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David Neff of Austin's Light. Camera. Help.

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

By Matthew Odam

american-statesman Staff

I'm surprised to hear David Neff's fuel of choice on the morning we meet is a simple single-shot cappuccino. Juggling duties while he splits time between his public relations work at Ridgewood Associates and Lights. Camera. Help. — the film festival he and two partners started last year — I'd imagine Neff would need as much liquid assistance as possible.

As it turns out, the fresh-faced nonprofit pro doesn't need the caffeine boost. Sitting down at Flipnotics recently to discuss the film festival, Neff exudes a perky energy that can be only natural. It's the kind of passion I assume is requisite when working in the nonprofit world.

After serving for almost a decade as director of Web, film and interactive strategies for the American Cancer Society, Neff realized that there was informative and engaging filmmaking coming out of the nonprofit world. The films he saw were increasingly artistic and original, and moved beyond the traditional talking-head cliché of corporate documentaries. The problem was these messages were not reaching a big enough audience.

Though documentary and feature films have the benefit of countless festivals around the country, non-profit organizations generally rely on people visiting their websites to see and hear their messages. Not many people want to go to South by Southwest to see a short about hurricane relief efforts, and not every organization can afford to run ubiquitous 30-second spots featuring a tear-jerking soundtrack from Sarah McLachlan.

In an effort to shine a light on these deserving organizations and their films, Neff organized Lights. Camera. Help. in 2009. After modest success as a one-day event in its inaugural year, and thanks to the power of social networking, the film festival has expanded to three days and includes 32 films from six countries. In an effort to offer the broadest opportunity, there is no entry fee for submissions, of which there were 235 for this year's festival.

Unlike most film festivals, which (at their best) help filmmakers find distribution deals or (at least) create buzz, the purpose of the cause-driven Lights. Camera. Help. is more specific, its goals more concrete.

"Watching something like this can flip a switch in people's brains to go out and do something," Neff said. "Even if they don't end up going to volunteer for the specific organization they saw in the film, it may get them to donate money or volunteer their time for something similar in their community."

The festival presents works in three categories (feature, shorts and public service announcements), with the winners in each, as named by a panel of three judges, receiving cash prizes. Attendees can expect to see works from national organizations such as the Red Cross as well as a film about earthquake relief made by longtime Burning Man attendees.

Skeptics of the idea of cause-driven film should not worry about being bored to tears or have their heartstrings yanked relentlessly, Neff said.

"It's interesting. ... I think comedy works really well," Neff said of the films. "As with regular features, the things that work best are movies that tell a compelling story and have a resolution. The difference with our films is there's a call to action at the end: ‘Do you want to prevent this from happening? Get up and volunteer. Do you want to make this change or help us pass this law or solve this problem? We need you to tell 10 people to donate $10 or get out your cell phone and text right now.'"

As a response to audience inquiries following the inaugural festival, Lights. Camera. Help. decided to broaden its scope to include education and match services. Neff and his team offer filmmaking classes to nonprofits along with an interactive database that allows organizations to link with creative talents.

In addition to his work with Ridgewood and his attempts to grow Lights. Camera. Help., the previous winner of the Statesman's Social Media Award is writing a book about the future of nonprofits and the inherent challenges and opportunities they will face.

He's probably going to need a refill on that cappuccino.

modam@statesman.com