Webfest Judging

A few months ago, I was invited to be a judge for New Zealand Web Fest, which will take place in November. It was an interesting perspective shift to the other side of the festival equation, which I’d never been on before.

While I can’t speak for all festival judges you’ll ever meet, I made a few general observations that I thought might have value for creators.

Budget < Writing
Having worked with a fairly low budget for my entire catalog to date, I know the pain of wishing your show could “look better”. You do your best but in the end, there’s only so much you can do with the money you have.

But here’s the good news: one series mostly featuring conversations between pairs of characters in intimate settings touched me more than another series that clearly had a generous production budget. Why? Because the former had interesting and relatably flawed characters, whereas the latter had more cliche stock characters, albeit in a high-production setting.

Good writing can compensate for a poor budget more than the other way around.

Match Your Cinematography
One series had a Director of Photography with a keen eye, but the best shots were misplaced. A striking overhead shot was prematurely used during a relatively tame moment, about two minutes before a subsequent denouement where it would have had a greater impact. At another point, a pedestrian piece of exposition was shot with an elaborate one-take sequence that served no real purpose.

In both cases, the mismatch between the visual and storytelling aspects took me out of the story. It’s as if the director had a checklist of cool cinematographic elements to hit, but didn’t think to match them up properly with the story beats. A filmmaker must consider how a shot feels as well as looks.

Edit on Headphones
We all know that sound matters, but a few series made completely avoidable mistakes, specifically in the area of background noise.

For example, one series had a character silently looking into the distance, which cut to a silent closeup of the distant object, then back to the character. The thing is, nothing’s truly silent. The audio of the three clips had been cut in line with the video, so the background noise changed with each jump, which was noticeably jarring. It would have been better to lock in the audio from a single clip while switching the video back and forth, to have one continuous background noise covering the multiple visual transitions.

If you want to avoid similar problems, you must review your edit sequences with headphones. You won’t notice background noise problems over speakers, and the last thing you want is for headphone-wearing viewers to catch something you missed.

Take Chances
I found that I ended up giving greater consideration to shows that tried something unexpected, even if it didn’t quite 100% work. Many of us went into web series to do something different from television and movies, not just to recreate the same thing on a smaller scale. And really, given the number of web series out there, if you don’t put your personal touch into what you make, it’s not going to stand out.

Conclusions
I did my best to decide fairly and time will tell if the other judges agreed with my choices. I’m looking forward to seeing how my series The Spell Tutor was judged by others - we’re nominated in three International Narrative categories: Best Director, Best Show for Young People and the Alumni Award.

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This is such a great breakdown, and I agree from my own experience judging for Stareable Fest. I’d also like to add:

Bad actors kill good writing. Great writing can’t rise above the way it is performed in most cases- even simply an undermotivated actor can be the death of an amazing script. Casting should not be “well, this person I know from work is free and once was in a school play.” You don’t need to source union, professional actors, but you do need people who are committed, genuine, and willing to listen to the cadence of the script they’re performing. Don’t half-ass casting just because it’s arguably one of the hardest parts of putting together an indie crew. Invest in these people, take the time to find the right ones, and you will all be rewarded.

Make sure your take is unique. One of the hardest parts of judging is having to weigh the merits of three competent, nearly identical series. You never want your show to have to compete to be the best of the “actors who are roommates” web series- your show needs to stand truly on its own, because it’s not only more competitively viable but then it’ll be remembered and judged on its own merits. Do your research before committing time and resources to a project- if the intention is to get festival play, it shouldn’t be like every other project at that festival.

Read the submission instructions. Once a judge is 50 shows deep in a judging session, a single misreading of submission instructions can be fatal to your show’s success. Don’t just submit blindly because “it’s a web fest”- make sure your project is in the right category, fits the requirements, and includes all necessary information. If you want actors or directors considered for awards, their information needs to be readily available in your submission. If you’re submitting a password-protected video, MAKE SURE THE PASSWORD IS IN YOUR SUBMISSION. If the category you’re submitting to requires that your project be, say, woman-directed, POC-led, etc, make sure your show fits those parameters. If you’re submitting a horror project but accidentally put it in for comedy, we aren’t going to recategorize it for you. We judges have enough going on- don’t make lazy mistakes that push your project out of the running.

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Meredith Burkholder has made this point several times on webfest panels. The way she puts it is “If you want to make web series, watch web series.”

I think some of this is borne of people taking “Write What You Know” too dogmatically. It’s okay to stray outside your personal sandbox of experience, and you kind of have to if you want to have a unique take.

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You’re from New York and I’m from Toronto, so our pool of available actors is large and there are fantastic actors to choose from even on the non-union side.

My understanding is that finding good talent in smaller towns (especially ones that aren’t “film centres”) can be frustratingly difficult. I know a few creators in that situation who have also had to don the “acting coach” hat among the 15 other things they’re already doing.

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Again- professional and fantastic aren’t necessary, though. And if your pool is small, maybe reduce your cast or work on projects with fewer people at first- a film is the sum of its parts, and if you have fewer parts then you need to make the most of what you DO have. What’s the point of making something with weak actors and then submitting it to festivals? Also, I guarantee you can absolutely find strong performers (nearby colleges? local theater troupes?) if you’re willing to invest time in the search.

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