Ten years ago, winter was a slow season for video production. People who made movies, commercials, videos of everything from rock bands to weddings and trade shows had time on their hands. That gave Kent Meloy an idea.
A moviemaker, among other pursuits, Meloy had experienced the worldwide "48 Hour Film Project," in which teams have only two days to make an original short film. Maybe, he thought, more time to create would make for a more rewarding contest and inspire better work.
He called his project Winterfilm
. He lined up a handful of volunteers to help, and announced his plan. The first year there were nine entries.
"We didn't really expect this to last," Meloy said. "We thought all this should be fun for a year. The second year, I think we had like six or seven entries."
Within a few years, entries had to be capped at 25 to keep judging manageable and the screening confined to one day. This year, for the tenth anniversary, he expanded the field to 30 teams. Every spot was claimed in less than 24 hours.
Team members consider the annual screening of the entries and the awards presentation at the Woodward in Over-the-Rhine to be a party not to be missed. This year's event is April 22.
"Winter isn't as slow as it used to be, but the intention is still there. Don't become stagnant in a cold season. Keep the light on, keep the creative juices flowing." -- Stephonika Kaye
Stephonika Kaye, who has been both a contestant and volunteer over the past several years, is typical of many participants. She makes a living as a production designer, set decorator, and set dresser, often working out of town. When she has time, she makes short films and writes scripts, which have earned her a stack of accolades on the festival circuit.
Her take on why this contest has succeeded: "I love the energy and film-family warmth that comes from Winterfilm, the people that keep coming back, their excitement, and the excitement of first-timers is really what keeps me invested in helping."
"Who needs a studio these days? Even (director Steven) Soderbergh shot a movie on his iPhone camera." -- Jay Petach
Jay Petach, a veteran sound engineer who teaches digital audio at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash campus, has volunteered with Winterfilm for several years. He understands why people are eager to invest time and money in the contest, which offers no prizes beyond a certificate or acrylic plaque.
"It's not just a foot race," Petach said. "This is your chance to do something that's substantial."
Petach has been in the audio business for decades and owned his own studio until about five years ago. He acknowledged the revolutionary effect of digital technology on movies and music. Tools that used to cost thousands and demand special expertise now can be used on personal laptops .
"There was a big gulf between professional and home recording. Some of the home recordings now are better than the pros. It's the same with film.
"I tell my students, if you want to make a movie, make a movie. If you want to make an album, make an album."
Nonetheless, Petach noted, "There's more to it than just how to use the tools. There is the question of what it means to structure a story, whether it's a movie or just a song."
"Taste will trump technical skills."
"It's like a sandbox, where you can actually have fun doing your work." -- Dan Foley
Dan Foley's entry "Match" won the best-picture prize in Winterfilm 2016. He is one of several Columbus artists who have been involved over the years.
The process of making "Match" was stressful, he said, with time conflicts, scheduling nightmares and differing opinions among team members on whether the story was any good.
"I definitely lost confidence in it," he said. "But I thought, I put an insane amount of hours into this and I'm gonna see it through."
Foley echoed several participants who praised Winterfilm's founder. "Kent Meloy puts on an incredibly professional event. It's just such a good community, you know?
"It's kind of like Fringe. It's kind of like Blink. It gives some opportunity for voices to be heard that don't always get heard." -- Chris Strobel
Chris Strobel, professor of electronic media and broadcasting at Northern Kentucky University, last entered in 2019 with a team that won awards for "Sphragida."
He has entered this year's contest with a team that includes students from both his electronic media and broadcasting program and the NKU theater department.
"It's like filmmaking in reverse," he said. Instead of starting with a resource wish-list, participants must first ask "What can we do in this time? We have these resources. But how can we apply those to a story?"
The exercise will help students prepare for the annual College Movie Festival, an academic competition for local schools designed to give students hands-on experience plus advice from working professionals.
Winterfilm will give them a look at what actually happens during a production, Strobel said. "They will have been able to see something to emulate. Hopefully it's not the cautionary tale."
Poster from last year's winner of best-picture winner, "A Balanced Breakfast."
"Winterfilm is the perfect excuse to get together with a group of other creatives, and make something you might've never thought to create before." -- Joe Cox
Joe Cox, whose Average Joe Films, won "best picture" in 2022 with "A Balanced Breakfast
" has registered for the 2023 edition.
"I felt, as the defending winning team, it would be lame not to enter!" he said in an email interview.
"Winterfilm has been around for over a decade! It feels like we are all competing in something that is going to be historic. We'll be the filmmakers that competitors in 2040 are talking about. We are the ones that get to pave the way."
Meloy, contestants, and advisors who have followed Winterfilm agree that the quality of work has grown over the decade. Advancing technology has helped. Hands-on experience has helped more. Professional video production work abounds in a world where moving pictures are ubiquitous in schools, businesses, advertising and online.
While short fictional movies exist everywhere in great abundance, the paying audience for them is miniscule. One of the challenges for Winterfilm is figuring out if it has a place in the world outside its own clubhouse.
Meloy has toyed with the idea of expanding Winterfilm to other cities, though the obstacles are daunting. Strobel described Winterfilm as a forum "for the community to express ideas about itself." Meloy echoed a related thought, which he described as "crazy, bonkers, completely unrealistic" -- a physical community arts venue to host training, exhibitions and support for the moviemaking community and its audience.
No such venue is anywhere on the horizon right now, but Winterfilm is planning to host its first event designed for a public audience, screening all 10 of its best-picture winners at a commercial theater this spring.
Winterfilm X schedule:
January 1: Registration opened (all slots now filled). Teams have one month to recruit cast and crew, find locations and line up equipment. No writing or filming allowed.
February 1: Start date for actual production.The required theme (which may be broadly interpreted) and a prop that must play an integral part in each movie are announced.
March 1: Finished movies, no more than 10 minutes long, must be submitted.
Awards night: April 22. All finished films are screened and awards presented.