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Quick shoot artists

From concept to finished work, Instant Films Festival teams do it all in 48 hours.

August 29, 2003|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Last Sunday at 8:43 p.m., the 400-seat theater at Los Angeles Center Studios was buzzing with anticipation. It was like an opening night screening of the latest installment of "Star Wars" -- minus the guys dressed up as wookies and waving light sabers.

The event was the Instant Films Festival and the near-capacity crowd was awaiting the arrival of the seventh and final film that would complete the evening's slate and allow the show to commence.

Launched in May 2002, Instant Films plays like an ultra-low-budget combination of HBO's Hollywood wannabe series "Project Greenlight," and the Learning Channel's quickie design makeover shows "Trading Spaces" and "While You Were Out." The setup here: Instant Films features movies written, shot, edited and screened over 48 hours.

The films were due at 6 p.m., a deadline with a definite wink factor as the first groggy director strolled in with his tape at a quarter after the hour. His arrival preceded those of most of his fellow directors by almost two hours. There is no prize for being first, other than the sense of relief that you have finished and can sit in the plush commissary at the Center Studios and have a drink while your fellow filmmakers are elsewhere attempting to coerce balky hard drives to output their completed digital films.

Three founding partners -- John Sylvain, a founder of the Annex Theater in Seattle and the Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles; Peter Lebow, who studied and produced theater in New York; and Charles Papert, a television and feature film cameraman -- pooled their talents and resources to organize Instant Films.

Every six to eight weeks, writers, actors, directors and their crews are gathered for a weekend in which they produce seven or eight short films. Each festival has a theme -- No. 007 had a spy motif, naturally, and this one, which was Instant Films No. 009, was summer, meaning bikinis, barbecue and blockbusters. The October Instant Films will focus on Halloween.

"They had done this for years in the theater and it was a natural progression," says the stocky Lebow, who sports a shaved head and a goatee, and would be intimidating except for his quick smile.

Instant Films can trace its lineage directly to the Sacred Fools' "Fast & Loose," a 24-hour theater event with a similar premise and rules. The success of the festivals has led Instant Films to branch out into workshops, a school for actors and even a possible television project.

Although there's an egalitarian spirit to the proceedings, this isn't a free-for-all for filmmakers and actors. "Everybody that is involved with Instant Films is invited," says Lebow. "This originally started out with myself, John and Charles bringing all of our friends and contacts together, and it's grown since then, but everybody gets to meet a lot of new and exciting people that hopefully they'll work with down the line."

The creative talent are mainly professionals and Hollywood hopefuls. While this is essentially "no-budget," guerrilla filmmaking and everyone is invested in the project with regard to time, the directors generally pick up the financial slack, kicking in what can amount to hundreds of dollars of their own money to cover everything from equipment rentals to makeup supplies. Most directors have their own cameras -- high-end consumer models such as Canon XL-1 -- and recent technical advances have made editing on home computers fairly easy, keeping overall costs down. The prizes aren't exactly extravagant either -- among them, a haircut at a nearby salon, and a copy of Final Draft screenwriting software.

Chance is a big part of Instant Films' charm; everything from the pairing of writers and directors to the casting of the movies is done by drawing pieces of paper out of envelopes. Sylvain enjoys "the serendipity of it. A really important part of what we do is the random aspect. The directors pick the writers randomly so they don't know [who they'll get]. That does a bunch of things. First, the writers are writing for actors they don't know the strengths and weaknesses of, so they don't assume anything about them. The same is true of the directors and the casts; they're not assuming certain strengths and weakness."

Taking a somewhat random path ourselves, we followed some of the filmmakers throughout the weekend, sticking with one of the seven groups put together in the Instant Films lottery. As Sylvain told the contestants before they went off on their filmmaking journey: "Everybody's got to understand that you're going to make a movie from nothing. Nothing exists right now. To do that is ... crazy."

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The process begins

On Friday night, Instant Films No. 009 officially began when seven writers gathered in a conference room at LACS to receive instructions and draw their assignments (an eighth writer was unable to make it and received hers by proxy).

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