How We Survived A Year in LA By Winning Video Contests & Built a Thriving Production Company

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Jake Bradbury is an expert with video contests. In this article, he takes you through his journey of making videos around LA for video contests. Stay tuned because as a special bonus, he’s going to let you know how to win a lifetime supply of Skittles!

Take it away, Jake!

Sometimes we back ourselves into corners, obsessing about the “right way” or the “only way” of achieving something. But greats often start in garages.

The following is a story of struggle, heartbreak and ultimately — success through perseverance. Here is how Will Blank and I managed to survive a year in LA only by winning video contests and started our very own video production company, 512 Media.

The Dream

With a single offer for an unpaid internship in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., I knew there had to be a better path to my dream of becoming a video producer in Los Angeles.

Will and I were freshly graduated freelancers who were learning nothing and earning nothing.

I was a PA for Bravo’s “Sheer Genius,” which roughly translated to watching a set door for hours at a time. Will was a bike messenger for NBC, delivering tapes to producers in the Hollywood Hills.

Our growth (and our bank account) was at a standstill.

The Breakthrough

It was around this time that my friend Prince, future founder of Thai Movie Central, told me he had won $5,000 in a video contest.

The submission? Him talking into a camera, accompanied by stick figure drawings. He didn’t even consider himself a filmmaker.

With nothing to lose, I made a pact with my buddy Will: for one year, we would live solely off our winnings from video contests.

video contests

The Method

Enter onlinevideocontests.com. A glorious gold mine of contests, the site became the buffet from which we would catch crumbs of prize money to pay rent and stock our fridge.

And eventually, crumbs turned into bread.

Initially, it was tempting to enter the competitions with the highest bounty from the biggest brands. But a $25,000 prize meant 25,000 entries.

We couldn’t afford to waste time on massive dead-end competitions. Instead, we focused on the forgotten $1000-$5000 range.

The Product

Be gentle, this was our first entry. Admittedly, it’s not good work and we didn’t place. But it was fun to make.

If I recall correctly, we were shooting on my Canon GL2 MiniDV Camcorder — super high tech.

Heinz

Here’s the video we did for Heinz:

TIP: We learned quickly that entering contests that are popularity based are dead ends. Social media personalities with large followings often take the cake.

Stick to contests that pick winners with a panel of judges or where judge votes are weighted higher than the popular vote.

Logitech

With a renewed strategy, we entered our second contest for Logitech’s  “Liberate Your Life” campaign. We even roped in a DP with a fancy camera for this one.

Logitech was our first big win. We submitted two videos winning $2500 each.

We were on top of the world and crushed by credit card debt simultaneously. Most importantly, the bills got paid and we were on our way.

TIP: When you read contest rules, act as if you were signing your life away.

Make sure you know if you’re qualified and understand what the contest is about. Spend time on the rules so you don’t waste time on the contest. 

At the time, we were just having fun creating something we had control over. However, our fun was fuelled by a very real and personal passion for filmmaking.

Without a contest, we were still filmmakers. With a contest, at least we could turn our passion into profit.

We often relied on the goodness of others for equipment, actors and production assistance. The genuine relationships we cultivated during that year would build our future team.

We didn’t realize how much our experiment would truly pay off.

Skittles

How do you win a lifetime supply of Skittles? This is how.

And how much is a lifetime supply of Skittles, you may ask? Two, 30-pound boxes you end up giving to anyone that will take them.

RootClip

Rather than being silly and off the cuff, RootClip forced us to flex our narrative muscles and develop as storytellers.

The contest began with a short starter video or “root clip” and required filmmakers to continue the storyline with a two minute follow-up video. Winners of each chapter became eligible to compete for the final chapter grand prize.

Final Chapter

Grand prize judging was narrowed down to two videos, including ours. As the countdown timer ran out, we held our breath.

The judges were evenly split. As the last few seconds ticked away, the final judge chose our video. We had won and we were stoked.

With the $2000 prize, we invested back into our careers and bought our first professional lighting kit.

Careerbuilder

Credit goes to Will for this one (and not seriously injuring me). It’s still a personal favorite.

We never won anything for this, in fact, it was banned from the contest. Psssshhhhh.

Yes, we had lost a few contests, but there was no stopping us. Survival mode was turned all the way up. I wrote this on Facebook around the same time:

One my favorite shows is called Cowboy Bebop. It’s a show in which a traveling group of space bounty hunters move from port to port in search of the next pay day.

They are motivated because they are constantly hungry. They only have enough money for both food and repairs, and repairs always come first.

I try to keep myself in a proverbial constant state of hunger. I have no shame in saying that I want the next and the best thing. I am a material girl. Things cost money, so does living.

I stay motivated because if I don’t win contests and fuel my art I will literally and figuratively experience death. No money equals no food, no house, and no creative ideas coming to fruition. That is simply not an option.

I thrive on the idea that if I do not make videos I will starve to death.

As Jet would say,

“You already had lunch, an hour ago!”

Spike: “Really? Did I like it?”

TIP: Don’t get discouraged if you don’t win a contest. Crying doesn’t pay the bills. 

Butterfinger

Butterfinger broke their contest into categories and we entered under “Kung Fu.”

We asked Alfred Hsing, the future champion martial artist and choreographer for Jet Li and Jackie Chan, to be our hero.

Will and I learned a great deal on the shoot, from choreographing a fight, to dubbing a foreign language and had a ton of fun working with Alfred.

We lost this one and were (maybe still) pretty sore about it.

Alas, we kept going.

Louisiana Hot Sauce

As Runner Up, we were awarded an electric meat smoker which we promptly auctioned off to our friends for much needed cash.

JustDoOne.org

Talented musician and friend, Eric Frank, wrote the song My Girl, The World for this video.

We did a guerilla-style shoot all around LA and had a blast. We only won $2500 for this one because we had to split the prize with a video of….. babies.

TIP: For some contests, if you don’t include babies, puppies, or a song in your video, chances are you’ll lose to someone that has. With that being said, make what you love and people will notice.

Yoplait

We didn’t win. Not because our video was bad, but because they hadn’t even viewed our submission.

With video contests, you never know who is looking at your video, how they feel that day, what their preconceived ideas are or if they even watched your video.

TIP: If you feel like you nailed it and your video deserves recognition, don’t be afraid to speak up.

Be professional and reach out to the company requesting feedback. You may not always get a response, but at least you can achieve a little closure.

In the case of Yoplait, our submission exceeded every requirement and was eerily similar to the video that won. We received zero recognition.

We wrote to them and they replied that they had “overlooked our entry.” Unlike some, this story ended well: they bought our commercial and awarded us a small prize.

The Birth of A Career

Throughout this crazy year of fun and survival, we were unwittingly forming what would become 512 Media.

With a strong portfolio of videos to support us, we were offered a deal with Big Red Soda to produce their first national television commercial in 30 years.

All of our practice making commercials for contests had prepared us to do it for real.

Conclusion — How to Win Video Contests

For a whole year, we struggled, we scraped and we duct taped — but we learned. We still carry our scrappy idealism and DIY-till-you-die mentality in our careers and in our work and it’s made all the difference.

Today, 512 Media is trusted by corporations, Fortune 500 companies, musicians and small businesses for all their video production needs.

Will works as a professional television editor, most recently on WGN’s “The Underground” and I continue to run 512 Media alongside my position as a producer for CBS.

Those days as video contest warriors are always remembered with a smile, but they’ve been replaced with something better — thriving careers in the industry we love.

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