Million-Dollar Movies
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 1 (Jan 2004)

Million-Dollar Movies

It was a huge year for Andrew Mudge. Twelve months ago, Mudge was one of the hundreds of short filmmakers who pursue their moviemaking passion in relative obscurity. Although his short films have won their share of awards over the years from various film festivals, the goal of reaching the big time remained a distant dream.

That all changed in September, however, when Mudge was named the winner of the 2003 Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival (CMDFF). In addition to providing him with a one-million-dollar feature-film production and distribution deal with Universal Studios, the win raised him out of the pack of moviemaker wanna-bes and transformed him into one of the movie industry's new faces to watch.

Whether Mudge will parlay this golden opportunity into big-screen success remains to be seen. But at the very least, he says, "winning this gives me better credibility and an established name in a world where it's next to impossible to get a name."

Although the Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival doesn't yet enjoy the same kind of name recognition among lay people as the Sundance Film Festival or the Cannes Film Festival, the three-year-old event has attracted the attention of industry insiders thanks to its million-dollar payday, its unique format, and the lavish promotional events hosted by Chrysler.

In truth, the name is a bit of misnomer, as the CMDFF is not so much a festival as it is a nine-month long, multi-phase competition. It all began with the submission of nearly 700 short films to a panel of judges. From that group, 25 quarterfinalists were selected and flown to Park City, Utah, in January for the kick-off event of the festival—a screening of all the films. There, another panel of judges selected 10 semifinalists to enter the Extreme Filmmaking phase of the competition, where the fun really began.

During this phase, the 10 semifinalists were required to cast, shoot, edit, and premiere a 5- to 10-minute short film in New York City in just 10 days, using a Panasonic AG-DVX100 24p digital camera and an Avid Xpress DV editing system. (All 10 of those short films can still be viewed online at

That group was then whittled down to just five finalists for the final round of the competition. For this, the competitors spent two months during the summer at Universal Studios in Los Angeles developing a feature-film project. They even got to shoot one scene from their proposed movies using Panavision HD video cameras, Avid Media Composer Adrenaline editing systems, and Avid DS HD finishing systems.

Clearly, one of the main objectives of the competition was to uncover the next generation of talented young directors and give them a chance to demonstrate their skills while providing them with an education about the filmmaking process. "I think the filmmakers learned a lot," says Nicolas Karlson, senior director of production at Hypnotic, a New York City- and Los Angeles-based entertainment production and distribution company that was the original creator of the competition. "We definitely put up some flaming jagged hoops for them to jump through. We asked them to shoot a project with limited resources and limited time. And then we asked them to develop a feature film in just a few months."

But while discovering and developing new talent is the competition's primary purpose, its other goal is to serve as a vehicle for promoting the Chrysler brand and the somewhat controversial concept of branded entertainment. It's a field in which Hypnotic plays a pioneering role, in addition to the more traditional work it does in producing and distributing short films, feature films, and television shows.

According to Karlson, Hypnotic first started the festival three years ago as a way to become familiar with more filmmakers. "There are thousands of small production companies out there making independent feature films," says Karlson, "and we thought the competition would be a good way to get a little publicity, so we could see more scripts, more filmmakers, and more short films."

After the first year, however, the company decided to expand the event and bring in a sponsor interested in entering the branded entertainment space. That's when Chrysler entered the picture.

Chrysler was a perfect sponsor for the competition, says Karlson, because they were looking to produce and distribute branded entertainment that resonated with a younger demographic. In addition, he says, "They saw this as an opportunity to establish a presence in the film entertainment community."
Filmmaker Andrew Mudge offers some direction to the actress behind the wheel of the Chrysler Crossfire during the filming of his short film, Gabriel Y Gato.

With Chrysler onboard as a sponsor, Hypnotic incorporated the concept of branded entertainment into the CMDFF in the Extreme Filmmaking stage of the competition. During this phase, the short film had to incorporate as an integral part of the story line either one of two specified models of Chrysler cars: the Chrysler Crossfire sports coupe or the Chrysler Pacifica SUV.

Jonathan Farrell, senior director of marketing for Hypnotic, explains that branded entertainment is different from product placement. Product placement simply involves inserting a company's product into a scene of a movie or TV show, whereas branded entertainment entails integrating a company's product or service into a production from the beginning in a way that's strategically important to the story line, without having the production viewed as blatant product promotion.

The key to making it work, Farrell emphasizes, is to produce something that works first and foremost as entertainment. It shouldn't come across to the viewer as a commercial. At the same time, however, it needs to provide a positive boost to the sponsoring company's brand.

The concept of branded entertainment as a business is still evolving, Karlson concedes, making it a little difficult to precisely define what branded entertainment is or is not. And it can be a concept that can generate a fair amount of controversy, particularly among young directors who feel it blurs the line between art and business.

"It's difficult," admits Karlson. "There have been lots of arguments. It's been one of my responsibilities to talk out of one side of my mouth to the filmmakers and out of the other side to the branding company and the ad agencies to try and get them to come to a common ground. We've never had a filmmaker say, 'No I won't do it.' But we've gotten close," he says.

For his part, Mudge admits he has mixed feelings about branded entertainment, and acknowledges that at the very least it can put restrictions on what kind of story a filmmaker can tell. For example, he says, "When they gave us the rules, they didn't want to have drug dealers driving these cars."

Despite that, Mudge felt good about the short film he made. "I had no feelings of selling out," he says, "because I truly liked the story and would have done it anyway, almost."

In his short film, entitled Gabriel Y Gato, Mudge tells the story of a boy who loses his favorite remote-control car. Then, 10 years later, as he's packing up his belongings following an emotional breakup with his girlfriend, he comes across the old remote control for the car. When he turns it on, the car magically comes back to him. But this time, like the character himself, the car has grown up, and it has become the Chrysler Crossfire. "The car fit perfectly into the story," says Mudge. "It was the hero at the end of the movie. It's was kind of inspiring."

As difficult as it can be for young filmmakers to get comfortable with the concept of branded entertainment, it can sometimes be just as difficult a concept for the business folks who are eager to see their brand get promoted. For example, says Karlson, "When you have a company like Chrysler that is supporting a large program, it's tough when you have to say to them, 'We are not going to show this car a lot in this film because it is not in keeping with the tone of the story. But don't worry, it's really well branded, and when the car is there, it really pops because it is a pinnacle of the story.'

"So you have to try and explain how a three-act structure works and how, although their product is on-screen for a brief period, that's the moment that everything's been leading up to. So the impact is big," says Karlson.

Philosophical wranglings aside, Mudge says the Extreme Filmmaking segment of the competition was enormous fun, if a bit insane. "Given 10 days and a five-person limit on the size of the crew, we cast, shot, and edited the film," he recalls. "They gave us a hotel suite with Avids and Avid technicians. I had an editor who just edited, and after I'd shoot, I'd come back and edit with her. It was a run-and-gun kind of shoot," Mudge adds. "Fortunately almost my entire movie took place outside, so we just hustled through, racing around the city in cabs and getting shots. The DV format made that very easy."

At the end of the contest, the 10 short films premiered at the Directors Guild of America's theater, where a panel of judges picked the five finalists, who were then invited to spend two months at Universal Studios in Los Angeles developing a feature-film project.

The final round of the competition was a completely different experience from the Extreme Filmmaking stage, says Mudge. There, he got to work with professionals from Universal and Working Title Films to develop a script and storyboards for a feature-length movie. The movie idea was one that had been in the back of Mudge's mind for some time. Entitled The P.T. Johansen Field Guide to North American Monsters, the movie is a dramatic comedy about a young boy who gets caught up in a Bigfoot hoax.
A scene from Mudge's full-length feature, The P.T. Johansen Field Guide to North American Monsters, appears above.

Mudge also got the chance to shoot one scene from his movie on a stage on a backlot at Universal. And in contrast to the Extreme Filmmaking phase, Mudge got to work with high-end HD equipment and a crew of 45 people. In fact, he decided to make as much of this unique opportunity as he could.

"I thought, 'Hey, I'm at Universal, I'm going to have fun,'" Mudge says chuckling. "So I used rain machines, and I had lightning and a lot of tricky lighting. If I was going to have access to all the amenities at Universal, why not do all that stuff?"

Once the summer was over, the five finalists took their feature-film projects and pitched them to yet another panel of judges at an event in Toronto, where Mudge emerged as the winner.

Looking back, Mudge describes the whole experience as an extraordinary learning experience and a tremendous opportunity. "This was the first time I've ever been able to make anything that was produced by someone else, which was really special. I got to make a short film—the Chrysler one—that someone else paid for. They did all the worrying that I usually do. "

Of course, the biggest opportunity of all is the chance Mudge now has to establish himself as a true Hollywood director. Plus, he's already been hired to shoot a TV commercial, which is something he's never done before, so the benefits of winning the competition already are rolling in.

According to Hypnotics' Karlson, those kind of benefits are exactly the type of things the CMDFF are meant to encourage, even for those who didn't win the competition. "Most of the finalists from each year have been signed by managers, agents, or have had TV deals or film deals set up. So in terms of success, they suddenly have a platform on which they can perform. It's a mix of incremental smaller successes. But from where they were before the competition, it's a tremendous leap. It's a way to rise above the crowd."

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor ofComputer Graphics Worldand a freelance writer who covers video, graphics, and digital content creation. He can be reached at

When it comes to the different types of media one can use to shoot a movie, Andrew Mudge leaves no doubt as to what his preference is. He's a film guy.

"I consider myself a filmmaker, and I hope to always make movies on film," he says. "It all comes down to the movie theater—what we see when the lights go down. I love film because of the way it looks when it's done."

Despite that bias, he acknowledges that digital video has its advantages, especially in terms of ease of use and cost during production and postproduction phases of moviemaking. During his participation in the Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival, Mudge got to explore these advantages in detail, given that the festival's organizer, Hypnotic, made digital video the medium of choice.

In the Extreme Filmmaking phase of the competition, Mudge and his fellow competitors shot footage with Panasonic AG-DVX100 24p camcorders and edited on Avid Xpress DV workstations. In the Final Round feature-filmmaking phase of the competition, the filmmakers shot scenes with a Panavision HD camera and employed an all-HD work flow that included an Avid Media Composer Adrenaline and an Avid DS HD workstation.
Paul Cotter (right), one of the film festival finalists, and his editor, Bob Ackerman, work on the Avid Media Composer Adrenaline system during the Final Round of the competition.

According to Nicolas Karlson, senior director of production at Hypnotic, the decision to use digital video technology was based in part on the feeling that exposing the participants to new types of digital production and postproduction processes was in keeping with the overall cutting-edge flavor of the competition.

Beyond that, says Karlson, was the simple fact that the competition needed the speed advantages that digital video brought to the production process. "We were going to be moving too fast to work with film," he says. "Plus, we wanted to use a production process that was more individual and would put more weight and responsibility on the directors' shoulders to see what they were made of."

As part of its support for the competition, Avid provided both equipment and 24/7 on-site tech support to the participants. And during the Final Round of the postproduction process, Avid specialists manned the DS HD finishing systems.

From his perspective, Mudge acknowledges he was impressed with the tools. Shooting with the Panasonic camcorder during the Extreme Filmmaking phase of the competition give him freedom to move quickly and shoot on a tight schedule, while the Avid Xpress DV software provided a smooth editing interface.

Regarding the feature-filmmaking phase of the competition, Mudge says he appreciated the Adrenaline's speed and its ability to show high-resolution images during the editing process. "If you can see things in hi res when you are storytelling, it makes editing easier," he says. "You can feel the story better. You can get into it more."

Still, the experience didn't sway Mudge from his preference for film. But he agrees that using video technology for the competition made sense. "Video is good for any kind of storytelling where you just want to let the camera run," he says. "It brings an element of spontaneity to the production that you can use to your advantage. With film, you can't do that."

"On the other hand," Mudge adds, "when every detail and every shot is planned, film is better. And it gives you a cinematic look. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter what you go through when you are on set. It's about what it looks like in the theater."

Avid doesn't argue, because from its perspective there's a role for a digital production process even in a world of film. "Avid doesn't really care what the acquisition format is," says Charlie Russell, Avid senior product manager. "It's about tracking all the elements—keycode, camera roll, video timecode, pull-down relationships— regardless of what you shoot on. The same work flow and processes need to be in place. More and more people in the film industry are starting to use HD dailies, even if they are shooting on film." —SP