I think the toughest part, well there are a lot of tough parts, but if it were that horrible we wouldn’t do it, but one of the toughest parts was bringing on new sponsors that don’t know us yet, and trying to convince them you have a viable product out there. That’s tough, just, you know…working with the sponsors to make sure everyone gets what they need. Because, once you’re here, the only tough part after that is making sure you get enough sleep.

RH: I think what’s most difficult for me is, and you know Jeannie mentioned this before, we all have other lives and jobs. We’re certainly not making a living with the film festival . Um…it’s basically trying to juggle those things, and you know, we just had a baby a day after Christmas. We’ve been juggling all of that plus the film festival. It’s been kind of insane. But like Jeannie said, it’s a labor of love and it’s all worth it.

Last one: since it looks like everyone is coming in for the next block. In five years, what would this festival be in a perfect world? What would you consider a complete success?

GW: I think we have hopes of producing, right?

RH: I think that’s what it is. I think that, in a perfect world, it would be really cool if this weren’t just a launching pad for other studios or agents looking for content, but I think we would like to create a production company that would be a seperate entity. We’d have this amazing pool of undiscovered talent that we could maybe work with, and help produce a script.

GW: We get so many great scripts, and then you go, “That should be made into a movie. If Hollywood doesn’t make this, we have the money, we can make this movie.”

RH: The festival itself, we want the festival to be really popular, and want lots of people to go to it, but like Gary said…we ultimately don’t want to lose that good vibe we’ve created. We never want to become too full of ourselves, and pretentious, or anything like that. We want people to come and have a good time, and want to keep our stamp on it. We never want to lose that. We’re a comedy festival; we have a niche and we never want to lose that unique identity.

In my first article, I talked up the LACSFF because, honestly…there was a lot to highlight. Unique experiences in the entertainment industry aren’t as available these days as perhaps they were before, and an event like the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival has gone a long way in providing something special for those in attendance, and for people that may never do so even. It’s likely that a comedy film you see in the future will have seen cast, writers, and producers start with New Media offerings, and possibly have gotten their start after participating in this festival in particular. The work they put in is incredible, and I hope in writing this the reader may develop a new level of appreciation for the people that give film festivals wings.

Even more, I hope that many of you will make an effort to enjoy the festival experience yourselves ‐ any festival really, but particularly those that build up the people trying to break into this business and make great art for all of us to enjoy.

Click here to read more coverage of the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival