This Army veteran started his own festival to help fellow military filmmakers
Bryan Thompson's path to the U.S. Army was a circuitous one. The Detroit native earned his bachelor's degree in International Trade from Eastern Michigan University before getting hired by Stahls, a sportswear graphics company. He got the job because he was fluent in Spanish, a skill he attributes to the first military mentor in his life.
"Retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jose Rodriguez, my Spanish teacher during my junior and senior year of high school, kind of forced me to learn the language," Thompson said. "During his class, he would make us do pushups if we failed to do our homework, or whatever. A Mexican immigrant, he invited me to many family events, where he told everyone not to speak to me in English. He also invited me and the rest of my class to Spanish-language church services where he gave the public the same instruction."
Stahls moved Thompson to Miami, striking distance from the places in Central and South America that he needed to travel. He loved Miami right from the start, and while he was there he fed his creative side by singing with a Top 40 band on the side. In time, the company wanted to move him back to the home office in Detroit, but he had no interest in leaving his new life so he quit and decided to make the band a full-time gig.
The band, "Jesse James and Crossover," travelled extensively to pay the bills, including an extended stop in Singapore. But that work was seasonal, and he soon found himself back in Miami struggling to make ends meet. He took a job with Royal Flowers and moved to Quito, Ecuador.
Thompson was his usual busy self in Quito, working his day job while also starting another band on the side. He also got married to a local girl. Then, like all Americans worldwide, he was hit with the tragedy of 9/11.
He wanted to do something of consequence, so he went back to Miami with his new Ecuadorian wife and immediately joined the Army. In short order, he found himself through basic training and stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia as a watercraft operator attached to the 7th Sustainment Brigade.
After a year or so, Thompson decided to leverage his college degree and apply for OCS, and to his surprise, he was accepted on the first attempt. He was commissioned as a transportation officer and shipped off to Camp Liberty, Iraq for 15 months. While there, as well as dealing with the daily challenges the war presented, he also began working on a screenplay, an effort that would eventually inform the next chapter of his life.
But Thompson still had some active duty time ahead of him, and in typical fashion, he made a dramatic pivot, this time getting selected for the Army's legal education program. He went to law school at William and Mary, and once he got his degree he was transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas to intern with the JAGs there.
All the while he kept his hand in filmmaking, networking with locals wherever he went, even when his workload was at its most demanding.
"The ideas just stayed in my head and just spilled onto the page and I couldn't turn them off," Thompson said. "Eventually, I found some experienced filmmakers who mentored me in the use of scriptwriting software and production techniques and before I knew it, I was writing and producing short films, hiring experienced directors to make my visions come to life. Once I had enough experience, I started directing as well."
While in Texas, Thompson taught acting and dance at Latin American Talent, a local agency. One day a student gave him a 15-page script to read. The story about two immigrant children whose legal status is threatened by the murder of their parents moved him, and he started to film it with the working title of "The Dream."
While filming he had a realization: "If I wanted people to invest in my films I had to finish making a film," he said. So he kept working during whatever free time his Army life afforded him. Eventually "The Dream" was finished and premiered in El Paso to a packed house that included reps from the Spanish-language channel Univision who indicated they were interested in helping distribute the film to a wider audience.
As a JAG he was required to pass the bar exam in whatever state he wanted, so he tried in Florida (where he planned to return after his Army service was over) and failed and then tried in Missouri (supposedly the easiest one to pass) with the same result. But that disappointment was eclipsed by a bigger challenge: He developed severe pneumonia and while treating it, Army doctors found a benign tumor on his lung.
Thompson had surgery to remove the tumor, and while he was recovering he got word that he was most likely going to be declared as "not physically qualified" for active duty and medically discharged. Again, he refused to let disappointment crush his spirit, and, lying in a hospital bed, he decided to start an online film festival.
He'd had some experience with film festivals at that point. His web series "The Cell" won Best Directing and Best Visual Effects at the LA Web Series Festival in 2013, and his film "Noventa" won Best Short at the Miami Independent Film Festival in 2015 and also won Audience Choice at the Film Miami Fest that same year.
So once he got out of the Army he created the Miami Web Fest, a 4-day festival showcasing the best digital content in the form of web series.
"Since web series are increasingly popular among the 18-34 demographic, they have quickly become the preferred form of exposure for independent filmmakers looking to use the internet to make a name for themselves," Thompson said. "Miami Web Fest takes that to a new level, by offering those same filmmakers a chance to experience the traditional film festival experience, including theater screenings, panel discussions, an elegant Red Carpet Awards Ceremony, and exclusive Miami-style parties in an environment that is unique and art-savvy."
And while he was happy that he had started his own business, he'd always wanted to stay connected to the military community in some way, so this year he's adding a "Vet Fest" to the Miami Web Fest.
"Filmmaking is all about showing the audience a new and interesting perspective on life," Thompson said. "I believe that military and veteran filmmakers have seen the world through a lens that most never will, so the stories tend to be amazing and profound. So, after Miami Web Fest solidified its place in the global market, I decided to do something that would specifically highlight the work of military and veteran filmmakers as well as military-themed productions."
Miami Vet Fest will include all types of films and web series and takes place on September 24 in Miami, Florida. Veteran filmmakers who want to submit their work for consideration should visit the Vet Fest website.
"The Miami Web Fest has proved to be an effective showcase, and I hope to do the same for veteran filmmakers this year," Thompson said. "Winners have leveraged their success into deals with Netflix and major production companies."
Miami Vet Fest winners will also be showcased at We Are The Mighty and its associated social media sites.
For more about Bryan Thompson's film projects visit his website.