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Screening dates for the EIGHTH ANNUAL 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, 2019! (Plus: A “Les Miserables”-style Tale of Despereaux)

November 14, 2018

What is this madness?! Only a movie of Kate DiCamillo’s 2004 Newbery Medal Winner The Tale of Despereaux, retold in the style of the musical Les Miserables! (You’ll recognize many the actors from their movie of My Father’s Dragon last year.) It’s one of the many movies that’ll be featured in the 2019 season of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival.

It’s not too late to make your own movie for the 90-Second Newbery! The deadline is January 11, 2019, so you should get busy. (Want to make a movie, but don’t know where to start? We’ve got you covered with video resources and how-to guides.)

This year we’ll screen our film festival in thirteen (!) cities, and we’ll probably add even more cities in the next few weeks. All of the screenings are FREE, though reservations are recommended because they do “sell out.” I’ll put up links to the reservation system in January . . . but for now, save these dates:


Friday, January 11, 2019
General deadline for the EIGHTH ANNUAL 90-Second Newbery Film Festival.

Saturday, February 9, 2019
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 Nikki Loftin (Wish Girl, Nightingale’s Nest). Made possible by partners at Bexar County Digital Library Bibliotech and H-E-B Texas Grocery. 2:00 pm, reception following.

Friday, February 15, 2019
The OGDEN, UT screening at the Treehouse Museum (347 22nd Street Ogden, UT 84401). Hosted by me and author Keir Graff  (The Phantom Tower). Made possible by partners at the Treehouse Museum, Utah Humanities and Weber County Book Links. 6:30 pm.

Saturday, February 16, 2019
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, the Utah Film Center, and the Salt Lake City Public Library. On-site book sales by the Printed Garden. 2:00 pm.

Saturday, February 23, 2019
The MINNEAPOLIS screening at the Minneapolis Central Library (300 Nicollet Mall) in Pohlad Hall. Hosted by me and author Jacqueline West (The Collectors). On-site book sales by Red Balloon Bookshop. 3:00 pm.

Sunday, March 10, 2019
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). With special guest, author Mary Winn Heider (The Mortification of Fovea Munson)! 1:45 pm.

Sunday, March 17, 2019
The ROCHESTER, NY screening at the Eisenhart Auditorium of the Rochester Museum & Science Center (657 East Ave). Hosted by me and legendary children’s author Bruce Coville (My Teacher Is An Alien, Space Station Ice 3, and more). 2 pm.

Friday, March 22, 2019
The SALEM, OR screening at the Loucks Auditorium at the Salem Public Library (585 Liberty St SE). Hosted by me and another co-host TBA. 6 pm.

Saturday, March 23, 2019
The TACOMA, WA screening at the Blue Mouse Theatre  (2611 N Proctor St, Tacoma, WA). Hosted by me and Tacoma’s own Doug Mackey. 11:00 am.

Saturday, March 30, 2019
The BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY screening at the Central Library (10 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn, NY) in the Dweck Auditorium. Hosted by me and author Torrey Maldonado (Secret Saturdays, Tight). 1 pm.

Sunday, March 31, 2019
The NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY screening at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (5th Ave at 42nd St., New York, NY) in the Celeste Auditorium (NB: this is different space from last year; this time it’s the downstairs theatre). Hosted by me and Newbery Honor winner Rita Williams-Garcia (One Crazy Summer, Clayton Byrd Goes Underground). 2:30 pm.

Saturday, April 6, 2019
The OAKLAND, CA screening at the Rockridge Branch of the Oakland Public Library (5366 College Ave, Oakland, CA). Hosted by me and author Marcus Ewert (Mummy Cat, 10,000 Dresses). 3:30 pm.

Sunday, April 7, 2019
The SAN FRANCISCO screening at the San Francisco Public Library main branch (100 Larkin Street) in the Koret Auditorium. Hosted by me and author Marcus Ewert (Mummy Cat, 10,000 Dresses). 2:00 pm.

Saturday, April 27, 2019
The BOSTON screening at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square (700 Boylston St, Boston, MA). Hosted by me and National Book Award winning author M.T. Anderson (Feed, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge). 2:30 pm.

These screenings are crazy fun. The co-host and I banter between the kid-made movies and even do a ridiculous song-and-dance skit at the beginning. There’s a reason we consistently have sold-out audiences of hundreds of folks for these screenings! Thanks so much to my co-hosts this year for being part of this madness.

(The 90-Second Newbery, if you didn’t know, is an annual video contest I founded in 2011 in which kid filmmakers create movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in about 90 seconds. Complete information about the 90-Second Newbery here.)

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

(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.)

Episode 7 of The Secrets of Story Podcast: OODA Loops, Expectations, Mission: Impossible and the Screwtape Letters!

October 29, 2018

It’s been nearly a year since Matt Bird and I released an episode of our podcast, The Secrets of Story, in which we try to figure out what makes good stories work. Matt and I had actually recorded an episode right after we’d both seen The Last Jedi—a movie I adored and Matt hated. In that episode (which I guess Matt will never release) we argued about that movie. Maybe I Eberted too hard, or maybe Matt didn’t Siskel quite enough. In any case, Matt found it unreleasable. And then the podcast went dormant for a while.

Now it’s back! I think it’s a good episode. I’ve had a few half-formed ideas lately about managing the audience’s expectations. I’ve been mulling some other ideas about how specific expectations bear on how a character behaves in a story. These ideas and others all finally crystallized when I heard about a concept invented by some 1970s military person called “OODA Loops,” a scheme which tries to clarify how people adjust to their environment and make decisions and act.

It sounds obvious when it’s spelled out—basically, we’re all always going through a cycle of Observing the situation around us, Orienting ourselves to it, Deciding what to do, and Acting on that decision. But once it’s made explicit like this, it’s easier to conceive of how your adversary is also going through the same OODA cycle at the same time. And so what you try to do is to complete your cycle faster than your adversary does—that’s what’s called “getting inside their OODA loop”—so that you can decide and act more quickly and with more agility than them. That way, they’re constantly adjusting to the new situations you’re creating. They’re stuck in the “Observe” and “Orient” parts of the loop, which they can never complete because you keep knocking them back with new things for them to observe and orient themselves to. The alternative is letting them get used to the situation and figuring it out so they can “Decide” and “Act” to their advantage . . . or even worse, letting them overwhelm you with new situations of their own creation. Getting inside the adversary’s OODA Loop is a way of deliberately introducing chaos into a situation for your benefit. I saw some merit in the ideas from a storytelling point of view. So I flesh out that theory with Matt on the podcast.

I talk about how storytellers can use the OODA Loop for more interesting storytelling; I also talk about how characters often “get inside” each other’s OODA Loops. One of the scenes that I reference in the podcast is this one from the third Mission Impossible movie, in which Tom Cruise’s hero is interrogating Philip Seymor Hoffman’s villain. At first it seems that the hero holds all the cards, but by the end of the scene the villain is dominant, and that’s because he’s gotten inside the hero’s OODA Loop:

I don’t have the time to explain it all again here; just listen to my mellifluous tones on the podcast!

At the end of each episode of the podcast, Matt and I have this tradition of “giving away” ideas for TV shows and movies, and I had an idea about a limited TV series adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters that I think is actually pretty workable. It’s worth listening to this one all the way to the end.

Our podcast is back in the saddle, baby! Indeed, we recorded this episode and another episode back-to-back that night. So there will be another episode going up in a few weeks. It never rains but it pours!

Lucy Momo’s Summer 2018 Movies

September 30, 2018

This summer my nine-year-old daughter Lucy, with the help of her little sister Ingrid and their neighborhood friends, made a lot of original videos. It was so much fun, and they all took to it like naturals! I taught Lucy how to use a camera and how to edit on iMovie, and then she was off and running on her own as though she’d been doing it all her life. These movies are seriously good. They all have a lot to be proud of!

For the first few videos, I helped Lucy with green screen effects and some editing tips. But after a while she was running the whole show herself: planning the stories, marshaling her friends, shooting and directing the videos, and then editing them. We decided to do them mostly as “silent” movies, and for background music we used the Kevin MacLeod’s royalty-free music available at Incompetech.com (which is also a great resource for those of you who are interested in making movies for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival).

Here’s the first movie Lucy made, with friends and next-door neighbors Aedan and Ella. It’s called “The Box.” A mysterious note thrown through the window leads two bored friends out to seek treasure in the nearby park. But what they find is perhaps more than they bargained for!

The acting is great in this one, especially Ella’s decisive manner and Aedan’s idiosyncratic expressions of worry and confusion—they do a lot of great silent-movie acting here! The random kids in the park were a nice touch as well. Lucy really shot this with style and edited it together very crisply. (I helped with the green-screen touch at the end, inside the box.)

Lucy’s next project featured her sister Ingrid, Aedan’s sister Rosie, and their friend Clara as a royal procession in “The Coins.” Lucy herself also makes a cameo as their opponent—I had to hold the camera for those scenes. What happens when a wandering princess, her tough-girl guard, and her ukulele-strumming bard happen upon a mysterious trail of magical coins?

That were a couple of great swordfights in there! I loved how Rosie the guard grew in her swordsmanship over the course of the story, how Clara the bard enthusiastically wielded her ukulele as a kind of weapon, and how Ingrid the princess’s dramatic expressions and actions drove the story! Lucy managed to make the music synch up with the action very well in the edit, and she did great double duty as the maniacal “Keeper of the Coins.” Epic!

Lucy’s next movie, “Spoiled Milk,” might have the most elaborate post-production work, although in a way it’s the simplest story. Aedan and Ella are thirsty for milk, but there’s none in the house. The easy, straightforward solution: walk to the corner store and buy some more milk. But it doesn’t turn out to easy or straightforward . . .

Who knew a trip to the corner store could be so perilous? Once again Aedan and Ella boost the production’s quality with their inimitable acting styles. We got super-lucky with a few of the shots, especially when that bicycle zoomed by at precisely the correct comic moment. I helped only with some of the green-screen effects and a few of the later shots. But in total, this movie was mostly conceived, shot, and edited by Lucy. Don’t worry, we didn’t waste any milk at the end! We emptied out that milk carton and used water mixed with white watercolor paint for that ironic final shot.

After “Spoiled Milk,” Lucy began to make the movies entirely without my input. She’d disappear with her camera and her friends for a while, and I’d really only see the final product after she was done editing. Here’s her first 100% solo movie, “The Water.” It’s about a boy (again played by Aedan) who is trying to drink from his water bottle . . . but the water bottle has the odd habit of magically teleporting around the park. Will Aedan catch his water bottle? And once he does, will he manage to drink water from it?

I especially liked that fun twist ending! Once again Aedan does some great acting, especially since the movie has no dialogue and he has no partner to interact with. Lucy gets right in there with tightly-framed shots and brisk editing. And I like the way she shot it so that the leaping water glistens in the sunlight at the end!

Here’s another movie Lucy made with only one actor. This time it’s Ella and the movie is called “Crazy Wind.” When Ella is playing in the backyard in a big cardboard box, a massive gale blows the box away, with Ella in it. But to where? And how can Ella get back home?

My favorite parts in this are the Raiders Of The Lost Ark-style movement across the map, and the clever matching cut between Ella flying off the swing, and her landing back in her own yard. The part where the whole box “takes off” into the air was resourcefully done too!

Lucy shot most of these movies in our neighborhood in Chicago, but she shot this next one in Michigan. It features Ingrid again, along with Ezra and Zella, our friends who used to live in our neighborhood but have since moved a bit north. It’s a tale of a young boy and girl who find each other on a beautiful beach . . . but their relationship is threatened by a maniacal seaside witch. What will happen, O viewers at home, on “Terror Beach”?

Great choice of music, beautiful shots of the water, and another exciting fight scene! Everyone did a great job acting, and Lucy shot it at just the right time of day when the sunlight makes everything look magical. I especially love Ezra’s ludicrous dance at the end, and Ingrid’s reaction to it!

Here’s Lucy’s final movie of the summer . . . or actually, this one was shot in the fall, but I wanted to include it in this post anyway. Lucy shot this movie with her familiar actor-partners Aedan and Ella and Ingrid, plus newcomers Lucy D and her sister Joy. In “Who Farted?”, it’s a difficult case for the Inspector as a rogue fart disturbs the party. Is the skunk at fault? Or is it one of the partygoers?

The mysterious black-and-white filter was a nice touch. Everyone did a great job here, and I laughed out loud when the “Fart Inspector” burst into the scene, intent on solving the case. And another great match of music to movie!

What a hilarious, impressive, fun batch of movies! I’m eager to see what else Lucy and Ingrid and their friends create this fall . . . and winter . . . and beyond!

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