On July 20, 2006, over 4000 people squeezed into an auditorium at San Diego's Comic-Con International to hear the announcement of the winners of the fifth annual Star Wars Fan Film Awards. Approximately 10,000 people voted on the AtomFilms website to give the Audience Choice Award to "Pitching Lucas," an eight-minute short directed by Shane Felux. In a surprise move, George Lucas also picked the same film for his George Lucas Selects Award, a first in Fan Film history.
A similar synchronicity occurred at SXSWclick 2006, the third edition of South by Southwest's mobile media festival, which announced its winners on July 28th. Keith Bearden, Jason Reitman, and Karen Schmeer, the three jurors assigned to pick the winner of the Old-School Shorts category, selected "Playing Chicken," writer/director Bradley Jackson's eight minute wacky saga of a guy in a chicken suit, a woman in a wedding gown, a clown, a pack of mimes, and two bratty boys on a bicycle built for two. With fifteen films eligible for the Popularity Contest Award, the online public cast over 3,000 votes for "Playing Chicken," allowing Bradley Jackson to take home that prize as well.
Matt Dentler, producer of the SXSW Film Festival & Conference, remarked that the viewership of SXSWclick 2006 "is about a 200% increase over last year's, so it seems true that the audience for this sort of event has grown. This is part of why we enjoy organizing SXSWclick, because we always want to go where the audience goes. That's ultimately our job, as a film festival."
While all the winners of SXSWclick are automatically selected to screen at the 2007 SXSW Film Festival, several of the showcased films work best when viewed on a computer screen versus the silver screen. Director Sharad Patel's two-minute experimental film "Snail," which scored the award in the 'What the F*#!?' category, begins with a black and white 16mm film image, then the camera pulls back, and back, and back, until viewers are forced to confront the fact that they have been watching the image on a computer all the time. Alan Becker's two-minute flash animation piece, "Animation vs. Animator," which won the Animate-it Award, cleverly uses the Flash interface itself as the framework for a stick figure's adventure. There's something very trippy about watching those familiar desktop icons come to life - as you watch the action unfold on your own computer screen.
In contrast, the winners of the Star Wars Fan Film Awards were not specifically conceived for the online viewing experience. The slickly-made "Pitching Lucas" has George Lucas (played by actor George Starkey) meeting with Hollywood suits who pitch him new ideas for the "Star Wars" franchise, the best being "The Sith Million Dollar Man." Director Shane Felux, who also helmed the infamous 47-minute "Star Wars: Revelations" (boasting a reported budget of nearly $20,000), is clearly a master of the Fan Film realm. In the credits of "Pitching Lucas," the filmmaker goes out of his way to say "George Lucas, thank you for the inspiration and a dreamer's dream." Steve Sansweet, head of Fan Relations for Lucasfilm Ltd., praised Felux's film as a "wonderful spoof," and added, "the fifth annual Star Wars Fan Film Awards met our every expectation."
Another Fan Film winner clearly made by a true Lucas devotee is "Memoirs of a Padawan," Michael Q. Yowhan's two-minute Mastercard commercial parody that took the Spirit of Fandom trophy. Consisting of old home movies, the film reveals young Michael to be a first generation "Star Wars" aficionado. As the voiceover says, "Finding an undeveloped roll of film in an 8mm camera from 1977...just in time for the Star Wars Film Fan contest: priceless."
What makes online festivals like SXSWclick and the Star Wars Fan Film contest so special is that the showcased shorts are created by filmmakers excited to share their vision with the masses via the World Wide Web. While it's impressive that 4,000 people would gather in a convention hall to watch Fan Films, it's even more impressive that any time, anywhere in the world, anyone can go to Atomfilms, click on "Memoirs of a Padawan," and watch the Yowhans' repurposed home movies. Or go to the SXSWclick website and watch Avram Dodson's Really Real Shorts Award-winning five-minute documentary "art/work," in which struggling artists discuss the pros and cons of working a day job. Voting for the awards might be closed, but online viewing of the films remains open 24/7.
[Kim Adelman is the author of "The Ultimate Filmmaker's Guide to Short Films."]