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And the Oscar goes to...

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For many, the pinnacle of the film industry is acknowledgment of your craft at the annual Academy Awards. It’s the dream of filmmakers around the world and it was also the childhood dream of Screen Canberra CEO, Monica Penders.

While Monica may not have an Oscar on her mantlepiece, she does have some enviable Hollywood contacts and after stints living in Sydney, New York and London – she now has her dream job in Canberra. “Finding talented local filmmakers is the easy part,” says Monica. “The real struggle is helping them to get recognised.”

According to Monica unless you have a few million dollars to burn on a feature film, the answer is to start small – and short! The short film festival circuit has launched many famous careers and also given filmmakers valuable exposure to both local and international audiences – and festival directors.

Well-known directors which got their big break through short films include George Lucas, Sofia Coppola, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson and John Lasseter (Pixar). And while some won prizes, many didn’t, but they did catch the eye of other directors and producers who recognised their potential. Many international festivals such as Cannes and Berlin are invitation only, so first you have to make your mark in the local market, notch up a track record and work hard to promote yourself.

The short film festival scene has grown rapidly in the past ten years, in line with the availability of digital technology. “Today virtually anyone can shoot a short film on their phone and edit it on their computer,” says Monica. “And if you don’t believe me look up the 2008 Tropfest winner – ‘Mankind Is No Island’ which was shot entirely on a mobile phone with no actors.”

There are many highly regarded Australian short film festivals which attract scouts from the big overseas festivals who are looking for films to appear in their own line up. The best known are Tropfest and Flickerfest – which is an Academy Accredited and BAFTA recognised Film Festival. But there are many great festivals to cut your teeth on, including Lights! Canberra! Action! which gives entrants 10 days to produce a short film and there are also festivals for special genres, such as sci-fi and fantasy short films.

However no matter what your film topic or genre, Monica is quick to emphasise that at the end of the day filmmaking is all about good story telling. You need a smart idea and a compelling and distinctive voice.

Stay on script

  • If you’re determined to get into a particular festival, do your research before you start. Try to get a feel for the audience it attracts and look at the past winners. Whether it’s Tropfest, Sundance, Berlin, Toronto or Tribeca they all have a slightly different audience and judges.
  • Don’t try to second-guess what you think the judges are looking for – the judging panels change each year. Just have a good idea, produce it well and make the best film you can.
  • “Keep your short film – short,” advises Monica. “Between five and 15 minutes maximum. Whatever length you start with cut your film in half – because the audience is only half as invested in your film as you are!”
  • Make sure someone else with a critical eye looks at your script, pulls it apart and interrogates you over it.
  • Build up a good network of like-minded people and hook-up with your local screen community. Go to film seminars, workshops, conferences and conventions.
  • And finally, remember that your reputation is your calling card. It’s a very small and collaborative industry – based on relationships and integrity – so treat everyone with respect.

To apply for funding contact your state agency or check out the federal agency, Screen Australia to see if you qualify for any of Australia’s generous filming incentives. For more details on funding and short film tips go to