Babelgum sticks online

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Call it the egalitarian film festival.

Unveiled last year in Venice, the Babelgum Online Film Festival boasts that it is the first significant film festival to take place entirely in cyberspace. But what really seems to be catching people's attention is the fact that it's a film festival that anyone can enter.

That does not mean that it's a festival without high standards. Organizers have stressed that they are seeking quality productions to fill the ranks of seven competitive short-film categories doling out about €140,000 ($204,000) in total prizes. The goal is to strike a middle ground between quality and accessibility.

"I think people understand what we are after here, and they're responding with some very interesting projects so far," said Mark Cranwell, director of content acquisition at Babelgum TV, the festival's parent company. "This is not an old-style festival a film director has to be invited to. But it's also not YouTube."

Organizers have said they reserve the right to remove entries because of offensive subject matter, for example, or low production quality. But they also noted that they've hardly had to exercise that right. Of the more than 500 entries uploaded to the film festival's site with less than three weeks remaining before the festival's March 1 upload deadline, organizers had removed fewer than a dozen.

Entries are still rolling in. In fact, the response has been so strong that the festival's organizers said they had to extend the upload deadline by two weeks (the deadline for film directors to register, however, remains Friday).

The process of uploading entries ends March 1, and viewing will start two days later. True to its democratic roots, the general public will decide on the first round of finalists, with voting used to whittle each category down to 10 top films. From that point, a panel of 10 experts will pick three finalists, and Spike Lee will then select the winner.

Lee, who was on hand for the creation of the festival in Venice, said a festival like Babelgum makes it easier than ever for a talented young director to get noticed.

"I used to be a struggling independent filmmaker myself, and so I know how important a forum like this one is," Lee said. "With opportunities like this one available these days, a good filmmaker who doesn't get his film seen has only himself to blame."

For parent company Babelgum — a global Internet television network — the film festival is directly related to one of what Cranwell called the "four passions" it is focusing on: independent films, nature and wildlife, travel and participation sports. These are the areas where the company is seeking to attract attention with video content.

"Some networks seem to be a mile wide in terms of what they cover but only an inch deep," Cranwell said. "Well, we are an inch wide and a mile deep. We aren't just looking for areas people say they're interested in. We're looking for areas people are actively interested in. We want to be a definitive source for professional-quality video in those areas of interest."

The strategy hints at the company's name, the gum that holds together areas of interest as diverse as the languages spoken in the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

Like the festival, Babelgum's peer-to-peer strategy allows small, independent producers to upload content. Organizers said they hope the festival will — in addition to calling attention to the Babelgum brand — help provide content for the network's independent film channels and perhaps to identify up-and-coming talent that might play a role in the Internet television network's film development efforts.

"There's no one part of Babelgum that is operating independent of others," Cranwell said. "The festival is part of a larger whole, but it's also a very exciting proposition on its own."
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