Poster MNKINO Film Score Festival
Musicians perform at the MNKINO Film Score Festival.
Classical Minnesota Stories

Film Score Fest helps fledgling filmmakers and composers reach the big screen

On a Sunday afternoon in March, a random collection of filmmakers and composers — some experienced, some not — gathered at a bar in northeast Minneapolis.

The aim? To talk about films, naturally, and the art of writing music for them. But there was another motive, too — finding a partner to make a film with, and getting it shown at this year's MNKINO Film Score Fest in the Twin Cities.

Filmmaker Oanh Vu curates the annual MNKINO ("Minn-KEE-no") festival with co-organizer Andy Dayton, a new media artist. Vu smiles wryly as she talks about how the kickoff event in March happens.

"It's a little like speed dating," she says. "We encourage filmmakers and composers to meet with each other and work together. About a third of them pair up during the kickoff event. We pair the rest off ourselves later."

When the combinations of filmmakers and composers is finally settled, Vu and Dalton announce what they call the "mystery meat" to the competing duos — the theme they are expected to make a five-minute film about.

"Unreal" is this year's buzz title, and it has comfortably attracted enough entries to fill all 18 slots available in the 90-minute showcase screening, which concludes the 2018 festival.

When the Film Score Fest began five years ago, things were quite different.

"We struggled to get enough people to even submit," Vu remembers. "I don't think we even had a juried process the first year."

Since then, the popularity of the Film Score Fest has spiraled, and a panel of established filmmakers and composers has been introduced to whittle the entries to a manageable level.

Vu is careful to explain that the MNKINO jury does not necessarily place technical quality at the head of its list of criteria when sifting submissions.

"The whole point of MNKINO is to get people to make videos," she says. "It's not about technicality. There are so many other festivals which do that."

Andy Dayton agrees: "Our goal is to provide a platform for people who are maybe just starting to get into film work. It can be hard to find a venue to show your work. That's where MNKINO comes in."

All kinds of filmmaking styles are welcomed at the Film Score Fest, and virtually any type of music can be written to accompany the moving pictures.

"You're going to see a really wide range of films," Vu explains. "It could be experimental; it could be documentary; it could be narrative. Including things you don't expect to see."

One unique feature of the festival is that the music written to accompany the films is performed live at the showcase screening by a chamber orchestra.

This means that the composers are required to provide metronomic click-tracks for their music, to enable accurate synchronization between the orchestral players and the on-screen images they are accompanying.

This is not always easy — adding a prerecorded soundtrack to a film digitally would be much easier — but Dayton believes that the extra effort involved is worth it.

"When you're watching a film, it's really easy to take the score for granted," he says. "But the Film Score Fest is focusing on the skills of both filmmaking and composing, so it's important to bring the music aspect to the fore. Live performance does that. It makes you think more about the nature of the collaboration."

Like many grassroots organizations in the arts, MNKINO runs on a precarious financial footing. Grants from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and St. Paul City Council's Cultural STAR program have helped keep the festival going, and Vu and Dayton volunteer their time and expertise freely.

Both organizers think the effort is ultimately worth it.

"The filmmakers and composers who participate in the Film Score Fest are incredibly appreciative of the opportunity," Vu says. "For composers to see their music played live in front of an audience, and make something for a film, is definitely a unique opportunity."

And the particular niche which the Film Score Fest occupies is a strong reason why Dayton hopes it will continue into the future.

"It allows filmmakers and composers to imagine a space between 'I'm a total amateur' and 'I'm a professional,'" he says. "To be able to show your work in a way that's prominent, but not have to put yourself in one of those two categories."

That open-door attitude is, Vu adds, central to the ethos of the MNKINO Film Score Fest and why it has an important role to play in nurturing creative talent in the Twin Cities area.

"When you're thinking about wanting to be an artist, what holds you back sometimes is wanting perfection," she says. "Sometimes people end up never making anything, because they want that level of quality."

"The message of the Film Score Fest is, 'Just make it.' You've got a challenge; you've got a platform; you've got a deadline. Just make something."

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