On my most recent film, An Aria for Albrights, I had the pleasure of working with a professional editor for the first time. It was the next step in taking myself out of the equation for specialized skills that other people are better at than me. In college, I hired a sound re-recording mixer for the first time and, hearing the drastic improvements that a professional audio engineer could bring to the table, I refused to ever let myself near audio ever again. Towards graduation, I quit acting as my own cinematographer. Then, I stopped writing my own films. Rather, I started developing ideas with writers much more adept than myself. Now I’ve called it quits on editing my own projects and I could not be happier. Did these movies become any less of an artistic expression for me because I narrowed my focus to directing and producing? No. If anything, it allowed me to build upon my strengths and collaborate more with other great artists. Filmmaking is a mashup of all great art forms and I have a ton of respect for individuals who have honed a specific skill.

  An Aria for Albrights  is scheduled to premiere at the 2017 Louisiana Film Prize.

An Aria for Albrights is scheduled to premiere at the 2017 Louisiana Film Prize.

Today’s culture puts a huge emphasis on “doing it yourself.” Content has inundated YouTube and SoundCloud, Vimeo and Spotify. We lift up the singer/songwriter, the writer/director, the person who can juggle while brewing coffee and planting their own quinoa. The point is, we expect a film to be a director’s original idea. We discredit musicians who do not write their own material. This article is in no way meant to shame the super talented folks who have mastered more than one craft. However, individuals who are great at more than one specialty are the exception, not the rule. Some of the most memorable work in history exists through well-paired, collaborative efforts.

I’ll never forget browsing the shelves of Barnes and Noble and coming across a tantalizing title: “Rebel Without a Crew” by Robert Rodriguez. As a young, aspiring filmmaker, I devoured each page and took it as sacred testimony. After all, I loved Sin City, Desperado, and thought Rodriguez offered a very alluring argument to filmmakers. In lots of ways, his words empowered me. “First step to being a filmmaker is to stop saying you want to be a filmmaker.” He made me feel like a legitimate artist. Stop talking about it and do it. I loved that mentality and still do. There is nothing wrong with Rodriguez’s approach of assembling his resources and making the best movie he could with that very approach. It was, however, at a very different time in history when meeting potential collaborators was much more difficult. Not everyone is the next Rodriguez or Tarantino or Soderbergh, and that is totally okay.


At many film festival Q&A’s I’ve received the question: “How did you come up with the idea for your film?” To which, I usually reply, “I didn’t.” It’s not that simple. It is automatically assumed that the independent filmmaker must have written her own script. Why else would anybody want to spend time and money making something that wasn’t their idea? Well, we forget that symbiotic relationships between writer and director, director and producer, brought us most of cinema's great achievements. Songs too. Does it make Peter Bogdanovich any less of a legitimate filmmaker for not coming up with the idea for Paper Moon? He came up with the title, yes. He decided on the casting, yes. He put his own directorial stamp on the project, but he wasn’t struck with idea-lightning one day and decided he wanted to make a film. In fact, how many screenplays adapt novels that most of us have never even heard of? Lots. Does that make these screenwriters any less legitimate for not having their own, original idea? No. It makes them smart. They found material that spoke to them and had an idea on how to make it their own. Francis Ford Coppola signed on to direct The Godfather because he needed to make money. Plain and simple. He took it as any other directing job. It was only by accident that he connected to the material and made it into the iconic film that film students swarm to. The fact is, very few people are actually able to conceive and write an original screenplay. Even fewer are able to conceive, write and direct their idea to its fullest potential. Sure, any writer could try to direct their own script, and any director could try to write something they want to make, but oftentimes this can produce less than desirable results.

 Paper Moon, directed by Peter Bogdonavich. Written by Alan Sargent (Screenplay), Joe David Brown (novel).

Paper Moon, directed by Peter Bogdonavich. Written by Alan Sargent (Screenplay), Joe David Brown (novel).

Frank Sinatra built his music career singing the hits of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, to name a few. Many songwriters, like Rodgers & Hammerstein, wrote songs together because one was a brilliant lyricist and the other a star composer. Throughout his earlier work, Edgar Wright collaborated with Simon Pegg in writing the screenplays for his films. There is also a great transcript of a brainstorming session for Raiders of the Lost Ark showing a brilliant collaboration between Steven Spielberg, Lawrence Kasdan, and George Lucas. This idea bash shows how fluid and enlightening it can be to work with other artists. Throwing things out there without self-editing but having partners you can trust to mold your vision into its final form. As a filmmaker, I encourage you to find the artists you want to surround yourself with. The people that make you better. Author and artist Austin Kleon calls this “[identifying] your fellow Knuckleballers” in his book, "Show Your Work!" In the age of social media, online forums, and websites dedicated to indie filmmakers, this is easier than ever to do. Most states have at least one film festival. Get to it and start meeting people. But don’t work with everyone you meet, work only with those who make you better.

If you feel confident about writing and directing your own work, don’t keep your writing close to your chest. Send it to as many people as possible (ideally people who have way more experience than you) for feedback. As Howard Aiken said, “Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats.” We are not trying to solicit compliments, we are trying to get better. Mike Birbiglia hosts readings of his screenplays in New York. The incentive? His favorite New York pizza in exchange for honest feedback. He invites writers, actors, and creative individuals who he refers to as much more talented than himself. These meetings happen over and over again until the script is finally ready for production. I would also encourage that you look beyond your own imagination for inspiration and ideas if you want to pen your own material. Stanley Kubrik, regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, pulled most of his inspiration from novels: The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, the list goes on. He notoriously did not stick very close to the source material with The Shining, but starting with already great literature allowed him to conjure his vision from a place where so much legwork was already done.

I will say this: making a movie entirely by yourself (or juggling way too many roles) is better than sitting on the couch and telling people you’re “working on something.” Talk is cheap and I applaud anyone who has actually done it. I am offering up the fact that we are all looking to get better, or at least we should be, and going about things the same way will oftentimes produce similar results. In other words, if you want to get better, you’ve got to look at what you can change and improve upon. For me, it was a matter of wearing less hats and focusing more on the one that I really care about: directing. If you’re a young filmmaker starting out, you might be thinking, “how will I convince others to work with me if I’ve never made anything?” Chances are there is a less-experienced cinematographer, sound designer, composer, writer, editor, or producer out there looking for the chance to collaborate and show you what she’s got. Heck, there may even be an experienced artist who loves your material so much that they are willing to work with a first-time director.

A great script or a great idea will usually be enough to get people excited about collaborating. If you don’t have that great idea or script? Find the writer who is looking to have their first short film produced. Devour novels and unearth that great short story begging for an adaptation. Go to film festival screenplay readings (how my friend Jake Hull found the script for a short he ended up making), scour the internet and forums for people you admire, make an effort instead of writing everything off as hopeless. We live in a very small world where it’s easy to collaborate with great artists from around the globe. The composer I work with is from Budapest, my sound designer lives in Tbilisi, Georgia, the talented fellow who draws up concept art for me hails from Sweden. Work the extra hours to pay for a flight to bring someone in who will add a ton of value to the project. Be flexible and collaborative and most of all, be genuine and a pleasant person to work with. That goes a long way. Other creative individuals have ideas that you would have never dreamed up. Get that gross ego out of the way and put the project first. There’s absolutely no need to do it all yourself. So don’t.

 Photo by Jim Noetzel.

Photo by Jim Noetzel.

Alexander Jeffery is the Executive Director of the El Dorado Film Festival and the award-winning director of The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy and Memoir.


In 2011, I was finishing my final semester at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and one of my last projects was to film the school’s production of "Twelfth Night" by William Shakespeare. I was tasked with capturing the process from auditions to final presentation. Not only was I a film student, but I was also working towards a B.A. in Theatre Performance, having performed as Alceste in my senior production of "The Misanthrope" just a few months prior. I’ll never forget sitting on the other side of auditions for the first time. Getting to observe rather than sweat and stress about making a good impression on the faculty and directors. As student after student came up, introduced themselves, gave their best shot at a Shakespearean monologue, I started to notice trends in what worked well and, more importantly, what did not. As each prospective Orsino walked up on stage, I could feel the energy around me, the directors wanted to be surprised, to enjoy the audition, to watch someone bring ease and focus to these monologues. It was blatantly apparent, however, when nerves or lack of preparation got in the way. The most surprising thing to me was even actors who “messed up” or “failed” but still brought charisma to the stage left a lasting impact on the directors and faculty. This is all to say, this inside perspective changed how I looked at acting and, in particular, auditioning. Now, you might be thinking, that’s cool and all, but what the hell does this have to do with film festivals and filmmaking? I’m getting there, I promise!

When I moved back to El Dorado, Arkansas in the spring of 2014, I had no idea that a very similar epiphany was on the horizon. I was asked to participate in the inaugural El Dorado Film Festival, founded as part of the South Arkansas Arts Center’s 50th anniversary celebration. My good friend Laura Barrow approached me with questions about the film festival circuit (I had some very mild success with my thesis film, Love, At Last) and took notes as I talked about what I liked and disliked about various film festival experiences. By the end of the conversation, she asked me to help her produce the first El Dorado Film Festival. It sounded daunting. It sounded fun. It sounded like a resounding “Hell yes!” in my head. Next thing I knew, I was pulling up our Withoutabox account and sifting through submission after submission of short and feature-length films. Narratives and documentaries. I was on the other side of auditions again. As a filmmaker, I submit to numerous festivals regularly and used to take it so personally when I received a rejection letter. I saw it as a reflection of the quality of my work and, in turn, me as a human being. It never occurred to me that my films just might not fit what the festival was looking for.

Let’s get some things out of the way early on. If you’ve finished making a film, whether it’s a short or a music video or an indie feature, it’s a huge accomplishment. You should take a few seconds to feel proud of the fact that you brought a team together and made something that you can call your own. It’s such a cool feeling to craft a project into existence and say, “We made this. This is ours.” I remember shooting crappy videos in my backyard and learning how to get MiniDV footage onto a computer and making cuts for the first time… I felt like I tapped into some kind of magic. That said, however, there are films that should be shared at a competitive level and there are films that should not. Seeking out critical feedback is the most valuable tool in your arsenal. Stop protecting your baby and put it out in the world. Don’t seek praise. Seek honesty. (This blog post is the amalgamation of notes and feedback from several colleagues as well as my grandpa.) Don’t let your ego get in the way of hearing the things you don’t want to hear. But also know whose opinions to trust. Learn, grow, rinse, repeat. Rejection is 99% of the game. Now, onto the festival circuit:

Programming a festival (and curation in general) is so subjective and very much like piecing together a puzzle you don’t have the layout for. Submitting a film to a festival is also about much more than creating a piece of work and shipping it off: it’s about packaging, presentation, standing out, and telling the narrative of why a festival should play your film. Like the Twelfth Night auditions, I started seeing things that filmmakers did really well and things that annoyed me to no end as a programmer. (Tip: when you get rejected, don’t e-mail a festival and tell them they need new programmers because your film won such and such award at such and such festival. Yup. That happened.) I started communicating with festivals that I submitted to in a way that I felt like I would want to be communicated with. I gave them information that I thought was pertinent (a local connection, a named actor in the cast, or a premiere status) and tried to be helpful rather than a burden. I’ve learned that “Don’t be a dick” is generally a good principle to live by when it comes to these things. Like theatrical auditions, we as festival programmers genuinely want your film to blow us away! We are cheering for you. We want to be mesmerized and excited and advocates for your movie. We love watching films and we love championing indie filmmakers and, another true cliché from the dreaded rejection letter, we absolutely do hate sending out those e-mails. It may sound phony, but there are films we adore that end up not making the cut. It sucks, yes, but it’s part of it. The Academy Award-winning short film Stutterer was turned down by Sundance but won a freaking Oscar! It happens. And it happens to everyone. Good. Bad. Great. Terrible. Everyone.

When it came time to make my award-winning short film, The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy, I knew I wanted to make something that would grab the attention of programmers. I turned first to the Louisiana Film Prize and created the film specifically for their amazing competition/festival in Shreveport, Louisiana. The rules of the competition: shoot your film in Shreveport, Louisiana or the surrounding area, turn in the rough cut by a certain date, premiere your film at their festival in October, and hope to sway audiences in voting for you to win $50,000. A festival just two hours away from my front door was offering the largest cash prize for a short film in the world, and I was amazed that every filmmaker in the United States wasn’t jumping at this opportunity. I knew I had to, at the very least, try.

My friend Paul Petersen penned the script for “Bespoke,” and together we worked on creating an uplifting story that we hoped people wouldn’t be able to look away from. Watching hundreds of shorts for the El Dorado Film Festival, I saw several films that tried to jam too much story into a short amount of time, leaving the audience unsatisfied and confused. I also saw films that I felt did not have enough substance to engage an audience for 12-15 minutes. With “Bespoke,” I wanted the main character to focus on a simple task, driving him from beginning to end of the film. Admittedly, tailoring is not the simplest of goals, but it gave Mister Bellamy a tangible objective and a deadline that I hoped the audience would connect with. A big lesson that I learned from programming the El Dorado Film Festival was the importance of casting. Too many times I saw otherwise great movies suffer from a dull performance or a miscast actor. It was not necessarily a direct reflection of the filmmaker’s ability, but a poor choice that brought the film down in an unfortunate way. I turned to the best actor I knew, my good friend and former professor, Stan Brown. The gods of fortune smiled upon the film when he read the script and liked it. He agreed to do the film. He was the film. He brought life to our main character and lifted up the supporting cast.

With a huge stroke of luck, we ended up winning the Louisiana Film Prize and started our long journey towards the Academy awards. Spoiler alert: we did not receive a nomination, but we were in the running. As I started submitting “Bespoke” to festivals after the Film Prize, I was armed with the knowledge that rejection would not be a direct reflection of the work. I knew we had a good film, but I also knew it might not be for everybody. With hundreds (if not thousands) of festivals out there, there is bound to be a difference of opinions. Again, I learned to not take rejection personally. With the first batch of festivals we heard back from, we received a surprising number of selections. It was intoxicating! Those e-mails that I rarely received started coming on the regular. It was weird. We stacked up twenty or so festival laurels, with the occasional rejection of course, and even won some audience and jury awards around the states. Then, as we got later into our submission process, we started receiving rejection after rejection. I was brought back down to Earth, but I reminded myself: this is not a reflection of the film. I reminded myself of sitting in the programmer’s chair making tough decisions. There were better films, or there were films that were better suited to the festival. We won an award at the Academy-qualifying Cleveland International Film Festival, screened at the Academy-qualifying New Orleans Film Festival, won best director and a few other awards at the Breckenridge Film Festival, and I considered us very lucky to have the run that we did, despite ultimately receiving more rejection letters than selections in the end.

As part of winning the Louisiana Film Prize, we received a distribution deal through Shorts HD. Our Shorts HD representative, Linda Olszewski, helped us run “Bespoke” in theatres in Los Angeles county for one week to qualify the film for the 2017 Academy awards. It was such a cool experience sitting in front of the Academy website and filling out the application to be a contender. I couldn’t believe that we were one of only 137 short films from around the world to be screened in front of Academy members for their critique. As I said earlier, we did not end up making the next round, but I also was mesmerized with how far we made it. I attribute this success to so many people and circumstances, but I firmly believe that the experience of running a film festival gave me a perspective as a filmmaker that I needed to take the next step forward in making a good film. It helped demystify the process for me and allowed me to focus on the craft and learn from the mistakes of others.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all film for every festival out there. You must automatically assume that there will be people who just don’t like your film. Probably more than people who will love it. Not only is this not a bad thing, it’s actually a fantastic thing. The subjectivity of programming creates a film culture across the world that can showcase a broad range of works. How boring would it be if every festival showed the same fifty films? Sure, we may feel slighted from time to time, but think broader than that. If you can’t find the audience for your film or you are receiving nothing but rejection e-mails, look at your project again critically. Could it be better? Could you tell the same story in less time? Is there a scene that just needs to go? Look at your festival submission strategy. Are you sending your film off randomly, or have you researched the festival and think the film will be a good fit? Elicit more feedback. Work any connection you might have. You may know all of these things already, which makes you way smarter than me and puts you in a small percentile of filmmakers submitting to the festival circuit.

Not long ago, I sat in front of Withoutabox and FilmFreeway dumbfounded, looking at all of the options and costs, not having a clue how to proceed. I hope this post helps you learn from my ignorance and experience so you don’t have to be as confused about the whole ordeal as I was. At the very least, I hope you can get a glance inside the selection process and not see programmers as your mortal enemy. I firmly believe that this shift in perspective continues to make me a better filmmaker.

Alexander Jeffery is the Executive Director of the El Dorado Film Festival and director of award-winning short films, The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy and Memoir.

Memoir is ACCEPTED into the Louisiana Film Prize!

I could not be more thrilled to announce that our short film Memoir has been selected along with 20 other short films to compete for the 2016 Louisiana Film Prize! The film stars Paul Petersen and Cailey Fleming who is best known for playing Young Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Memories can either fuel our existence or eat away at us like a disease. In the not-too-distant future, Dr. Theodore Maine is on the cusp of losing his job at Janus Labs where he is developing research for Alzheimers treatment. That is, until a mysterious visitor named Obee changes his life forever.

Memoir finishes production and submits to the Louisiana Film Prize

Guys, we are really excited about this one. For about two years now, Paul and I have been talking about Memoir: a science fiction film that we are both ecstatic about. After winning last year's Louisiana Film Prize with The Bespoke Tailoring of Mister Bellamy, we decided to bite the bullet and create a conceptual short film to pitch the feature version of the project. We have submitted the piece to the Louisiana Film Prize and should hear back about selection decisions in just four days time! Keep your fingers crossed for us. And stay tuned for more information on Memoir.