GUEST POST: How to run a successful video contest

Dan’s Note:  Today we’re featuring a guest post from a reader named Mike Gabel.  Mike started entering video contests recently and he’s already got some nice wins under his belt.  I don’t want to spoil his post with a big preamble so without further ado, here’s Mike….

This is my first guest post for VCN so Dan asked me to give you a bit of my background.  It all started when I got lucky and won big in the first video contest I ever entered: Buitoni’s “Girls Love Guys Who Can Cook” competition.  I’ve been HOOKED ever since. I’m a one-man operation (forgive my horrible acting) and I rely heavily on my wife and five (yes, five) young daughters to be my actresses, crew and film critics.  I can just imagine that some of my daughters’ earliest memories will be holding a fill light as their mom and dad dress up in fruit costumes to shoot a video.  I’m not looking for a breakout film career- I’m just happy to have a creative outlet and win a contest every now and then.  You can see a bit more of my work here.  Overall, I love the whole video contest realm but, like many of you,have been frustrated by contests that were mismanaged or badly run.  I’ve found a lot of online articles which address the marketing angle of video contest (return on investment, driving word of mouth, etc) but none really explain the basics of holding one.  So I decided to explain what an average contestant wants to see in a video contest.  Hopefully some future contest organizer may see this and be inspired to run a better, fairer promotion.

First, define why you want to hold a video contest.  This can roughly be split into three reasons:

1. Desire a Quality Video.  Your company may want to hold a video contest because you want filmmakers to generate videos that you will eventually use on your for some end use (Facebook/YouTube/website  content, TV commercial, etc.).  Crowdsourcing is a great alternative to traditional ad agencies since it save moneys and generate new ideas.  There are a slew of great companies to host your contest (Tongal, Mofilm, Poptent to name a few) that generate extremely professional work.  Poke around their websites and  see what you like.  Their services aren’t necessarily cheap (think tens of thousands) but they have great resources, loyal contributors and will hold your hand through the whole process.  A cheaper alternative is to host your own.  It can be as simple as to asking your fans to upload their entries on YouTube and then you embed their videos on your contest webpage.

2. Create Buzz.  Here you hold a contest so that the contest itself gets people excited about your product or service. You want a large number of people to enter, post, share, forward, tweet, retweet and just plain talk about your contest.  These contests are often linked to social media sites and more often than not have a public vote as part of the contest.  If you want to outsource the work, companies like Votigo can run these types of promotions for you.

3. Merit contest.  Your purpose here is to find the most talented, biggest fan, greatest idea, most deserving and any other superlative you can name.  (Example: whoever can get the most people to dance to our commercial’s theme song wins a year supply of our product!)  These contests tend to be less video-centric (although a good quality produced video always helps) and more people/ idea- centric.

Next you’ll want to define your contest parameters.  These include:


This generally falls into three categories:

Judged.  A judge or judging panel selects the winner(s).  This is the preferred method for most regular entrants as they want to exhibit their ideas and skills and ultimately have their work declared to be “the best.”   This also give you, the sponsor, the ability to choose what video you want.

Public Vote.  Public Vote contest are the equivalent to choosing the homecoming queen in high school.  It’s not about the best candidate but who has the most friends.  Unless you publicize your contest like crazy (think American Idol scale) you will never truly have the general public choosing the winner.  The quality of the videos are usually pretty awful because the entrant’s odds of winning don’t increase by producing a quality video.  So, plain and simple they’re a bad idea.  I could rant for a while but the UK site Super Lucky has already done a nice job summing up why public voting contests are a bad idea.

Mixed Judging.  This comes in three forms: 1. Judges narrow down the finalists and public vote decides the winners.  2. A public vote narrows down the field then judges choose the winners.  3. A public vote and judging contribute to the selection of the winner. You can guess the pluses and minuses of each of these forms. Let me point out that I put the three options in increasing order of bringing traffic to your site.  So option 3 (my personal preference of mixed judging) keeps all entrants engaged and promoting their entry for the whole competition.  I’ll refer back to Super Lucky blog who make some excellent points in their post, making public vote contest better.


You need to tell your entrants what type of videos you want.  For example, maybe you want a high quality video that’s sentimental, appeals to 30-somethings and showcases your product.  Well tell them exactly that and which of those points are most important to you by assigning percentage values to each point.  Define a clear judging criteria and stick with it.  If you’re asking for humorous entries and you end up choosing emotional ones that’s not good or fair.  To determine the winner the simplest (and fairest) method may be to create a ballot indicating your judging criteria (for example 35% humor, 30% adhesion to concept, 20% production quality, 15% use of unicorns) and then rate each of these 1 to 10 by as many relevant people in your organization as possible.  If you just have people in your organization choose the video they like the most then there is no reason to define a judging criteria.


The number of entries you will receive is proportional to the prize amount.  Bigger prize = more entries.   So what’s the magic number?  Generally speaking prizes from $5K to 15K get in the ballpark of 40 -100 entries.  $1,000- $2,500 normally get 20-30 entries.  Less than that and your results vary.  I’ve been one of only two entrants for a contest of $250.  Do these numbers seem low to you?  Unfortunately, this is reality and I think many sponsors realize this too late.

What should your prize be?  Cash is king.  But Apple products also fair well.  Filmmakers LOVE video equipment, trips are good too.  Just be aware of specialized prize packages as they are not always popular.  Also, offering multiples prizes, like cash prizes for 1st thru 10th place, increase the contest appeal .  For example, a contest offering only one $10K prize may deter entrants with its 1 in say 60 chance.  But if there are 10 prizes the odds instantly go to 1 in 5.

Also keep in mind that the number of entries is also highly dependent on how well you promote your contest.  There was a recent contest that offered a measly $300 prize but was promoted in conjunction with a widely popular TV show.  It managed to get 30+ entries (although, none of them were all that great).  So what they lacked in prize amount they had to compensate with advertising dollars.

It’s almost too obvious to use Doritos Crash the Bowl contest as a model contest but you can’t scoff at the ~3,000 entries they receive.  With potentially millions in prizes and loads of promotion it is the holy grail of video contests.  But that kind of success comes at a high price.  Doritos spends millions of dollars promoting The Crash so those low-budget commercials actually cost the company a lot of money.


How long should you have you contest open for entries?  My personal take is that you treat it like a wedding invite.  Too little notice (less than a month) and people already have commitments and not enough time to put together all the pieces.  Too far out (6 months to a year) and it loses its hype. M y recommendation is 2-3 months.  Actual filming for many entrants may not start until a few weeks out from the deadline but a lot of notice gives entrants time to gets all their ducks in a row.  I recommend that you have the contest end on a Sunday at midnight Pacific time- this gives people the weekend to polish their videos.  Should you extend the deadline?   You’re usually contemplating this because of the pitiful number of entries you’ve received (which is likely a result of low prize amount, not enough promotion, or having too niche of a concept).  If you’ve done your due diligence in these areas then hold tight- a majority (up to 80% I would wager) of the entries are submitted in the last two days of the contest. Additionally, you will only add a meager number of new entries if you extend your deadline shortly before or even after (super annoying) your original deadline.  So, if you extend, do it early.


I won’t get into the nitty gritty about how to write your official rules but my recommendations are to look at other contests’ rules and modify theirs according to your needs.  If you have a legal department make sure they sign off on them.  Another downside of public vote contests in that you need to cover more of what is or is not allowed, likevote farming.

Last step, promote your contest:

Step one, make a contest webpage and make it look polished and official- if your website looks sketchy I’m not entering and I’m guessing others aren’t either.  Step two: send the info to so they can post it.  Final step: do you social media magic, reach out through email, make a flyer if you have a retail outlet, tell your friends and neighbors to enter (unless it’s prohibited in your rules) and have your coworkers tell their friends and neighbors, reach out to filmmakers- get creative.


Have a contact email:  A dedicated email or forum is critical because questions will arise.  If entrants have no way to contact you they will feel isolated and frustrated and they might produce videos that are not what you are looking for.

Make the video time limit reasonable:  This is more for your sanity because you’ll be pulling out your hair if you have to review a slew of 5 minute videos.  Only put longer time limits (say 3 min plus) if it is an absolute necessity.  The challenge that you pose to the entrants is to tell a story in a brief period.  1-2 min is my personal sweet spot.

Keep the contest page updated:  If something changes (rules, deadline extension, general update) change it on the contest page and make it apparent.  Don’t just posts it on Facebook because entrants are not always looking there.

Make good on your word:  So your contest was a flop and you only received a handful of entries.  Now you’re contemplating whether to pay out the prizes.  Just do it!  Be as loyal to the entrants as they were loyal to your contest.

Announce the winner:  Some contests never actually post the video that won their contest.  Think of how crummy it would be if they cut out the second half of the Miss America Pageant or the season finale of American Idol.  It’s always nice to know who won so even if the winning video isn’t great (if it’s not, that probably means you let voters pick the winner) you need to post it.

How to apply for one of MOFILM’s production grants

Beardy’s Note:  Today I’m happy to bring you folks a very special guest post that was written by a longtime friend of VCN; MOFILM’s director of social media, Kerry Gaffney.  Kerry’s going to let you you know how you can apply with Mofilm to get cash to pay for your Mofilm video contest entries.  It sort of sounds to good to be true but it’s legit; Mofilm is now paying out production grants to filmmakers left and right.  Need some money to hire actors or rent a nicer camera or build some outrageous prop or buy a new piece of editing software? Mofilm wants to help make any and all of that happen. Here’s how you can get a slice of their sweet, production grant pie:


There are lots of reasons why people like to enter video contests.  And there are also lots of reasons why they don’t enter; usually it’s because they run out of time or because they don’t have the money to do their idea justice.  MOFILM can’t help with the time element but we’re now doing our best to help with the money side with the introduction of Production Grants.

When we were running the Chevrolet Super Bowl contest last year, we really encouraged filmmakers to make their entries as big and bold as possible.  The winning spot had the chance of being aired during the telecast of the Super Bowl LXVI.  So we wanted to make sure that all the entries were great enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with, or be even better than, the big agency ads. That’s why we launched the MOFILM Production Grant program.  Open to any filmmaker from anywhere around the world, all they had to do was apply; sharing their concepts and giving as much supporting material as they felt like.  We gave out over $100,000 last fall and the scheme was so successful we decided to include production grants for as many of our contests as we possible could.

So far in 2012 we’ve approved over $140,000 in grants for 14 different contests to over 100 filmmakers. That’s not a typo, just in January we’ve approved almost $150,000.  That’s in addition to the $300,000 in prizes across our Sydney, Barcelona and Texas contests.

So how does it work?  It’s easy; go check out the open contests on MOFILM and pick a brand.  If there are production grants available there will be a link to the application form right from that page.  You need to be quick though, the grants go fast so the sooner you get your application in the better.

For the application we want to know who you are, what your concept is, how much money you’d like (there’s usually a guide as to what’s available on the form) and what you plan to spend the money on.  A member of the MOFILM team will then review the applications and decides who gets what.  Anyone can apply but your odds of being successful are increased if you have a great idea (natch), have some supporting material like a script or a storyboard, and examples of previous work either with MOFILM or in a link to your showreel on your MOFILM profile.

Once you’ve been told you’ve been successful, you’ll be sent an approval form to fill in and sign.  Then you can get on and create. You can bounce ideas off the account manager or ask for advice and feedback.  Although, any filmmaker entering one of our contests can do that by asking on Facebook, twitter or with an email to support.  Once you’re ready, and before the deadline, upload your video and all the relevant release forms.  One of the MOFILM team will then be in touch to ask for receipts and bank details. Once we have that we’re good to make payment and we’ll reimburse your approved expenses.  After that, all you have to do is wait to find out if you won!!

—- Guest Post by Kerry Gaffney.  Follow Kerry on Twitter @kerrymg  —-


Low Budget Lighting Part One: The Fundamentals

Beardy’s Note:  Today I’m happy to present our third-ever guest blog post.  And it’s actually the first installment in a three part series about lighting low budget video projects!  The series is being written by video contest filmmaker and cinematographer, Jeremy Applebaum.  I’ve worked with Jeremy on a few shoots and the guy certainly knows his stuff.  Last year he handled the lighting for my Crash the Super Bowl entry and I was really impressed with the work he did.  The video was shot outdoors at night next to a campfire so it was an incredibly difficult scene to light.  But check out the final product!  Like I said, the guy knows his stuff.  Oh, and Jeremy also just released his own iPhone app for filmmakers!  Ok, on with the post…

Lighting on a small budget can be a real challenge. But a nice, professional look doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. In fact, most of what you need can be picked up cheap at your local hardware store. In this installment of the lighting guide, we’ll present some items that every low budget filmmaker should have at their disposal.

Section One: Background Information:

Before we go into the gear, some basic lighting terminology knowledge is needed:

1:  A Key Light, the strongest source in your scene.

2:  A fill light, a light not as powerful as the key but used to fill in the darker spots.

3:  A back or accent light, a light pointed at the back of your subject to make them pop.

4:  A background light, a light pointed at the background so it doesnʼt turn into black mush.

A typical set will have one key light, a few fill lights, several accent lights, and one to two background lights.  All these different lighting sources can purchased inexpensively and off the self at various retailers.

Section Two: Lighting Fixtures:

Disclaimer: It needs to be said that all of this lights can get very hot, so please be careful and use caution when moving and touching these lights.

work it.

The most common low budget (hardware store) light in use would be the work light. At anywhere from $4.99 (and up) for 500 (and up) watts of these are quite a steal. Even more so when you consider that Lowel Tota lamps (bulbs in film are called lamps) can be used instead of the lamp that comes with it.  Work lights are great for lighting a broad area and can be used for anything from key lights, fill lights/accent, and background lights. The main disadvantage of these lights are that they are very difficult to control and unless softened somehow they emit a very harsh quality of light.

Another common low budget light you will see in use would be the paper lantern. These are great as soft fill lights. At around $25 for the whole fixture (lantern, socket, and lamp) these, while a bit pricier than the work light, are still a great deal.  Paper lanterns are great for providing a great soft fill light to your scene. The main disadvantage here is that the only thing they will do is provide soft light and can not be easily controlled or shaped. They also have a huge safety issue, while unlikely, since they are made of paper, if the bulb is too close or touching the sides, the lantern could light on fire.

The Clamps!

The last lighting fixture on this list is an absolute gem and largely unknown to the low budget, DIY type crowd, and this would be the clamp light. While you can get by with one to two work lights, and a china ball, you will need several more clamp lights if you really want to get serious about lighting your scene. At $7.99 (and up, without a lamp) these can get quite pricey. Clamp lights are great because, like the name suggests, they can be clamped almost anywhere making them great for for fill, accent, backlights, and in a pinch, enough of them can provide enough punch to provide a solid key light. A safety issue that should be said is that just because they can be clamped anywhere doesn’t mean they should, always make sure your lights are secure before walking away from them. When in doubt donʼt leave it.

Section Three: Accessories and Lighting Control:

Below are several great options out there for shaping and controlling your lighting sources.

Another clamp!

C Clamps:  C clamps are great for rigging pieces of gear in spots that you couldnʼt get them normally.

Foam Board:  White foam board can used to bounce light onto your subjects (experiment by pointing your work lights at something and then try again, this time pointing your work light at some white foam board and bouncing it back to truly see the effect). Black foam board can be used block (or called flagging) parts of light that you donʼt want hitting your subject.

Clothes Pins:  Clothes pins (c-47s) are great for clipping parchment paper to your lights.

Gloves:  Gloves (or pot holders!) are needed to handle and move your lights during a shoot.

Tin Foil:  Tin foil makes a great shiny reflector. The main difference between tin foil and white foam board is that tin foil will bounce back a more powerful and harsher light. To make a cheap all-in-one bounce board, tape or glue some tin foil to one side on your white foam board.

More clamps? WTF?

Pony Clamps:  Pony clamps are used like clamps for rigging gear, except where c clamps excel at clamping lights, pony clamps are better for clamping foam board and helping secure clamp lights.

Parchment Paper:  Parchment paper makes a great diffuser, clip in front of a work light or clamp light to soften it. Be careful not to clip it too close so it doesnʼt get too hot and start burning up.

Tape:  Masking tape and duct tape are a requirement to have on hand on any set.

Case:  You will also need some sort of case to carry all your gear in. I personally use work totes but almost anything should work. Just be careful how you pack your lamps. You donʼt want to open your case to find smashed lamps and broken glass.

Power:  No lighting kit would be complete without its share of power distribution options. Since most low budget options generally tend to have short cords it would be a good idea to always have a few extension cords (called stingers on a film set) and surge protecters/multi taps on hand to split the power. Furthermore dimmers are great for controlling your fixtures output.

Lamps:  You will need a few different lamps to put in your clamp lights and paper lanterns (work lights come with one to two in the box). It would be good to have several lamps on hand of different color temperatures and wattages.  Make sure you always bring a spare to set you with, you never know when a lamp is going to blow.

Next friday we’ll cover basic electrical safety in Part Two and then in Part Three were we go over some basic lighting techniques.  If you liked this article, have any questions, or think I missed anything please speak up below.

—     Guest Post by Jeremy Applebaum. Check out Jeremey’s “Virtual AD” app here    —


The ABCs of Death

Beardy’s Note:  It’s our second ever Guest Post!  This one comes from a great video contest filmmaker and a longtime reader of VCN, Shane Free.  Shane is from Pennsylvania originally but he has been working in Los Angeles as a trailer editor for movies and videogames for the last 11 years.  He even made a documentary called “Investigating the Afterlife” which you can find here on amazon.  Shane has won a number of video contest prizes over the years and his most recent win was third prize and $2,000 in 3M’s “Couple Speak” contest on Zooppa. (link)  In his guest post, Shane talks about his experience entering an amazing film/video contest called “The ABCs of Death.”  At the end of the article, I’ll link to shane’s entry.  But let me tell you right now….it’s awesome!  Even if he hadn’t done this post I would have written about his entry…and the guy hasn’t even won the contest yet!  So now, on with the guest post….

On the set of "T is for Table"

What I really want to do is direct…

As a filmmaker, I like to enter video contests because it allows me to make mini films while getting feedback on my work and occasionally winning a few bucks.  However, every now and again, a contest comes along that I would enter even if the prize was a bag of jelly beans because the reward could be so much greater if successful. This is the case with Drafthouse Films’ The ABC’s of Death competition.

From website:

Established filmmakers and emerging new stars will make up the diverse roster of creative talent that will showcase these tales of termination, beginning alphabetically with the letter A and eradicating all life right through the letter Z..

Each director is assigned a letter and every letter represents a word that acts as a springboard to tell a short story about death. A linking device will open, connect and close.

Twenty-six directors will participate from all corners of the world: Australia, United Kingdom, Serbia, USA, Japan, Thailand, Chile, India, Denmark, Indonesia, Finland, Mexico, Belgium, Mexico, Spain and France.

This unique anthology will be a celebration of death in all its forms, from the shocking and exotic to the humorously droll. It’s up to each director to interpret the letter they are assigned as creatively and outrageously as they see fit.

So as a filmmaker how do I get involved? Well, they have not selected a director for the letter “T” and are holding a worldwide competition in which filmmakers are invited to make a short no longer than 4 minutes (not including credits). The winning filmmaker will become the 26th director and their submission will be included in the final feature. One of the requirements is that the short start on a frame of red and end on a frame of red, and no pre-existing horror shorts are eligible.

The way it works, you upload your short to the site and then begin the process of begging for votes. You can vote once for each film, and the voting system makes you enter your email address and then confirm the vote through an email link for the vote to count. The 10 films with the most votes move on to the final round in which the other 25 directors then choose the winner. There is a caveat in the rules, which I think is pretty cool:

Producer Amendment. Producers reserve the right to add one, two or three shorts to the Top Ten (making it a Top Eleven, Twelve or Thirteen) if they feel great work is somehow being overlooked by the public voting system.

This is great, so if you were working on your film and got it in late with not enough time to accrue votes you still could get into the finals if the producers think your film is worthy, what a great idea.

Having my short appear as part of a feature length horror anthology gets me more excited than the million dollar prize Gain was offering up, I know that sounds crazy, but filmmakers are crazy.  I applaud Drafthouse Films for creating this contest, as there are so many filmmakers out there just looking for a chance for their work to be seen and competitions like this don’t come around often enough!

The short I entered in this contest is called “T is for Table” and it’s a concept that my father and I had the idea for and I am very excited to have brought it to life. So if you enjoy it please send me a vote and help me get into a top 10 that I hope is filled with quality films.  Prepping this shoot was the most extensive prep I ever had to do. A month before I shot I worked closely with a production designer I found on craigslist to build the table, once that was built he made the book and the drawings. I was able to borrow a friend’s Panasonic AF-100 for the shoot, this is a great camera it’s basically a DSLR in a camcorder body, so you can switch out the lenses and get that nice 35mm depth of field. I rented a pocket dolly and lit the film with LED lights.  I had a very small crew just myself and a sound guy, we pretty much did everything. All of the actors are people I know and have acting backgrounds . The post production was where it got tricky, I used two different effects artists, a mixer, and did color grading for the first time. I highly recommend color grading with someone who has properly calibrated monitors. I never trusted my computer monitors because they all looked different, so by going to a post house you can be sure to get your film represented properly. I also wanted this done fairly quickly so I could gather votes once the film was uploaded so I shot on August 28th and 29th and uploaded on Sept. 14th. All in all, I am very happy with the results and sometimes working on a deadline can be a great way to get a project done without procrastination.

I will also point out some other entries I think are really good and deserve a look, T is for Toilet, T is for Talk, T is for Tracking and T is for Toss.

Submissions end on Oct. 1st but voting will continue until October 31st and then the final winner is decided on November 15th.  To watch and vote for T is for Table, click here:

—–     Posted by Shane Free. Twitter @freestyleflicks    —–

Want to write a Guest Post for VCN?

Brought to you by the US Dept. of Video Contests

I don’t know what’s changed but the amount of people who visit this website on a daily basis has just been going up and up all summer!  And that’s weird because usually the summer is VCN’s slowest time of the year.  But as far as traffic goes, July was our 3rd biggest month of 2011 and it looks like August’s numbers are going to crush July’s.  Maybe we moved up the google rankings a bit or maybe this is just another sign of how popular video contests in general are getting.  But I think one thing that’s happening is that the number of “regular readers” we get really shot up this year.  So if you’re one of those people who have us bookmarked and who check the site every week (or even every day!) thank you for your support!

We’re now getting so much traffic that I feel like I’m not really keeping up with the demand for new content.  This used to be a “2 posts a week” type of blog.  But lately I’ve been trying to do 3 posts a week.  For future reference, new posts will usually go up on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  Because VCN will be doing more posts per week, I’ve decided that it might be cool if I let someone else stand on my soapbox every once in a while.

So for the first time ever, Video Contest News will be accepting submissions for “Guest Blog Posts.”  If you care about video contests enough to read this blog, you probably have some strong thoughts and opinions about this growing micro-genre of filmmaking.  I’ll consider all types of articles as long as what you write is true and won’t get me sued.  So if you want to brag about your latest big win or if you want to share your secret strategies or if you just want to bitch about some crappy contest where you got screwed over somehow, let me know.  Hell…I might even let you plug your contest-related website or post a vote requests if those plugs and requests are part of an article that someone would actually want to read.

I’m kind of psyched about this idea and I’m looking forward to hearing what you folks have to say.  I think adding other voices to this site will give it a little more depth and variety, if you know what I mean.  For now, my plan is to ease into this and run just 2 guest posts a month.  But if things work out, I might start running a guest blog every wednesday.  So if you have an idea for a guest post, e-mail me your suggestion:  Thanks!