This is the weekend with the highest stakes for the plucky independent filmmakers of Memphis — at least monetarily speaking. For the second year, the Memphis Film Prize is offering a $10,000 reward for the best film between five and 15 minutes long.
The Film Prize program got its start five years ago in Louisiana, when film producer Greg Kallenberg founded the nonprofit and gathered sponsors for what is believed to be the richest short film prize in the world. After four successful years in Shreveport, the film prize expanded to Memphis last year. "If you were there last year, you saw all of the crowds and the madness, which we anticipate and hope for this year," says David Merrill, who coordinates the Memphis program.
Last year's winner was McGhee Monteith, an actor-turned-director with the intense family drama "He Could Have Gone Pro." "She got $10,000 from the Memphis Film Prize, and then she went down to Shreveport," says Merrill. "She didn't get the grand prize, but she did get a special reward — a $3,000 stipend to make another film. So, at least in theory, she has $13,000 in Film Prize money to work on something new."
Out of the more than 40 entries in this year's competition, 10 were chosen to screen at the competition, which will run on Friday and Saturday at Malco Studio on the Square. "There's a bumper crop of new talent. There are some experienced filmmakers this year, as well as some first-timers," says Merrill.
- Robb Rokk’s “The Game” is one of 10 films screening at the Memphis Film Prize.
Among the newcomers to the Film Prize Top 10 this year is Matteo Servente's "We Go On." Servente, who immigrated to Memphis from Torino, Italy, is an experienced filmmaker who co-directed the 2012 feature The Romance of Loneliness. "We Go On" was written by Burke's Book Store owner and noted Memphis novelist Corey Mesler and shot by cinematographer Ryan Earl Parker. It stars Bill Baker and Curtis Jackson as two men in a hospice whose lives are enriched by a charismatic nurse, played by Emma Crystal.
Nathan Ross Murphy both directs and stars in "Muddy Water" as a boxer preparing for a shot at the big time. His co-star is last year's film prize winner McGhee Monteith, as well as musician Caleb Sweazy, Kaitlin Elizabeth Murphy, Jacob Wingfield, and Billie Worley. The film is ably lensed by Andrew Trent Fleming.
Rosalyn Ross stars in the title role of "Grace," directed by Kevin Brooks. Grace is a woman whose dreams of singing stardom spiraled into prostitution until one day she happens upon a karaoke competition and gives it her all for a shot at redemption. Ross, a former Fisk Jubilee Singer, and Brooks, a Sundance fellow, make a potent team in this emotionally raw film.
Ross also makes an appearance in "Sarah?," a comedy by actor, director, and former member of Pezz, Christian Walker. Billie Worley is meeting his Tinder date Sarah at the Hi-Tone — only to find that "Sarah" is actually Memphis actor/director Drew Smith.
Marcus Santi, who made an appearance at last year's Film Prize with a heavy drama, this year teams up with Jason Van Sickel and Daniel Martine for the comedy "You Don't Know Jack Squat," in which he stars as a gonzo strength coach pushing a program of "Optimization, maximization, glutemazation" on his weary gym rats.
Another entry in this year's varied program is "The Game," a drama from Desoto Arts Institute founder Robb Rokk. Penned by Kyle Needham, it stars Mikayla House and Christiana Smith as a young couple with dark secrets. Memphis fight choreographer Jyo Carolino makes his directorial debut with "Gauntlet Run: Breach," a frenetic actioner that will be part of a new web series. Syderek Watson stars in Will Robbins' "Driven" as a husband whose pathological jealousy drives him to the brink of madness.
The winner of the $10,000 prize will be determined by the combination of a jury of filmmakers and critics from outside the Memphis area and a popular vote from the audience. "Part of the mission of film prize is to incentivize filmmakers, and to give a push toward the economic development of the filmmaking community," says Merrill. "I can tell you from my own experience that the filmmakers hired editors, they hired DPs, they rented cameras and equipment. They hired wardrobe, hair and makeup people, not to mention actors and onscreen talent. We're seeding the ground."[note: The original version of this article in print and online indicated that the winner of the Memphis Film Prize would go on to compete in the Louisiana Film Prize. While this was the case in 2016, due to a rule change this year, it is no longer the case. This post was corrected to make it more accurate. The Memphis Flyer regrets the error.]