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The World's Smallest Film Festival

The World's Smallest Film Festival

Mixing creative collaboration with technical ingenuity, the World's Smallest Film Festival is finding innovative ways to encourage the development of mobile content.

Combine the services of a mobile content aggregator with the excitement of a film festival, and you get the World's Smallest Film Festival, an ongoing project of BigDigit, Inc. (www.bigdigit.com). By soliciting submissions of films that are specifically targeted for use on mobile phones, the festival seeks to encourage and reward the creation of mobile content. "It's an ideal way to combine the technology with the creative elements that get people passionate," says Beau Buck, the company's CEO.

The first two full-scale festivals have been held at CTIA Wireless 2003 in New Orleans and at Mobile Commerce World 2003 in London. Entries were accepted, finalists were chosen, and winners were announced at the conferences. Buck says there are plans for festivals in 2004 at the National Association of Television Program Executives' annual conference, and at a government- sponsored event in South Korea. "It's captured the attention of a lot of people," he says.

The strength of the World's Smallest Film Festival lies in its ability to engage all parties who have an interest in encouraging content development. It attracts the interest of manufacturers and operators who want to obtain more content, and it also excites content developers at a grassroots level. "Short filmmakers are always looking for a market for their content - there are very few ways to make money in that business," Buck says.

Defining the Festival
Due to the unique nature of the festival, Buck says it's taken some time to determine the best format for entries. "We began the first festival with fairly traditional film categories - drama, comedy, animation, etc.," he says. "For the second show, we decided to have the content come in first, then see how we would categorize it. We ended up with categories like comedy and satire, of course, but also with categories that were a little more designed to fit the content." The new categories included experimental, instructional, and episodic.

In addition to supporting content creation in general, another focus for the festival is the encouragement of growth in specific geographic regions. "We have the ability to go into a regional market, put on a contest, and aggregate content that's unique to the interests of that particular audience," Buck says. "We've been asked to do one of these film festivals in Brazil along with Telexpo, and they want Brazilian content. We're in a position to get that."

The point is that, unlike a traditional mobile content aggregator, BigDigit has the ability to attract otherwise unknown content creators. "We cast a wide net," Buck says. "We get the people who are making films as hobbies, and that's a really fragmented market. We get students, student filmmakers, hobbyists, and then of course some filmmakers and animators who are serious about it. We can really reach into the grass roots of content makers out there."

A Winning Entry
Because this is such a new medium, most films entered into the festival aren't created specifically for mobile phones, but they all have to work well on a two-inch screen. That means that images can't be too complex or rely on too much detail, there can't be any quick cuts, and the editing has to be relatively straightforward. Simple, funny stories, Buck says, often fit the format best.

One such film is "Rex & Red" (www.ludicrousproductions.com/rex), the winner in the comedy category at the most recent festival in London. The two-minute short follows the adventures of a group of plastic dinosaurs in an office after the owner has gone for the day. Made using stopmotion animation, the film tells a simple, funny story without using any spoken language. That makes it ideal for this kind of format, even though Chad Meserve, the film's director, admits that it wasn't shot with mobile phones in mind.

Still, Meserve says the idea of making content for mobile phones in the future is an attractive one. Independent filmmakers generally don't have the money or the influence to get their films seen by a wide segment of the public, so opportunities like this are worth pursuing. "It's a way of circumventing traditional means of distribution, especially for shorts," Meserve says. "Outside of film festivals and maybe occasionally on cable channels like HBO or IFC, the public at large doesn't really see short films."

Even without compensation, he says, he'd still consider using the format to attract attention to his other work. "It would be a good way to throw somebody a little taste, even if it's for free, that associates my name or the name of my production company with something that cracks a smile," Meserve says. "Then they might pick up my DVD at the video store, or go to my Web site and find out about other things that I've done."

Smaller Is Better
Ray Anderson is the founder and CEO of Bango.net (www.bango.net), which helps operators and content providers both deliver and charge for content on mobile phones. Bango.net provided hosting for the most recent World's Smallest Film Festival in London, enabling access to the entries on mobile phones.

It's important to remember, Anderson says, that there can be significant benefits to working with such a small screen. "You really have to take advantage of the user proximity and the small screen size," Anderson says. "You can send a very small size video that has great impact because it occupies the whole of a small screen. A one-inchsquare video on a PC wouldn't have much impact, but it does when it takes up the whole screen on your phone."

As the festival heads into its second year, Anderson says the quality of the entries has been gradually increasing. "We've seen dozens of quite nice, fairly creative mini movies," he says. "Some of the creative animated ones are very good, small cartoons that are more like South Park than Prince of Egypt. It's amazing what you can do on a small screen, and I think we're really just providing a foundation for people to innovate."

Coding the Content
Still, Buck admits that it has been a challenge to help content developers format their films correctly. To that end, BigDigit has been working with France Telecom to transcode films automatically into the Streamezzo (www.streamezzo.com) format for use on mobile devices. "We've been approached by a number of authoring platforms to provide this kind of service," Buck says. "It helps them expand their developer base, and it allows us to make use of this archive of digital content."

BigDigit learned a key lesson in this regard when soliciting entries for the first festival this past spring. "We thought this was such a great opportunity for creative content makers that we'd just tell them how to make it mobile," Buck says. "So we published the specifications - it's got to be a bit rate of this and a frame rate of that, this screen size and this pixel depth. And we got no entries. It was just way over everybody's heads."

That experience, Buck says, led to the Streamezzo collaboration. "Content makers are not technical people," he says. "There are certainly some who are technical and creative, but most content makers are just regular people who like to take a digital camera and snap some shots or make little films. And I think you preserve the creative juice of it by letting them do what they do well - and letting us do the heavy lifting and make it mobile."

The Operator Relationship
In the process, BigDigit has compiled a growing library of mobile content, and Buck says the company is now actively marketing that content to operators. "The operators and handset makers are counting on mobile multimedia content to get people to upgrade their handsets," he says. So rather than charging end users directly for each short film they view, he anticipates selling blocks of content to operators, who would then provide it to their customers as a value-added service.

At the same time, to keep the World's Smallest Film Festival in the loop and to make sure that end users feel like they're part of the process, Buck envisions a collaborative relationship with operators in which customers are encouraged to submit films to the festival over the operator's network, and the films are then viewed and rated by fellow users.

Over the long term, the aim is to create a selfsupporting ecosystem of content creation using a relatively simple process. "The film festival leads to integration opportunities, and the whole thing creates more content, which is aggregated and licensed out, and then yields more opportunities to do more film festivals," Buck says.

More Stories By Jeff Goldman

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology issues. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago, and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.

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