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John Labonney of Dam Short Film Festival

Festival / Interview / by Festival Formula


  • Tell us about your festival

The Dam Short Film Festival is the largest film festival in Nevada and it’s an amazing event. Every February, filmmakers and film fans descend upon beautiful and historical Boulder City to celebrate the art of short film. We run approximately 120 short films from all styles and genres in four days and have some great parties and events. It’s a really good time!

We’re also very proud to be listed as one of the Top 100 Best Reviewed Festivals on FilmFreeway!

  • What made you start your film festival?

The Dam Short Film Festival was founded by Lee and Anita Lanier and was born from their love of short films and the good times they had travelling the festival circuit. We’re all about short films here; there is so much that you can do with a short film that you can’t do with a feature-length film. Features usually have to meet a commercial goal, but most short films are funded by the filmmakers and they don’t have a studio or distributor looking over their shoulders. They can do whatever they want and break all the rules, and when the creativity is unleashed amazing things can happen.


  • What are you most looking forward to in your next edition?

We’re always trying something new or improving our current setup, but the thing I look forward to the most each season is welcoming the next group of filmmakers to the festival and making new friends and connections. It’s really great to show off the historic Boulder Theatre and to be a part of providing them the audience they deserve for their films.

  • What have you learnt the most from being involved with a film festival?

I learned that running a film festival is about more than the films.

Arranging all the things the festival needs and figuring out how to pay for them all is a year-long job. There’s fundraising, sponsorships, grants, insurance, promotion, accounting, equipment, meetings, training, graphic design, printing, dealing with various government entities, making travel arrangements for attending filmmakers. I could easily list fifty more, all critically important to the survival of the festival and all of which needed to be done yesterday.

Certainly, putting together the program is one of the most important parts of my job, and it can be as satisfying as it is challenging. But very quickly you find out that while the program is the critical part of the festival, there’s a lot to be done to get that program up on the screen.

John Labonney, Festival Director of Dam Shorts Film Festival
  • How does your selection process work?

We’re very serious about putting together a strong, diverse, and entertaining program of films, and I think for the most part we’re successful, but it’s a lot of work and heartache and worry along the way.

We have a selection committee of volunteers that help watch and rate the submissions. Screeners rate the films on a scale of one to ten, offer their comments, and provide a recommendation on whether or not the film would be a good fit for our festival. We ask them for their honest opinions and every submission is watched and considered for submission.

Even with films being watched by multiple screeners, the process is very challenging. Obviously the screeners don’t always agree and there can be a wide range of opinions on a film. But their ratings and recommendations are only part of the picture.

We organize films in thematic programs, such as a one hour program of crime themed films, or a drama program of love and romance movies. And we don’t have these blocks set up in advance; the films themselves decide what type of program blocks we’re going to create that season.  For example, last season we had a program entitled “Our Ocean Environment,” which was made up of documentaries about our oceans and beaches. Programming the films this way can lead to a lot of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Sometimes we’re searching for one more film that matches a theme to complete a program, and sometimes we’ve got a film we want to run and we’re trying to find a spot that works.

There’s one program in particular that is the most difficult to put together: the comedy program. We run lots of films with humor throughout the schedule, but finding just the right combination of laugh-out-loud comedies is really, really hard. While a group of people might easily agree upon a particular documentary film, opinions when it comes to comedies can vary dramatically. And the comedy program is our most highly attended block and has experienced sell-out crowds in recent seasons, so I’m extra attentive to the films and the order in which they run in that program.

While we end up with an excellent lineup of films presented in a logical and entertaining manner, no one, including myself, is absolutely 100% satisfied with the final program. And I’ll be the first one to admit that I make errors in programming the schedule or gauging how a film will be received. It’s a series of struggles and compromises.

Regardless, there are always more films we’d like to run than we can.


  • What’s your protocol for sending out rejections?

Rejections are the worst. I don’t like sending them out any more than anyone likes receiving them. We use FilmFreeway’s notification system and try to keep it as brief and painless as possible.

  • Length of short film – discuss…

We’re a short film festival and length is of particular importance to us. We run films up to 40 minutes in length, but should a short film be that long? Personally, I think if you’re going to make a film 40 minutes long, you might as well go ahead and make a feature; after all you’re halfway there.

Often I’ll get asked what our sweet spot is as far as length goes, but it’s more complicated than that. The real issue with the length of short films is a problem we see over and over: failure to use economy of storytelling. I see ten minute long films that could have been told in six minutes, 20 minute films that could have been told in 11. The film should be as long as it takes to tell the story, but most short films exceed their story’s length. It’s a difficult concept to explain, but if anyone wanted to learn it a great way would be to become a volunteer screener at your local film festival. You’ll see tons of films that are just too long for the stories they’re trying to tell. It’s kind of like wearing a suit that is three sizes too big for you.

Longer films are harder to program because they take up more valuable screen time, and a programmer is going to be more unforgiving with the quality. If it’s long it needs to be really good, because the programmer is giving up the opportunity to show the audience numerous other shorter films. I believe the fastest way a filmmaker can immediately improve his acceptance rate is to reduce the length of their film.


  • Describe your festival in five words or three emojis

The DSFF Loves Short Films!

  • What’s a personal favourite film festival of yours?

Would it be wrong to say Dam Short Film Festival?

We visit Palm Springs International Shortfest, which is enormous, and attend many local festivals here in Nevada, but really, there isn’t a favorite. Anytime and anywhere people are getting together to watch and talk about films is great.

  • What do you wish more filmmakers did, and didn’t do?

I wish they’d just get up and do it! A lot of filmmakers, or wannabe filmmakers are always talking about their next film or project or script or idea. But that’s what they’re doing: they’re talking about it instead of doing it. When people tell me about a film they want to make, I ask them all the same question: “What’s stopping you?”


  • What questions do you get asked the most by filmmakers?

“Can I have a fee waiver?”

We get more email about this than any other issue. I believe the internet’s total bandwidth may be clogged up with film festival submission fee waiver requests. They come in various flavors, some claiming poverty, some explaining how lots of other fests have run their film and we’d be lucky to have it but of course they don’t pay submission fees, others proclaiming the importance of their film and how it would change the world if only they could get it seen, and every variation in-between.

Unfortunately, we are unable to offer a fee waiver.

  • What’s your favourite film?

You’re joking! There’s no way to come up with a single favorite. Not only have films entertained me, but they’ve inspired me and changed my life. I think if there was ever a film that got me interested in moviemaking, it was Star Wars.

  • And drink of choice whilst the festival is underway…?

Water. How boring!

Water may be boring but this film festival certainly is not! There’s still time to send your short film. Final deadline is 29th November 2018 and the event is 7th-10th February 2019 in Boulder City, Nevada. Thank you John at Dam Short Film Festival for taking the time to chat with us. 


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