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50 Hour Slam puts filmmakers to the test

On a sleepy Sunday night in early April, there’s a small ruckus coming from a cordoned-off section at the back of the Saranac Public House. It’s the final meeting point for the 50 Hour Slam, a timed filmmaking competition that, now in its fourth year, puts local film auteurs under the gun.

Here’s how it works: Participants have two days and two hours to write, produce and edit a 3- to 6-minute film, following specific criteria. For example, this year’s filmmakers had to incorporate a safety pin as a prop, had to solve one of two riddles that hinted at a downtown location they were required to use, and were given a historic Spokane-centric photo that had to somehow be referenced.

Fifty hours might seem like a long time, but it flies by when you’re asked to create something from whole cloth.

After a weekend of eating, sleeping and breathing film, the deadline looms. Some of the teams are knocking back beers in celebration of meeting the deadline; others are still rushing to get to the final location or scrambling to turn in the proper consent forms and paperwork. One group is crowded around a laptop, watching as a progress bar slowly creeps across the screen.

There are a couple of horror stories – a camera was dropped into a bathtub and had to be replaced with an iPhone, for instance – and a few teams simply weren’t able to complete their films, but it seemed that most of the filmmakers were pleased with their shorts.

Of the 36 teams that signed up for this year’s slam, 28 submitted finished films; a panel of writers, artists, critics and fellow filmmakers has narrowed the pool to the 15 best of the bunch.

Saturday night, those 15 will be screened for the public, who will then vote for their favorites. The filmmaking teams were encouraged to document their process on Twitter (#50HourSlam), and the organizers of the slam will pick their favorite tweet from the 13 nonfinalists (one that best “represents the spirit of the competition”) and reward them with a bonus slot at the audience choice screening.

“Over the years, the movies have gotten progressively better,” said film critic Dan Webster, who has been judging the shorts since the first 50 Hour Slam. “This year’s crop is, overall, the best ever, especially given all the handicaps the teams had to endure. … You’ll find films at both ends of the spectrum, but most range in the average-to-good category. I even laughed out loud once or twice.”

“Every year we see an improvement in the overall quality of the films, and this year was no exception,” said Adam Boyd, one of the Slam’s organizers and co-founders. “Production value, performances and story – it’s getting to the point where these films could be strong candidates in other film festivals, and they were created in a fraction of the time that goes into the production of most other short films.”

“We are starting to see more and more competitors jump onto more than one team to share their filmmaking expertise, and that’s exciting to see,” said Adam Harum, a local filmmaker and slam co-founder. “There is no negative energy once the event kicks off; everybody wants to see each and every team finish their film.”

The 50 Hour Slam is, of course, similar to the long running 48 Hour Film Festival, which continues to be a staple of the First Night celebrations on New Year’s Eve. There’s not much of a difference between the two – save for a couple of hours – but the slam is, first and foremost, dedicated to integrating Spokane into the films.

“The slam has always had two main goals,” said co-founder Juan Mas. “One is to motivate local filmmakers to create films, and not just for the slam but year-round. The second is to expose this talented group of local filmmakers to Spokane’s art community and the community at large as yet another grand example of something to be proud of when you talk about Spokane.”

Boyd added, “The Slam helps bolster not just the Spokane film community, but the arts community as a whole. “It’s an event that centers around artistic collaboration … and helps show the public the amazing and talented people we have right here in our hometown.”

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