If the winter blues are getting you down and you need something summery to focus on and look forward to, now is the perfect time to think about what you're going to submit to the Montreal "Just For Laughs" International Comedy Festival. Did you know that in addition to live comedy, they also want to be known for showcasing the world's best comedy films? "Just For Laughs," presented by Loto-Québec in association with Labatt Bleue, prides itself on being "the international premiere showcase for innovative comedy films," and this year will be part of the 20th anniversary edition of the festival, running July 11-21. They are interested in submissions for "Eat My Shorts!" (comedy short films) and "Comedia" (comedy feature films—both Hollywood and independent productions). They are especially looking for the "wacky, bizarre, and outrageous," and since I've heard a number of comics complain that they don't get enough opportunities to show these more "outside the comedy box" facets of their comedy chops, here is a great opportunity. You'll also be happy to hear there's no registration fee. Deadline for submissions is April 30 (just around the corner, but still far enough away for you to put something together). Submissions should be under 10 minutes and on NTSC or PAL VHS cassettes or DVD. Submissions and all materials sent need to be clearly labeled with running time and contact information. You should also note that your screening tape won't be returned. For contact information, visit www.hahaha.com/comedia.
Interest in comedy shorts, especially those submitted by their creators instead of by agents or managers, is a trend you can continue to bank on. Here in New York, PSNBC is also beefing up interest in comedy short films for their film festival nights, as are many other comedy festivals around the country. Cable stations have discovered that comedy shorts can be great filler between oddly timed films, and this saves them promo dollars (very important, as our current economy brings hefty entertainment budget cuts). This is an ever-expanding area you could be exploring as a filmmaker, comedy writer, or comedic actor (or why not go for all three), even as you continue your stand-up career.
If you don't have anything to send this year, you might want to think about how you can meet more film contacts in the future. An easy way to start is to ask everyone you know or ever come in contact with if they know any undergraduate or graduate film students. (Remember that even freshmen filmmakers are now entering their films and shorts at festivals like Sundance and often doing very well.) Then ask your comedy peers, friends, or family if they know anyone already working in that area of the business. You could be surprised to find that your grassroots version of "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" quickly yields networking results. It never hurts to ask, nor does it make you look unprofessional, but you won't know unless you try.
Also, consider auditioning for and working on all levels of the student or independent films that regularly have casting notices here in Back Stage, as well as calling all the film schools and asking to whom you can send a picture postcard-resume for their general student film casting files. The student filmmakers you meet today and make sure to keep in touch with are the award-winning filmmakers of tomorrow. They use their student projects as a portfolio to get work (and they might want to work with you on your comedy short idea). Bottom line, they usually have free or easier access to film equipment, and a lot of the knowledge you'll need to take your comedy short film from idea to fact. The time to develop your networking Rolodex is now, and I want you to learn from my own past mistakes. I had a great first film experience performing in Chris Columbus' (yes, the director of "Harry Potter") first sync-sound, two-character comedy short effort when he was a film student at NYU. Every time one of his films opens, I still kick myself for not thinking ahead and cultivating that contact until long after the opportunity had passed. So consider taking a fresh look at how student films and developing your networking skills could help your comedy career.
If you're a woman in comedy looking to expand your contacts, and you can be at The Boston Comedy Club in NYC on Wed., Feb. 27 from 6 to 8 pm, comedienne Tracy Esposito has once again put together one of her great comedy panels. I've attended her past SRO seminars and each was an impressive source of useable information from working comics and industry, as well as the scene for some very solid networking. If you're always at the same clubs, talking to and working with the same faces, you're likely missing out on knowing about the bigger picture in your job market. You're also passing on using every inch of the comedy grapevine in NYC, which offers far more accessible information than you'll find in any other branch of the entertainment business. As in the past, all proceeds from the $20 entrance fee will benefit a worthy cause; this time it's the Breast Cancer Awareness Association. Reservations are a must. You can call (212) 977-1000 ext. 302 and ask for Entertainment Director Gina Savage, who will also take part in a discussion titled "How to Succeed, Survive, and Stay Sexy in the Comedy Business." I always enjoy comparing notes with Savage regarding her views on comics and her experiences booking Boston. That's a tough room both to play and to book, but her stellar results make it look easy.
The panel discussion will be moderated by Esposito and features a diverse panel of women in comedy you should know. Scheduled panelists include Maureen Taran (comedy manager from the Barry Katz Entertainment Group and stand-up and past Back Stage Bistro Award winner, whom you've often seen in my columns), and the very funny and always straightforward Corey Kahaney. You'll also hear input from Lisa Lampagnelli, who has done the warm up for the Sally Jesse show and whose own show now appears regularly at Carolines, as well as Vanessa Hollingshead, whose many club, festival, and one-woman show credits include NBC's "Later" and The Toyota Comedy Festival. So don't wait until later to reserve your seat.