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Calculating few can win cash stash on fest trail

Monetary prizes can be crucial to struggling filmmakers

Industry attention and glory are great. Money is better.

To filmmakers at the beginning of their careers, film festival cash prizes can be so urgently needed — and, on occasion, so lucrative — that some even plan submission strategies around them.

“Entry fees stack up, so you have to be calculating,” says Greg Pak, recent winner of a $5,000 cash prize at the Hamptons Film Festival for his feature “Robot Stories.” “One of the things that comes into that calculation is whether that festival has cash prizes.”

Pak is no stranger to strategy; he has won seven prizes for his feature, though only one included money. He also won 20 awards for his student film “Fighting Grandpa,” including four cash prizes. Pak says the prizes, starting with the $2,000 he won at the Korean American Festival in 1998, have been crucial to his survival as a filmmaker.

Sponsored gold

“When I heard them call out my name, I had two emotions: incredible happiness that I’d gotten the honor, but also relief, because I had pressing financial concerns,” he says. “Two grand for somebody just graduated from film school is huge. That kind of support at key times has really made a difference in my life.”

“Films are made on a shoe-string budget, so awards become important,” says Vanessa Parise, whose “Kiss the Bride” won last year’s Golden Starfish Award — $180,000 in goods and services — at the Hamptons.

Parise says she also makes submission decisions based on awards. “I didn’t at first,” she says. “But as I started going to more and more festivals, and getting tired of it, I thought, ‘There’s a cash award there. Maybe I should go there.’ ”

Sponsorship dollars are creating prizes large enough to leave a few lucky winners significantly richer.

The IFP Los Angeles Film Festival offers a $50,000 unrestricted cash prize for narrative feature and a $25,000 prize for documentary, both funded by Target.

The 2-year-old Tribeca fest in lower Manhattan offers $25,000 each to an emerging narrative filmmaker, an emerging docmaker, and a docu-short filmmaker.

Indy windfall

The midwestern Heartland Film Festival, based in Indianapolis capital, hands out $100,000 in total prize money: a grand prize of approximately $50,000 and the rest divided evenly among other winners, with amounts determined by the number of recipients. (Last year, runnerup features got $5,000 and shorts $2,500.)

The Hamptons event, at the eastern tip of Long Island, grants about a dozen different awards, with cash amounts ranging from $25,000 for a feature dealing with science or technology to $1,000 each for six student films.

On the foreign front, Greece’s Thessaloniki fest offers a prize of E37,000 ($41,590) for best film and a special jury prize of $24,729.

The award for biggest cash prize goes to Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival, which offers $168,598 to be split between the director and producer of the top narrative feature.

Most independent filmmakers who receive a check for several thousand dollars don’t run out and start buying stuff. They’re more likely to use the money to pay off debt accumulated during production. Paxton Winters, who won the $50,000 LAIFF prize for his movie “Crude,” is giving almost the entire sum to his producer, Mehmet Eryilmaz. “He put his own money into it,” Winters says. “It’s only fair.”

Pavel Solc, producer of the mega-prizewinning “Some Secrets” at San Sebastian, is paying bills left over from the last film and beginning to make the next.

“We’re pitching another feature film of (‘Some Secrets’ director) Allice Nellis,” he says. “She’s using the money to write the script and I’m pitching the project. I was amazed to have this prize and to be able to survive and try to produce another film.”

Heartland Film Festival president Jeff Sparks says past recipients have spent their winnings in a variety of ways: Mike Tollin and Debra Chase, who made “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream,” donated half their winnings to the Chasing the Dream Foundation, which provides scholarships for minority students; Ross Spears paid for surgery needed by a member of the poor, rural family featured in his film “To Render a Life.”

The most common use for award money, though, is the most basic: rent. “If I hadn’t won it, I wouldn’t have paid my rent that month,” says Stephen Kijak, who won $5,000 (and four plane tickets) for his doc “Cinemania” at the Hamptons Film Festival. “It came in pretty handy.”

For some filmmakers, winning a chunk of change is an unexpected bonus. “I was blown away,” says Harvey Wang, winner of the $25,000 prize for documentary short at Tribeca. “I’d never heard of such a large prize for a short film. I would have been happy to get a handshake.”