A Pro-Science Film Festival: Why Not?

Over at Shifting Baselines, Randy Olson posts a comment suggesting how to combat anti-science movies like Expelled:

You want to know how to start -- why doesn't somebody run a film festival for pro-evolution films? THAT is how you reach out to tap into new voices, new blood, new perspectives. THAT is what is desperately needed. Efforts to fan the fires of creativity and innovation. THAT was how I got started as a filmmaker -- winning awards at the New England Film and Video Festival while I was still a professor. That festival, and others, drew me into the world of filmmaking. But right now, if a high school kid makes a really great video about evolution, where is he or she supposed to send it? And more importantly, the presence of such a festival becomes an incentive to draw new talent into the subject.

Predictably enough, this draws a bunch of comments of the form "If you're so smart, Mr. Movie Guy, why don't you do it?", and he demurs, saying he's too busy to organize a real film festival. But, really, the idea is a good one, and I don't see why it couldn't be made to happen. In fact, we have all the necessary ingredients right here.

OK, fine, we don't have celebrities and connections and distribution deals. But as we're constantly being reminded, this is the 21st century, the age of blogs and citizen media and YouTube-- we don't need any of those things to make a start.

There's absolutely no reason we couldn't launch the ScienceBlogs.com Online Film Festival right now.

I mean, look at what you need to make a film festival, and look at what we have here.

First and foremost, you need a way for people to make films and get them to you. Well, we've got that, in the form of YouTube. We could take our cue from the Nanobowl contest run by Physics Central a while back, and have people submit entries by posting them to YouTube with a particular tag.

Next you need a way to draw in quality entries. This requires the two things that aspiring filmmakers want, both of which we have:

  1. Money: We have upwards of seventy blogs as part of ScienceBlogs, all of whom presumably have some interest in promoting science to the general public. If, say, 60 of those bloggers were willing to contribute an average of $100 each (that's an average, mind-- I know that some of the bloggers are students for whom $100 is a non-trivial sum, but I'd be willing to kick in significantly more). That'd be $6,000 in prize money right there, without going outside the circle of bloggers.
  2. Exposure: The other thing aspiring filmmakers want is exposure, and even beyond our tens of thousands of blog readers, we're sponsored by a media company for God's sake. Generating publicity is what they do-- if we could get Seed on board with the idea, that would easily provide enough potential publicity to bring people in.

So how would this work? Well, we would announce the ScienceBlogs.com Online Film Festival, seeking short films promoting some aspect of science to a general audience, with entries to be collected via YouTube and a deadline of, say, Labor Day (to give students and academics a chance to take the summer to work on their submissions). We watch the entries, narrow them down to a short list, and post them all on some common site for people to watch. Then we choose a winner, or several winners.

$6,000 in prize money would let you do multiple categories-- Life Science, Physical Science, and Science and Society, say. Call it a $1,000 first prize for each, with a $500 second prize, and a $500 Audience Award, voted on by readers. If the Corporate Masters would be willing to, say, profile the winning directors in a future issue of Seed, that'd be plenty to sweeten the pot.

There are lots of other ways to expand on this, too. You could imagine connecting it up with the World Science Festival or something similar, arranging to have the winning films shown as part of the festival. I'm sure it would be possible to get more money to offer in prizes, as well, if we were to expand beyond ScienceBlogs.

It would be a good deal of work, to be sure, but nothing remotely like what Randy's original comment suggestion would involve. And it would require some investment on the part of bloggers, but we've managed that before, raising tens of thousands of dollars for DonorsChoose, and coming tantalizingly close to arranging a science debate among presidential candidates.

Yeah, we wouldn't be able to put up enough to get slickly produced two-hour movies about the wonders of evolution to go head-to-head with Expelled. But you have to start somewhere, and we could start by getting lots of ten-minute short films promoting science. In some ways, that might be even better. Best of all, there's no reason we couldn't make this happen.

So what do you all think?

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That sounds like a great idea! I love the grassroots angle to it. Maybe you might even throw open the prize money pool to outside donation? I wouldn't have a problem kicking in a $20 (I'm one of those students :-)...

I'm not technically on Science Blogs, but count me in, for small donations, help organizing, or publicizing via my blog. I think it's a great idea not just to feature pro-evolution films, but pro-science films in general (eg the why the LHC will not destroy the world, and why What the Bleep is a ridiculous movie that distorts quantum mechanics), perhaps even clever YouTube videos, and such...

This is a great idea. One of the arguments of 'Expelled' is that there is a centralized 'Big Science' that is controlling scientific inquiry. Perhaps having a very grass-roots level internet film festival will demonstrate that science really is accessible to all.

By Andy Tran (not verified) on 27 Apr 2008 #permalink

Sounds good to me. The world needs more Jacob Bronowskis. You could call it "The Ascent of Man Film Festival". (Would that set the expectations too high?)

But if you want the other 95% to participate, give a date that isn't America-centric. Here in Europe most people associate "Labour Day" with the first of May, the traditional parading day of the labour unions.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 27 Apr 2008 #permalink

This is a wonderful idea. Throw donations open to your readers and the prize money will go way up. If you get SEED to go for it, set up a paypal account and I'll put in $100.

Count me in, too! I definitely think that this project could be a great success, and would be more than happy to help get it going.

You'd need to rent a theater and arrange for Ben Stein to come to the premiere so you could be big about it and let him in (after he paid the admission of course).

An excellent idea, Chad.

I think you could make it even more "grassroots" by establishing two classes of entrants with separate prizes. One for "professional scientists" -- grad school students and above, and one for amateurs, which could include both students and "hobbyist" adults who are not scientists.

Hi, an actual filmmaker here.

1) This is a great idea.

And 2) there's no reason why it can't be organized in the real world. That'll draw a lot more attention and honestly, it's less complicated than one might imagine; it's merely time-consuming and festivals thrive off of volunteers. I live in Boston and it's difficult for me to imagine MIT, Harvard, BU, etc. NOT being enthusiastic about this.

I do have to admit, doing a documentary about "junk science" and why and how people fall for it would be a fascinating topic. After all, we might have the resurgence of diseases that shouldn't be coming back simply because idiot parents heard from a friend of their aunt's friend who read on the Internet that maybe possibly the mercury preservatives might cause autism if your child is vaccinated on a Thursday.

Maybe you might even throw open the prize money pool to outside donation?

That would certainly be a way to boost the total pool of prize money.

My only hesitation would be that there are probably legal issues involved with handling the money, and I'd prefer to avoid having the IRS crucify me. It'd work a lot better if some organization that was already set up to do that sort of thing could handle it.

And 2) there's no reason why it can't be organized in the real world. That'll draw a lot more attention and honestly, it's less complicated than one might imagine; it's merely time-consuming and festivals thrive off of volunteers.

Free time is in short supply around here, though. That's why I suggested an on-line version-- it cuts out all the time spent booking venues and arranging to get people in one physical location. Much less organizationally intensive.

A vote for the online version. Everyone would get to see all the films (without having to travel) so it would be environmentally sound. SEED could handle the donations and contest management and the actual video delivery could be on Google Video.

Does anyone know if the two films about Darwin (Evolution's Captain and Annie's Box) are still a go?

By merkin j. pus-tart (not verified) on 27 Apr 2008 #permalink

This is a terrible idea. Who thought it up?

Oh, whoa, just kidding. Glad to see everyone agreeing on this. And let me toss in a tidbit.

I was a judge at the International Wildlife Film Festival in the mid-90's. The year I did it there was the usual spate of huge budget predictable nature films with the voice of God narrator and off-the-shelf music scoring. But the best film of the entire festival, in all of our opinions, was a quirky little short film a guy made about coyotes in the Hollywood Hills that ate people's pets. It opened with this flaky rich lady holding her poodle as the animal control guys marched up her driveway and she was hysterical about the coyote, still in her backyard, that almost ate her little poodle. But as they took out a high powered rifle she got even more hysterical, not wanting them to hurt the beast. It was funny, charming, and eventually interesting as it got into the basic issue of civilization clashing with wildlife.

The whole thing was probably made for $100, versus the millions spent on the boring lumbering big budget behemoths. And the makers of the big films were pissed when the little no budget film got all the accolades. But that's what you run film festivals for -- in hopes of getting the raggedy piece like that. And in this era of Youtube and cheap video production, there's no telling what you'll get. So go for it! If anyone needs details, get in touch -- last year we ran our SB Flix Contest so we've got a general idea of how to do it.

By Randy Olson (not verified) on 27 Apr 2008 #permalink

Is this still in the works?

This would be awesome. Did anybody talk with Seed about it yet? Email this blog post around to all the bloggers here?

By do it do it (not verified) on 15 May 2008 #permalink

I feel safe saying that there's something in the works, but I'm not sure how much detail I can really reveal, so I'll stick with being cryptic.

I'll post something on the blog when I know enough detail for it to be useful. Hopefully soon-ish.

Hi everybody,
my name is Alexis Gambis - I am a scientist and the founder of the Imagine Science Film Festival. Such a Pro-Science festival does exist. I encourage you all to submit films and go visit the website at http://www.imaginesciencefilms.com. The festival will go on its 2nd edition in October 2009 all around NYC.



I've recently completed a film called "Why is science Important?" which I think many of you might find interesting. Please take a look at www.whyscience.co.uk and help promote the film.

By Alom Shaha (not verified) on 28 Apr 2009 #permalink