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Screening dates for the NINTH ANNUAL 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, 2020! (Plus: A D&D-style movie of The Black Cauldron)

December 2, 2019

We rely on community support to keep the 90-Second Newbery going. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to us here, through our fiscal sponsor Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization.

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is an annual video contest I founded in which kid filmmakers create short movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books—preferably with a fun twist. For instance, check out the movie above, based on Lloyd Alexander’s 1966 Newbery Honor Winner The Black Cauldron . . . but retold in the style of a Dungeons and Dragons game!

I love the acting, which perfectly portrays the impetuous assistant pig-keeper Taran, the weird-metaphor-spewing Princess Eilonwy, the boastful bard (with lie-detecting harp) Fflewddur Fflam, the cute glutton Gurgi, the bullying Prince Ellidyr, the noble Adaon . . . as well as some fantastic witches, zombies, and a very capable Dungeon Master! You may recognize the actors from their movie last year of The Tale of Despereaux, or of their movie two years ago My Father’s Dragon. This is one of the many movies that’ll be featured in the 90-Second Newbery’s 2020 season.

Okay, okay! I know the above movie is nine minutes long. That’s way too long! But think of the above movie as the extended director’s cut. There is a shorter edit at the end of this post.

Join the fun and make your own movie for the 90-Second Newbery! It’s open to young filmmakers up to 18 years old, and adult help is allowed. The deadline is January 10, 2020, so get busy now! Moviemakers in Minnesota have an extended deadline of February 21, 2020. (Need technical help and moviemaking advice? Check out our video resources and how-to guides.)

In 2020 we’ll be screening our film festival in thirteen cities (with possibly more to be added). All of the screenings are FREE! I’ll put up links to make your reservations in January. For now, save these dates:

Saturday, February 1, 2020
The ROCHESTER, NY screening, at the Eisenhart Auditorium of the Rochester Museum & Science Center (657 East Ave). Hosted by me and author Bruce Coville (My Teacher Is An Alien, Space Station Ice 3, and more). 2 pm.

Saturday, February 8, 2020
The OAKLAND, CA screening, at the Rockridge branch of the Oakland Public Library (5366 College Avenue). Hosted by me and author Marcus Ewert (Mummy Cat, Mr. Pack Rat Really Wants That). 12 pm.

Sunday, February 9, 2020
The SAN FRANCISCO screening, at the San Francisco Public Library (100 Larkin Street) in the Koret Auditorium. Hosted by me and author Marcus Ewert (Mummy Cat, Mr. Pack Rat Really Wants That). 2 pm.

Saturday, February 15, 2020
The SAN ANTONIO, TX screening, at the Mays Family Center at the Witte Museum (3801 Broadway St., San Antonio, TX). Hosted by me and author Carolyn Flores (The Amazing Watercolor Fish, A Surprise for Teresita). Made possible by partners at Bexar County Digital Library Bibliotech and the Hidalgo Foundation through the generosity of H-E-B Texas Grocery. 2 pm.

Saturday, February 22, 2020
The BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY screening, at the Central Library (10 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, NY) in the Dweck Auditorium. Hosted by me and Newbery Honor winner Rita Williams-Garcia (One Crazy Summer). 1 pm.

Saturday, February 29, 2020
The TACOMA, WA screening, Hosted by me and Tacoma’s own Doug Mackey. Time and location TBA.

Sunday, March 1, 2020
The SEATTLE screening, at the Children’s Film Festival Seattle 2020 at the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave, Seattle, WA). Hosted by me and Newbery Honor winner Kirby Larson (Hattie Big Sky). Time TBA.

Sunday, March 8, 2020
The CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY screening, at the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S. State Street) in the Pritzker Auditorium. Hosted by me and author Keir Graff (The Phantom Tower). 1:45 pm.

Saturday, March 14, 2020
The BOSTON screening, at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square (700 Boylston St, Boston, MA). Hosted by me and National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson (Feed, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge). 2:30 pm.

Saturday, March 28, 2020 (afternoon)
The SALT LAKE CITY screening, at the Salt Lake City Public Library (210 East 400 South). Hosted by me and author Keir Graff (The Phantom Tower). Made possible by partners at Utah Humanities and the Salt Lake City Public Library. 1 pm.

Saturday, March 28, 2020 (evening)
The OGDEN, UT screening, at the Treehouse Museum (347 22nd Street, Ogden, UT). Hosted by me and author Keir Graff (The Phantom Tower). Made possible by partners at Utah Humanities and the Treehouse Museum. 6:30 pm.

Saturday, April 4, 2020
The BOULDER, CO screening, at the Boulder Public Library (1001 Arapahoe Avenue). Hosted by me and author Lija Fisher (The Cryptid Catcher). On-site book sales by the Boulder Book Store. 3:00-4:30 pm.

Saturday, April 25, 2020
The MINNEAPOLIS screening, at the Minneapolis Central Library (300 Nicollet Mall) in Pohlad Hall. Hosted by me and Newbery Medal winner Kelly Barnhill (The Girl Who Drank the Moon). On-site book sales by the Red Balloon Bookshop. 3 pm.

These screenings are huge fun. That’s why we consistently draw sold-out audiences of hundreds of folks! Thanks so much to my hilarious, enthusiastic co-hosts for being part of this.

Do you want to bring the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival to your town? Every year we expand into more cities, and I’d love to come to yours! Drop me a line at james@90secondnewbery.com.

And now, for the sake of completeness, here’s the edited-down version of The Black Cauldron, Dungeons-and-Dragons style. Cutting this movie from over nine minutes to less than five minutes was tough, but the job got done:

Now go out and make your own 90-Second Newbery movies! Remember, the deadline is January 10, 2020. I can’t wait to see what you create!

(Want to ensure I can pull off this weird operation for another year? Please seriously consider donating to us here, through our fiscal sponsor Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. All donations are tax-deductible.)

My Long Twilight Struggle With Matt Bird on the Secrets of Story Podcast

October 30, 2019

I co-host a podcast about storytelling with my friend Matt Bird. It’s called The Secrets of Story and it’s a companion to Matt’s book and blog of the same name.

Matt’s a great guy! But there’s no getting around it: he is the Moriarty to my Holmes, the Goldfinger to my Bond, the Khan to my Kirk, the Newman to my Seinfeld. Neither of us can survive while the other one lives! And so, as you might expect, I object to some of the storytelling advice of my nemesis.

On our podcast, Matt usually offers some screenwriting/novel-writing wisdom and I’ll disagree with it, or challenge one of the platitudes of writing advice you hear from others (you know—books like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, Robert McKee’s Story, etc.). Such guidance often sounds so reasonable, illuminating, even inspiring . . . and yet I’ve found that, by taking them seriously, I’ve become snared in mental traps that drain my creativity and send me into blind alleys. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve found some useful ideas in such books, and Matt’s book is hands-down the best such book I’ve read. You should buy it! It’s good!

Even still . . . while I find the analysis in these books interesting, they derail me when I’m actually trying to create something fresh. For me, a truly new, exciting idea is always going to feel wrong at first. It’s going to break some rule. Otherwise it wouldn’t be new, right? (And only bad people love rules and checklists.)

Anyway, whenever Matt and I record an episode, I usually post about it here on the blog . . . but I just realized I haven’t posted about the last four episodes we’ve recorded! So this’ll be a long post featuring those four podcast episodes. They’re all good episodes! You should listen to them!

Let’s start with Episode 9, “Positive Passivity”:

You always hear the advice, “Don’t have a passive main character! The hero of your story should always be active, pushing every scene forward, constantly making big decisions that affect the world around them!” And I guess that’s true . . . or is it?

Admit it: some of the most famous characters from some of the most beloved stories are pretty passive! Consider Harry Potter, James from James and the Giant Peach, Chihiro from Spirited Away, Bella in Twilight, Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, Arthur Dent in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Alice in Alice in Wonderland, or many others. These great characters are absolutely not taking the bull by the horns in every scene. In fact, I argue in this episode, these characters are passive by design. Their stories wouldn’t work as well if they were the active, ass-kicking, empowered heroes that misguided storytelling orthodoxy demands. A hero with too much agency is, in fact, alienating! I argue that the hero can be plenty passive at the beginning of the story, as long as their agency increases throughout the story. Indeed there is something appealing about certain kinds of passivity! Matt disagrees at the beginning of the episode, but in the end I bring him around. That’s why this episode, Episode 9, is called “Positive Passivity”, and you can listen to it here:

In the comments section, commenter “Harvey Jerkwater” made this good point:

All of the stories you mentioned—Harry Potter, Spirited Away, Twilight, Alien—they’re about characters being thrown into radically strange worlds or having their regular world radically tipped by strangeness. I think that’s critical to the idea of positive passivity.

Partially this allows the worldbuilding space to happen. We see this Bold New Circumstance through the eyes of someone taking it in. You can’t start mucking with the world until we know what the world is.

Also, the protagonist suddenly taking action and making big choices when he or she has just been hurled into bizarre circumstances would make the hero look overconfident at best, and more likely a buffoon.

If the story is set in a world that’s quickly understood by the reader— e.g., “it’s a diner in rural New York State” or “it’s a temp agency in Liverpool”—then passivity is a storytelling flaw, because we don’t need to be shown that world in excruciating detail to understand its rules. We expect the protagonist also knows its rules and has no reason to be passive while he or she gets the lay of the land.

Passivity in a protagonist is fine if the story has other motors to keep the reader going. Protagonist action is a great engine, but it’s not the only one. However, other motors burn out a lot faster and tend to be more fragile.

Great point, Harvey!

Okay, on to the next episode! Back on Episode 5, Matt and I had author Jonathan Auxier as a guest. Here in Episode 10, Jonathan Auxier returns to the podcast to comment on our last three episodes . . . not only about “positive passivity,” but also my theory about the decline of the hero and the suppressed/hidden side/back half of the Hero’s Journey (Episode Eight, “The Jedi In Decline”), and also my thoughts about the application of OODA loops to storytelling (Episode Seven, “Expectations and OODA Loops”). Jonathan’s comments deepen and enrich those previous three episodes, so it’s probably best to actually listen to those episodes before you listen to Episode 10: More Fun With Jonathan Auxier:

After you’ve listened to this one, I think it’s worth it to look at Matt’s post about it, in which he has some interesting follow-up thoughts.

And now on to Episode 11: Heroic Self-Interest with Geoff Betts. Hoo boy. This is the one in which Matt and I go for each other’s throats.

Special guest Geoff Betts—Matt’s best friend from the old days—joins us to talk about the role of self-interest in characters. Matt has a piece of advice that I think that is totally wrongheaded, reductive, and depressing, which he summed up in his blog post Rule #42: People Only Want What They Want. Basically, Matt claims that characters are only really believable when they’re acting in their own self-interest. I think this is ludicrous, and that it doesn’t cover the full range of human motivation. Geoff happens to be a union organizer, and he brings his own real-world perspective in how to motivate people through self-interest. He also provides a calming influence as Matt and I get more and more furious with each other . . . as the episode goes on, I feel Matt continually redefines “self-interest” is broader and more tortured ways so that it seems to pretty much covers every case.

Anyway, come for the debate, and stay for my idea about a gender-flipped, age-flipped version of Annie, in which Annie is “Andy” (a 35-year-old Will-Ferrell-in-Elf-ish orphan), Daddy Warbucks is a Jojo-Siwa-esque instagrammer and influencer, and Grace is a take-no-crap J.K. Simmons type:

After you listen to the episode, head down to the comments section for some spirited debate. As commentor “Vlad” says, “Usually I think that Matt’s principles have some core insight going for them, and that James’ counter-examples are chipping away at the edges to refine the principle; but in this case, James is 100% right.” In your face, Bird!

That brings us to the final episode I want to feature today, Episode 12: Hollywoodization.

In this episode, we talk about the book-to-movie adaptations of Jeff Van Der Meer’s Annihilation, Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, and Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (which was made into the movie Total Recall). Matt and I agree that Annihilation doesn’t fully succeed, we completely disagree about Minority Report (I loved it, he hated it), and we agree again about the bulletproof gloriousness of the 1990 Schwarezenegger version of Total Recall. Listen here:

In this episode, Matt cut much from our discussion of Annihilation. One of the things I meant to mention was that I feel that one of the elements horror movies often need to succeed is to have a “Game Over, Man!” person who is the audience surrogate for fear.

One of the reasons that Annihilation (the movie) didn’t work so well for me was that every character was so infuriatingly calm! The Gina Rodriguez character Anya came closest to being visceral and real, but all the other characters were just so professional or chilly or abstracted that there was no place for the audience’s reptile impulses to go.

In many horror movies (especially ensemble pieces), there needs to be a character who just up and says “This is nuts! What are we even doing here?” early on, and/or who acts as the audience’s lowest impulses (cowardice, lust, fear, appetite, whatever) that can ground the story.

In Aliens it’s Bill Paxton’s Hudson character who loudly proclaims his exasperation and cowardice: “Well that’s just great! That’s just great man! . . . That’s it man, game over man, game over!”

In Alien, Yaphet Kotto’s character Parker serves that role. In this year’s Midsommar, Will Poulter’s character Mark plays that role (he’s the horny jerky grad student friend who pees on the sacred tree) – he’s the most cowardly, the most directed by his base impulses. But we need that person as a release for the audience, somebody whom the audience could look at and say: “Well, if I were in that situation, maybe I wouldn’t be the bravest or cleverest person in the world, but I wouldn’t be as bad as that guy.”

That crucial “Game Over, Man!” person doesn’t exist in Annihilation– all the ladies on the team are such competent professionals, and so therefore we can’t help but feel a little distant from their adventures. Annihilation is, at least on some level, a horror movie–but horror is a primal emotion, so we need other primal emotions stoked too, or at least acknowledged, because they’re all stickily and messily and inextricably kludged together. Annihilation tries to be a POLITE, ARTY horror movie . . . and even though on balance I did enjoy it, it was not as successful as it could have been because base desires/emotions/thoughts were not given proper outlet.

And that’s that! Four podcast episodes. Four spirited arguments. If you liked these episodes, I recommend you listen to them all! After all, there are only twelve of them! And seriously, Matt’s book is good (even taking into account my disagreements). Do yourself a favor and buy it.

90-Second Newberys from our summer workshop in Hinsdale, IL!

August 16, 2019

As you probably know, about nine years ago I started the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, an annual video contest in which young filmmakers create short movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in about 90 seconds. We screen the best entries in 14 cities around the country.

Back in July, I ran a workshop in Utah helping kids make movies for this film festival (check them out, they’re great!) Last week, I assisted eight young filmmakers in a similar five-day 90-Second Newbery workshop at the Community House in Hinsdale, IL. They blew me away with their creativity and hard work! I showcased the three movies they made on the 90-Second Newbery website, but I want to feature their movies here on my blog too.

For instance, one of those filmmakers, Kevin, astonished me when he single-handedly wrote, drew, animated, and edited this cut-paper stop-motion adaptation of E.B. White’s 1953 Honor Book Charlotte’s Web, recruiting the other workshop participants for voice talent:

You can read the full review on the 90-Second Newbery website, but here’s an excerpt: “Kevin’s drawings are expressive, and he animates them with sophistication and flair. The chattering mouths and blinking eyes and moving eyebrows make the characters seem truly alive — I love the way their expressions are constantly changing, especially when they are responding to each other . . . I love the way Wilbur paces nervously when he’s worried about being slaughtered, and the uniquely stylish webs that Charlotte weaves, and the running joke about the exasperated horse who serves as a counterpoint to Wilbur . . . A 90-Second Newbery classic!”

Next up, Porter and Alec were the masterminds behind this bizarre (and yet, in its own way, true-to-the-original) adaptation of the “Dragons and Giants” vignette from Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Honor Book Frog and Toad Together. In the original short story, Frog and Toad wonder if they are brave, and so they venture out into the woods, where they discover that they are in fact terrified of the snakes, birds, and rockslides that bedevil them (even as they nevertheless shout, “I am not afraid!”). In this adaptation, Porter and Alec make a bold and hilarious change to the original story: here, Frog is a tough-as-nails Marine, and Toad is a stealthy, butt-kicking ninja! (But they’re still afraid.)

The full review is on the 90-Second Newbery website, in which the judges say (in part), “This movie has a fantastic premise, stellar acting, glorious use of green-screen special effects, a fun soundtrack . . . and this tweaked story of Porter’s and Alec’s invention somehow still very effectively encapsulates the spirit of the gentle original story, even as it goes over-the-top in its action-movie characteristics. Great work from the rest of the group as fighters and fans in the final cagematch scene, with wonderful over-the-top acting when Toad is seemingly defeated. This is so much fun to watch thanks to Porter’s and Alec’s utterly committed performances!”

And finally, Sarah and Megan made this hilarious and yet pretty accurate adaptation of Katherine Applegate’s 2013 Medal Winner The One and Only Ivan:

As the review on the 90-Second Newbery website says, “It’s the acting that makes this movie shine! . . . Ivan’s and Ruby’s extended screaming-and-crying freakout reaction to Stella’s death was masterfully funny. From there, the movie zooms efficiently through Ivan’s plan to rescue himself and Ruby from the zoo through his art . . . The costumes were resourceful (especially those big elephant ears and trunks) and the joyful, goofy performances make this a pleasure to watch throughout.”

I had a fantastic week with these talented, funny, hardworking, and sometimes crazy filmmakers. I’m so glad I was able to do this. I’ll almost certainly feature all three of these movies at the Chicago screening of the 90-Second Newbery at the Harold Washington Library on March 8, 2020. But we’re also considering bringing a screening of the 90-Second Newbery to Hinsdale itself, too, so folks don’t have to come all the way to Chicago for the screening. Stay tuned!

If you like what we do at the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival and you’d like us to continue doing it, please consider donating to the 90-Second Newbery here. Donations are tax-deductible, and be honest, if you’ve read this far into the post, you’re kind of already all-in, aren’t you? The 90-Seconds Newbery Film Festival is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non‑profit arts service organization.

Thanks for the great movies, and I’m looking forward to seeing these filmmakers again at the screenings!

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