Essays · Movies

A Short Film Competition Judge Explains What He Wants From Your Movie

By  · Published on December 19th, 2014

This article is presented in partnership with Cadillac.

This summer, Cadillac and the Producers Guild of America launched Make Your Mark, a short film competition that challenged producers to create compelling content with limited resources. Contestants made a short film over a single weekend in late June, and you can watch the semi-finalists’ films at the Make Your Mark website. The 30-second Cadillac spot featuring the grand prize winner’s film will air during the 2015 Academy Awards.

Few names radiate the characteristics of that competition like Hawk Koch, a producer who appears in the credits for a host of enduring classics (think Heaven Can Wait, Wayne’s World and Primal Fear). He’s been the president of AMPAS and of the Producers Guild, and he was also a judge for this year’s Make Your Mark short film competition.

If you’ve ever wanted a direct line into the mind of someone picking official favorites for an event that can jumpstart careers, this conversation is it.

How do you approach a task like judging short films from aspiring professional filmmakers?

The same way I approach going to the movies. I try not to read reviews. I try not to hear what other people say. I look at it closed off from everything else in the world. I don’t think of it as judging. When it’s over, I think, “Did I like it? Did it make me feel? Did I learn something from this? Was it the acting? Was it the story?”

It’s kind of the way I feel about my Oscar ballot.

What’s the benefit as a producer of watching so many contest entries?

It wasn’t one of the ten finalists here, but I saw a film that won a comedy competition recently called The Gunfighter, and I said, “I gotta meet this director.”

That’s one of the good perks of being able to judge. If I see something special, I want to meet the filmmakers.

What’s the mindset of a competition judge and how can filmmakers best take advantage of that?

I don’t think you can take advantage of that. I think what you do, what makes the Scorseses and the Coppolas and the Mike Nicholses is that they have their own unique way of doing their movies. Producers – or anyone who’s judging these – that’s what we’re looking for. Originality. Uniqueness. Be unique, be yourself, and don’t try to make what you think someone else wants to see.

In a commencement speech you gave to Chapman University a few years ago, you spoke a lot about overcoming fear. What does being fearless mean to you?

It’s about knowing your craft. Like, if Roman Polanski says something to you, and you think, “I can’t say something.” If he says something, and you believe because of your knowledge of the craft that you disagree, you need to have the courage to speak up.

But you have to have knowledge to have courage. Any meeting I go into, I prepare. Preparation is everything., If someone wants you to sell their house, you gotta know everything about that house, the houses in the neighborhood, the people who might buy it. If you do, you’ll get picked because you know everything there is to know about selling that house.

What are you looking for when judging shorts?

Originality, originality, originality.

What turns you off?

Cliches. Seen ‘em.

At the Produced By Conference you asked Jake Gyllenhaal to offer advice to producers on working with actors and to actors on working with producers. It felt like a vital question, so I’m curious what advice you would give specifically to young filmmakers in how to approach working at a professional level.

Learn everything you can about producing and understand what it is. If you haven’t done it before, don’t do it alone. Get a mentor to work with you who you trust. There are a lot of people who will take your project and tell you to take a hike. Work with someone who will take you all the way through production to when the movie is released in theaters.

Until you’ve made a movie, and gone stem to stern, you don’t know. Think of someone putting you in a plane and saying, “Now fly.”

What’s changed the most over your career?

Corporations own the movie studios now, and the people on the whole…there might be studio heads who love film and want to make great movies, but there are corporate people above them who are all about the bottom line. In the old days, if you wanted to make 20 movies, 12 or 13 of them made financial sense, but there were 6 or 7 that my gut told me I gotta make. “This might not make sense now, but it will be a great movie.” That’s where Godfather came from. Where Chinatown came from. Now they think they can cookie cutter something. You might get a great movie, or you might get John Carter.

There’s one deadly sin: greed. It informs all the other sins. I’m afraid greed informs everything today. There are some filmmakers who I’m so in love with because they won’t succumb to the greed of everything else. I think of Alexander Payne in that sense. If he’s told he has X amount to make it, he makes it for that, and he does it well.

Can you leave us with some optimism?

What’s exciting is the cable industry – that the great writers, directors and actors are willing to go there. They didn’t used to be. Now you get to have True Detective, Ray Donovan, Game of Thrones.

I think because everyone wants content, we’re gonna find the next group of original filmmakers and we’re gonna get more excited.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.