May 25, 2024
The OWL 48.5 hour B film challenge trophy. Photo by Terry Foster/ Spoke News


By Terry Foster

Few things can bring such nostalgia as your favourite film from your childhood. Rows of brightly lit movie posters featuring the latest in Hollywood magic. Waiting in line for the giant bucket of popcorn which spills over the edges of the carton, now nearly see-through from all the warm, salty butter. You get settled into your seat, the lights dim and the crowd begins to hush. Only the whispers of a few restless guests remain as the screen lights up with the signature numbered countdown, 3, 2, 1, beep.

It’s not only the big blockbusters that can leave a lasting impression. Some of the best directors in the world started their journey directing short films. Art in any form can transcend the boundaries of time, but there’s something romantic about the humble short film. This is where legends like Tim Burton, George Lucas and Wes Anderson first made their mark on the world that would lead them to become some of the most influential directors of our generation.

The competition is fierce in the film industry and trying to become a Hollywood success is almost as realistic as trying to win the lottery without a ticket. Luckily that has never stopped creatives from picking up an old camera, calling up some friends and packing their heart and soul into five emotionally compelling minutes.

Each year, hundreds of hopeful artists nervously await their big debut at film festivals around the world. But long before their big premiere at TIFF, most start their journey in small local film festivals, clinging to the hope that their passion will spill from the screen and into the hearts of the discerning audience. They endure long days and sleepless nights, self-criticism and torment, all just to share their story with the world.

Short film culture is growing due to the easier access to high-quality equipment, the nature of social media and online sharing. Gone are the days where only the rich can afford to stage a noteworthy production. The camera on the average cellphone now puts movie cameras from only a decade ago to shame and there are plenty of free editing options to work with. With the right vision, a good plot and some willing accomplices, even people in the most rural areas are starting to produce award-winning films.

Leigh Cooney and Carla Coles prepare for a screening of the winning film from last year’s 48.5 hour B film challenge for a group of film enthusiasts. Photo by Terry Foster/ Spoke News

This is why even a small community like Stratford, Ont., has begun hosting their own film festivals and competitions to promote the film culture. Leigh Cooney owns a retail store in Stratford called Meet Your Maker, a creator-driven boutique that sells handmade gifts, crafts and original artwork in the back from some of Stratford’s less mainstream art scene. Cooney, also being a short film enthusiast, teamed up with another Stratford artist Carla Coles, and created the OWL 48.5 Hour B Film Challenge. The name OWL stands for “our weird little” events and happenings.

“There’s a ton of creative people who are creating content but don’t have actors or editors, and a bunch who are great editors but just don’t have the personality to act,” said Cooney “This is a chance for them to meet and experiment and have fun … People who go to TIFF have built up their portfolio to get there. We want to be the seed at the beginning of that portfolio.”

“Leigh put out a call looking for an idea for a low-budget community event. I responded,” said Coles. “I had participated in a similar event a few years before and thought it was a good fit. Leigh and I soon became good friends and creative partners. The community support for our film challenge was fantastic. We had students, families and experienced filmmakers all contribute. We screened them to an almost packed house at Queen of the Square cinema.”

Queen of the Square is a state-of-the-art movie theatre, located in Stratford’s City Hall building. They are known for classic and indie films and promote film through hosting such events as the OWL challenge screening as well as free movies under the stars in the downtown public square.

2017 OWL 485 hour B film challenge winners, Dan and Ben Wettlaufer, hold their OWL trophy. Photo by Terry Foster/ Spoke News

Last year the winner walked away with a hand-crafted golden owl statue, so freshly made that the gold spray paint was still tacky to the touch. Dan Wettlaufer, a seasoned content creator, and his co-star and son, Ben Wettlaufer, took home the coveted trophy with their winning film, My Stepson is the Devil. They have been creating films together for fun for quite some time and Ben loves to put his creative touch on each one.

“Stratford’s good. There’s so many people here. I’ve always said, If I got to make a really big film, or I decided to budget a big film, I could get my sound check here, I could get a million actors, union or non union. I got cameramen, sound people, there’s everything in this town,” he said.

The short film industry definitely isn’t for someone looking to make a living off the craft. It’s more a labour of love, as most artforms are. Although nearly a half million hours of video content are uploaded to YouTube daily, that doesn’t always mean it’s good content. Only the top three per cent actually make any money. Just because people have easier access to high-quality cameras doesn’t mean everybody is going to be the next Scorsese. It does, however, make things a tad more accessible for the average Joe to unleash his imagination. And who knows, someone with no experience might just make the next indie hit.

Like cracked paint on a canvas hanging in a hallway bathroom, some films may never get the attention they deserve. Though to the artist who created them, it is enough to know that they simply exist. These are not the works of an artist blinded by commercialism, formless, unfinished and ugly, but rather tiny beams of light sitting quietly in the corner, waiting to come to life.

Terry Foster/ Spoke News

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