Comedian Zac Maas Brings the Phone It In Film Festival to Denver

Few comedians in Denver (or anywhere, for that matter) are as industrious and self-starting as Zac Maas. Whether toiling away at open mics, snatching up any emcee and feature spots that come along, doing improv, shooting sketches or co-hosting the Whiskey & Cigarettes podcast, Maas always seems to have several irons in the fire. He also co-created the game show Uncalled Four, but he's ceded its day-to-day operations to Jake Browne in order to focus on comedy, podcasting and filmmaking. His latest endeavor is the Phone It In Film Festival, which calls on local filmmakers to explore the possibilities of short films shot entirely on smartphones. We caught up with Maas to discuss bringing the festival to Denver, his partnership with LFX Film Works, winning a grant from Imagine 2020 and the advantages of letting people crash on your couch. 

Westword: Can you describe your first impressions of the Phone It In Film Festival in Philadelphia? How did you hear about it in the first place?

Zac Maas:  First of all, I really like their scene. I like all the comics up there in Philly; they're like a very small but mighty scene. It kinda reminded me of Denver. So when Uncalled Four was on our East Coast tour out there, we did a show in Philly at the Phila MOCA, which is in this mausoleum, basically like an old funeral parlor. 

That's creepy.

Yeah! So anyway, we did the show in Philly, then I hung out there for a while afterward. I actually did a couple shows with Jordan Wieleba; she was on Uncalled Four in Lancaster with Rubi Nicholas, and we went to Philly to get on this open mic because she was trying to shoot this pilot. Well, that was a sad sidetrack....

So anyway, I was out there staying with a comic named Alex Grubard, who'd stayed with me on his way through Denver.  He's part of the Phone It In Film Festival, which was originally conceived as part of Philly's $5 Comedy Week, which is a thing that Good Good Comedy puts on. Good Good Comedy have now crowdfunded their own venue, but they originally started with just this festival; $5 Comedy Week is a big event where they do like thirty shows that all cost five dollars. It's all concept shows, and there's a rule that they have to be brand-new concepts; you can't have ever tried them before. One of the ones I can think of was called "Weeding Out the Stoned," where you've gotta figure out the one guy on stage who's not high, but basically the whole week is about throwing a bunch of shit at the wall to see what sticks. And the Phone It In Film Festival was one of the ones that stuck. So I went to go see it when I was there, and I was just impressed that they had so many people who submitted videos. They do the show every month now, and the one that I went to had like forty minutes of videos that were only two to three minutes each.

And pretty much anyone can enter?

Anybody can enter. Obviously there's a lot of comedy stuff, since it was started by comedians. But there's also some weird art stuff, with people spitting eggs into each other's mouths. There's all kinds of shit, and some of it's terrible, some of it's fucking great, some of it's just okay — but regardless, it was entertaining. If you only have to watch something for a few minutes, it's not too bad.

It's like an open mic for movies. 

It is like an open mic for movies — I like that. So, yeah, anybody can participate in it, you can participate as part of a team, you can participate solo, you can animate in after-effects and do whatever you want in post; all the video just has to be shot on a phone. I'm going to start putting out some of their best videos over the next few weeks just to give people an idea of what they do.

Anyway, this was about a year ago, and I remember being inspired by what I saw. I liked that this scene, which probably has about a third of the number of local comics as Denver has, was putting out way more video content than us every single month. More than any of the local scenes, really. This seemed like a really good way to get the scene involved in making stuff. It takes away all the excuses. You always want to find excuses as an artist. "I don't have the right camera," or "I don't have the budget." Fuck it — let's just make stuff to make stuff. Let's rely more on the story or the jokes than how it looks. But it's really amazing what you can do with the fucking HD cameras that come with phones these days. 

They have those detachable widescreen lenses now, too.

Well, you're technically not supposed to use those lenses.

Good to know.

I mean, you're walking around with an HD camera in your pocket. Some of the stuff it can shoot is pretty impressive. It's a pretty amazing time in history that we live in. We have the ability to create and even edit a movie, all with your phone, in a matter of minutes. That's amazing. I want to take advantage of that and get people creating. So anyway, I reached out to the guys in Philly, told them I really liked the show, and became friends with some of the other guys who run it. Chris O'Connor from Philly came to stay at my house when he was in Denver, as well, so I got to know him pretty well. I got their blessing to start up a version of the festival in Denver. 

It's funny how often it works like that

Yeah, there's a lot of couch-crashing in this story. I knew I wanted to do something like what they were doing here, but I wasn't exactly sure how to go about it. I had met Lou LaFond working on another project and I knew that he had a venue, so I told him about the idea. Lou does set and studio design for all kinds of stuff, from films to haunted houses and theme parks. The company is called LFX Film Works, and he'd told me he was interested in doing more film stuff in Denver. So we started working together, because he had this cool space in RiNo. It's a film studio, but his plan is to break ground in the spring on an events center and large-scale film studio, which he hopes to have completed within a year. So right now, it'll just be a show in his workshop, which is cool because you'll be able to see some of the stuff he's working on — right now there's a giant 3-D model for a claymation horror movie they're doing —  but we have plans to grow if it works out. He has plans for a lot of other types of events, but this will be one of the first things to take place there. 

So how did you end up getting a grant?

Well, once I knew Lou was down to let us do the show there, I reached out to Kayvan Khalatbari and told him about our plans. He told me the city was looking to get behind local film stuff in Denver because they really want more filmmaking at any level going on here. I don't want to talk any shit or overlook the things people are doing, but there's currently not that much filmmaking going on in Denver. But everybody in the comedy and film communities seems excited about this. 

It's a pretty limited rebate. We'll get like maybe one big production every year

Yeah, so he introduced me to Lisa Gedgaudas from the Imagine 2020 Fund, and she seemed really interested in the idea. She encouraged me to apply for the grant, so I did, and we ended up getting it. Which is cool because Create Denver is doing a lot of cool stuff and the Imagine 2020 thing could be really great for the city. 

Can you describe the participation guidelines and what you're looking for from the submissions? 

Basically, every film has to be under three minutes, it has to be shot on a phone, and you can't use any attachable lenses or whatever. You can use whatever program you want to edit or animate and do whatever you want in post. You can record sound however you like. The film cannot have been shown anywhere else before.  The site is up and ready for submission, it has all the dates and information you'll need.

Oh, and no porn. Artistic nudity is probably okay, but no porn. 

The deadline for submissions to the Phone It In Film Festival is Thursday, November 10; entrants must be at least 21 years old. The inaugural Denver edition of the Phone It In Film Festival kicks off at 7 p.m. Saturday, November 12, at LFX Film Works. Tickets are available at the door for a suggested $5 donation; visit the Phone It In Film Festival home page for more information.

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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham