72 hours. One short film. All Systems Go.

It’s a competition that sounds easier than it is: Abiding by a required theme and a set of strict rules, a team must conceive, shoot, script and complete a five-minute short film in 72 hours.

I can attest to how difficult a task this is as a 2007 alumna of the “72 Hour Shootout” as one of a team of 10 individuals storyboarding a script, scouting locations, shooting and basically pulling all-nighters in what felt like a corporate group presentation on deadline. But surely no office deadline dangled the possibility of cash awards and a screening at the Asian American International Film Festival?

Cue the 2008 edition of the Asian American Film Lab’s “72 Hour Shootout.” To the theme of “A First Goodbye,” 40 teams – including one who finally validated the word “international” in the festival’s name with cast and crew from the U.S. and Hong Kong (two were teammates of mine last year) – entered the mid-June competition with hopes of bagging the grand prize of $500, a copy of Final Draft’s Scriptwriter Suite and a year’s worth of Final Draft’s ScriptXpert Basic Coverage service.

But the real goal was to just make the Top 10 in order to be screened at the festival, and the nearly-packed auditorium at the Asia Society waited in anticipation of who made the cut. Among the list were the cruelly dark “Killer Headline” by Team Last Minute Pictures, and “Miles Apart” by Team White Rabbit that exquisitely portrayed the tense relationship between a father and his young son (it won “Best Cinematography”).

Capturing third place was Team Cold War, which snagged “Best Actor,” “Best Actress” and “Most Original Use of Theme” awards with “Color TV,” a comedy about dueling salespeople trying to make commission off of…cryogenics. Second place went to Team Fish Grenade’s “Drain” (“Best Editing” and “Best Direction”), a beautifully shot black and white film about a plumber and a tiny rag doll. (The team’s director, Derek Shimoda, also directed “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie,” which screened at the festival.)

But it was Team Big Egg who won grand prize honors with “No Holding Back,” an insane comedy that involved a yellow PEEPS chicken costume. “This is a travesty!” one of the crew members exclaimed onstage upon accepting the award, referring to the stiff competition in this year’s Shootout.

After the screenings, the camaraderie shifted to Stir, a bar that hosted a post-Shootout reception. There, cast and crew from various teams congratulated each other and swapped war stories from their respective shoots. Scripts developed over instant messaging. Footage transferred via Skype from Hong Kong to New York for final edits. And that PEEPS costume? It turned out to be a last-minute addition by a team member, recycled from his most recent Halloween.

When the crowd thinned, some vowed with a vengeance to return in 2009 to make the Top 10. Some considered reorganizing their teams based on the talent they saw during Sunday’s screenings. And others already began to mentally scout locations, wondering what kind of script would win the judges over.

With 364 days to go until the next Shootout screening, 72 hours suddenly didn’t seem to be such a short period of time anymore.

Let the competition begin.

To watch all the short films in this year’s “72 Hour Shootout,” go to www.72hourfilmshootout.com. The Top 10 films will screen again at the inaugural Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival in October.