New York City Debuts First Neighborhood Filmmaking Initiative

By John Zhao New York City can be a pretty anonymous place to live. A new neighborhood film challenge called On My Block Films is looking to change that.

After living in 4 different neighborhoods within 6 years, filmmaker Ryan O'Hara Theisen realized he didn't truly know any of his neighbors. That bummed him out and got him to thinking about ways he could change things. He'd noticed over the years how incredibly strong personal bonds where created between complete strangers on film sets in a short amount of time. 

He tapped his friend Mary Crosse, an Executive Producer who'd experimented with other social projects, and asked her if she'd be willing to Direct such an effort. She agreed and with a team of dedicated volunteers they've brought to life - On My Block, a film challenge that invites filmmakers of all levels to create a short one to five minute film (narrative or documentary) using only their block's residents as the cast and crew.

Films can be shot on any format (iPhones to 35mm) and must be created and completed between August 1st and October 31st of 2012. The public will be able to vote for the films by "liking" them on OMB's Vimeo channel and the top 30 scoring films will be judged by a panel of local NYC community leaders and filmmakers. The top scoring 15 films will be screened at a film festival in November.

Novice filmmakers are also encouraged to participate and the website ( has helpful tips to get 1st timers going. Get to know your neighbors better while helping OMB reach their goal of 50 films (10 from each Borough) by visiting and officially signing up.

Still on the fence about it? Ryan’s first film was made by 10 diverse neighbors on his block, several of whom were hesitant that they could dive head first into filmmaking. Little did they know their dormant filmmaking talents came to life, and they continue to remain true friends just few doors down from each other. More films are populating the site, with many stories behind each neighborhood experience.

To further illustrate the possibilities of just one block of New York City turf, one neighbor who became a co-producer on Ryan’s film used to work for Obama, and he’s now finding himself on the list to shake hands with the President on visit to the city through her. Curious what magic, surprises, friends and how the Kevin Bacon rule can apply to your block? Sign on up and spread the word!

John Zhao is a China-born Korean-American filmmaker. He spent his childhood with his grandfather, an acclaimed calligrapher who sparked an everlasting love for poetry in him. At 5, he moved to Germany where he had his first cinematic experience, and began making films shortly after. At 22, made his debut feature using rogue tactics upon couch-surfing to New York City, where he now lives and works on films, commercials, writings and trying hard to stay out of trouble. 

How Skateboarding, Cooking, and Boxing Taught Me To Make Films

Guest post by John Zhao

Riding skateboards, boxing with the locals and cooking up a storm were the fun and affordable things I grew up enjoying. Film school I avoided because it wasn’t as affordable and I was paranoid it would take out the fun. After I eventually experienced making a first feature, I couldn’t help realizing a list of pastimes that seemed to inform me of how to go about being a first-time filmmaker. I’m sharing this list from my journal and hope to hear what other filmmakers do in between the cuts.



Former Skaters Spike and Harmony

That public location essential to your performance will try to kick you out. Have a getaway plan or a good lie.

There’s a lot of fun to be had even if your wallet’s near empty. The world is your playground.

Skate videos are absent of narrative and plot. They’re a cornucopia of rhythms, textures, music, and poetry that can keep me intrigued for hours. How can a feature film do the same?

A general disrespect for money and authority is healthy.

Enjoy feeling pain over and over again. It can take a dozen drafts to find your film’s soul and a twenty takes to nail your best move. See failure as slapstick, not sad.

Skateboarders bail and crash the second they become self-conscious of where to land, or intellectualize their movements mid-air. Take a leap of faith when you’re “almost ready” and WILL IT into existence. Staying delusional like this while making films seems to work out.

Every skateboarder dances their own style. Finding your own style and voice, and being completely yourself can be a challenge. But you can make someone lonely in their world feel less lonely for being who they are. You can teach something new and push things forward.

It’s an athletic art form. Develop a great sense of space, timing and balance. Being physically fit is essential for the ride.

Ang Lee, who loves to cook when not making films, directing The Wedding Banquet followed by Eat Drink Man Woman."

Between the producers, the director and the ADs, getting the best ingredients, timing everything accordingly, and serving it while it’s hot will make or break a good recipe.

The reward is in seeing everyone enjoying a great meal; especially if it’s a healthy one and with lots and lots of people. A film can be healthy or unhealthy, social or antisocial. It's up to the chefs to steer it towards good taste.

Too many cooks in the kitchen can mean trouble.

Your waiter interacts with your audience. Make sure your “restaurant” has “waiters” who care and about people.

Making dinner for someone you love, and even for yourself, always winds up tasting better than making dinner for the masses.

And chances are if you had no budget like me, you’ll be doing more cooking than ordering.

Always seems like the hole-in-the-wall venues play the best stuff on their menu.

Following the recipe word for words takes the soul out of it.

Don’t cut your own finger on the cutting room board.

Too much money spent on fancy pots, pans and tools won't necessarily make a better meal.

Respect the taster. Authenticity is key. Anyone can taste the difference between greasy Chinese takeout to real dim sum in Chinatown. Make something that rings true.


Stay in the center of the ring. Stay in the unified field. Never hang around the ropes.

You can tell if a boxer hasn't been doing his jump ropes and mile runs.
Do your homework before going on set.

Find the poetry and rhythm amongst the chaos and fear.

If you’re shy like me, learn to not be afraid of confrontation (at least for the duration of the fight).

As each round goes by (or each take), your time is limited.
Make decisions wisely under pressure.

Bend the rules once you know how to follow them.

And chances are you’ll want to make a film about boxing one day...

Being completely exhausted is evidence that you’ve done great work and given it all you’ve got.

Your "career" can end any day. You're only as good as your last fight.

Scorsese coaching Deniro."


John Zhao is a Korean-American filmmaker who moved to NYC to shoot his first feature with strangers and rent money to redefine his role as a broke college graduate. He’s starting to skate again, reluctant for any more boxing brain damage, still enjoys cooking for his girlfriend and hopes that will carry him through making his second feature this year.