Memphis Film Prize Filmmaker's Liaison David Merrill says he's proud of what the young film festival has accomplished since it spun off the Louisiana Film Prize in 2016. "Our $10,000 annual prize has spurred the creation of more than 120 films in Shelby County," he says. "Some of them might have happened anyway, but the Film Prize got a lot of people off the couch ... We've given away $20,000 to Memphis filmmakers. The first year's winner was McGhee Monteith with 'He Could’ve Gone Pro'. Last year, it was Matteo Servante's 'We Go On' with a screenplay by Corey Mesler."
Compared to other festivals, creating a short film for the Memphis Film Prize is a more intensive process. Prospective filmmakers must register their projects with the organization, and then check in periodically during production. The films that make it to completion are then put before a panel of judges, who pick 10 films to screen at the two-day festival. The winner is determined by audience ballot, but there's a catch: In order to vote, audience members must watch all 10 films at the festival. This prevents ballot stuffing by people who would watch their friends films, then leave. "With this rule, we're trying to build in a certain sense of fairness," says Merrill.
The program's success can be judged by the number of returning filmmakers. "Going into the third year, we've got 'Opening Night' by Kevin Brooks. I believe this is his third year to be in the top 10. Marcus Santi is also back in the top 10 for the third time with his film 'Jack Squat: The Trial'. Rob Rokk has a film called 'Outside Arcadia.' All of these filmmakers have returned every year and gotten in the top 10 every year. We've got fresh blood — people who weren't in the top 10 before — and we've got returning champions back to duke it out."
- Mario Hoyle (Don), Ricky D. Smith (Boss) in "Dean's List"
Daniel Ferrell competed in the Memphis Film Prize last year, but didn't make the cut. "That experience really inspired me to work hard and hone my craft so I could make it to the top 10 this year," he says.
Ferrell's film "Dean's List" was the first to be called out at the announcement party. "I was jumping for joy. I couldn't even believe it!"
The director, who started out making backyard movies with his friends, says "Dean's List" came about almost by accident. "We were trying to make a movie about a female graffiti artist, but we couldn't get it off the ground," he recalls. "We had decided to shoot on April 28th, and we wanted to keep that date. So I got together with my friends and we quickly wrote the story about a young college kid who has to deliver a backpack to his boss, and something bad happens. It just kind of came together."
Actor/director Donald Myers is a familiar sight on the Memphis film scene. He appeared in last year's winner "We Go On," written by Burke's Book Store owner Corey Mesler. Myers says he found himself in the director's chair when "Corey sent me the ['Hypnotic Induction'] script and asked if I wanted to take it on."
Myers and Mesler worked on the script over a couple of weekends to get it into filmable shape. "Corey's a master of dialogue," Myers says. "It's about a bartender who has a smoking and drinking problem, and he doesn't know how to cure it. He visits a hypnotherapist for treatment for his addictions. The encounter turns into a test of wills."
Caroline Sposto and John Moore were tapped to play the lead roles. "I liked their chemistry, and when we put them to work at the table read, it all just came alive," says Myers.
First time writer/director Lauren Cox was inspired to write "Traveling Soldier" by a Dixie Chicks song. "Since I was in middle school, I've always thought that would be a good movie," she says.
After the birth of her first child, Cox, an actor who has appeared on House of Cards, decided to make a movie in Memphis. "My film work was out in California. I had zero Memphis connections," she says.
2016 Film Prize winner McGhee Monteith recommended Andrew Trent Fleming, who co-directed and shot "Traveling Soldier," while Cox took the lead role. "I would never have thought I would make an emotionally driven World War II movie, but then I just got really attached it to," Fleming says. "It's Lauren's baby, but it means a lot to me. My grandad and grandma were so similar to these characters. I tried to help her achieve her vision, but I put my own touches in there, too."
This year's Memphis Film Prize festival takes place on August 3rd-4th at Studio on the Square. "The real winner is Memphis," says Merrill. "Certainly someone is going to walk away with $10,000. But we get to see all these great films. Every year, they're upping the ante."