Our selected films from the first round of iShorts have been announced – so what does the application and selection process look like from the inside? And what makes a successful application? Paul Ashton, Senior Film Executive at Creative England's Sheffield Talent Centre, reveals all.
From nearly 370 iShorts submissions, twenty final films went into production – and are now coming out of the edit. That means about 94% of projects didn't make the cut. That is a LOT. Whenever I see a number like that, I try very hard to see it as people – and not just people, but their passion, their investment of time, energy, sweat, and sometimes tears.
So what did our final twenty do right that the rest did wrong?
I'm going to walk you through the process and I'll be as honest as I can about what gatekeepers like me see, think and do when opportunity comes knocking.
The truth is that decision-making in any process like iShorts ISsubjective. We are not automatons, and there are no universally agreed norms as to what is good or bad. But this certainly doesn't mean every decision is based on the personal taste of the selector. Our subjective decisions are informed by:
- Extensive industry experience of making previous subjective decisions
- Objective criteria that help us manage, refine and justify our subjectivity
- A process of consideration in which we interrogate our instincts before relying on them.
I don't simply listen to my gut or my heart; rather, they are having a discussion (sometimes a pretty heated one) with my head. From that dialogue, I get to a decision.
We worked with four key assessment criteria throughout:
- The creative merits of the project. Is there a story worth telling? Do the idea, characters and world excite and engage us? Is there something ambitious and unique about it? Will it connect with an audience on some kind of emotional level?
- The abilities and potential of the filmmakers. What does their previous work say about what they can already do, and their potential? We weren't seeking polished, slick, finished. We wanted strong storytelling and cinematic instincts, with some flair. A ‘voice' in the making. The spark of something unusual, original, authored.
- The viability of the project. Have they made it achievable on a low budget? Can it be realised without cutting out the best stuff? Is there a team in place? If not, can they pull people together? Logistics aside, do they have the insight and maturity to realise the story?
- The benefit to the filmmaker's career.Where have they been? Where are they heading? How would this project help them get there? Are they making strategic choices? Are they just trying to second guess and be expedient?
You need to be able to convey your idea and yourself in a succinct, compelling, engaging way, and there were some common reasons why many applications didn't make the cut:
- Submissions lacked a concept of ‘genre'. If someone outside the industry asked you what kind of story it is – could you tell them? If not, why not? There weren't many genre stories submitted, in particular comedies. We saw a lot classed solely as ‘coming of age' or ‘social realist drama', and more; can those kinds/styles also be a genre of story?
- Your idea may seem original to you, but it's remarkably common for similar ideas to arrive from different places at the same time. What makes YOUR version of an archetype, genre or basic idea distinct?
- Filmmakers didn't always communicate their passion in their applications. We needed to know why this story must be told, must be told now, and must be told by you. We were less concerned with what kind of camera or aspect ratio filmmakers planned to use.
- Some applicants were lone-rangers - isolated talent. We looked for those with the collaborative instinct needed for filmmaking. There were many from writer-directors, and far fewer from directors working with writers; can you work harder to find the other peer-group talent with which you can collaborate?
- Some overstated, and some understated, their experience. Make sure you are applying to the right opportunity, and are eligible. And then be sure you make the most of the genuine experience you have while being honest and realistic about where your work sits in the mass of other people with whom you are competing.
Believe it or not, we genuinely do want to find talented people. And finding those talented people is very hard work. Which is why it takes time, experience, resources and a commitment to doing it properly.
The application. At the first stage, two people from a varied team of experienced assessors looked at 370 applications. If they couldn't decide, they requested another opinion. This way, every application had a fair chance. After this, the 75 projects remaining after the first stage were split between the Senior Executives of both Talent Centres while a Development Executive saw them all. From this we selected 40 teams for interview.
The interviews. We met 40 teams and asked them the same questions. Both our hopes and our concerns were often confirmed but we also had some surprises: some strong projects on paper failed at interview and some doubtful applications became compelling. Everything hinged on how the teams communicated their desire and intent. This wasn't about nifty pitching, but the substance behind the pitch.
The Workshop. We invited directors from 30 teams to workshops at our Talent Centres. This stage was all about the director's vision and voice, and finding out what made their idea cinematic, and uniquely authored. Given the fierce competition, there was a refreshing level of mutual support in the room as the different directors shared their visions.
Final selection. Then we discussed and worked our way towards the final 20 teams. We asked for as much of the script as existed at that point. We didn't necessarily plump for finished, well-developed scripts; it was just another means of looking in a different way at the team, the idea, and their passion for it.
After all our objective scrutiny and information gathering, we came full-circle to subjectivity. We prioritised variety and balance across the films. We took one another's tastes, opinions, and conflicting thoughts and feelings into account. But it's back to the most basic of questions:
- Do we want to make the film?
- Do we want to work with this director and their team?
- Is it a risk worth taking?
- Are they talents worth investing in?
iShorts isn't just about making films. It's about working with talent, developing our relationship with them, helping them move closer to the possibility of that first feature. We're not buying up ideas; we're investing in talent and buying into people. Everything we do in the assessment and selection process is about this end game and end goal. No matter how the finished film might ultimately turn out (and not all will honestly turn out how we or the filmmakers hoped), at the point of making a decision we have to be willing to justify it to ourselves, and to stand by it.
Welcome to the curious and complicated world of being a gatekeeper.
Find out more about the team behind iShorts here.