CCA Film Students Benefit from Professional Electives: Sundance Film Festival and Oscar "DOCS!"

Exposure to industry events such as Sundance Film Festival is invaluable for CCA's film students

What do the Academy Awards, Michael Moore, and CCA have in common? More than you might imagine, thanks to Film chair Rob Epstein (himself a proud recipient of two Oscars!) and Film faculty member Brian Benson, who this semester arranged not one but two exceptional "on location" trips that afforded film-loving CCA students coveted access to high-profile industry events.

First Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the premiere film festival for independent filmmakers; then Oscar "DOCS!" in Los Angeles, an Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences special event held just prior to the Academy Awards, featuring panel discussions with the year's nominated documentary short subject and documentary feature filmmakers.

This year's event was hosted by maverick documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.

Not too shabby for film students looking to drop a few names this summer!

CCA Film Students Gain Access & Exposure

“We're always looking for ‘professional practices’ opportunities for our students, “Epstein confirms. “The 'DOCS!' night event at the Academy and Sundance are both important events within the professional film world.

Each offers students a sense of what it takes to be successful in these fields, exposing them to current work that is getting recognition. It takes a certain amount of drive and a healthy amount of ambition to be a successful artist or filmmaker.

These industry events give students a chance to have first-hand interaction with a range of filmmakers -- from emerging filmmakers to the most highly successful filmmakers -- and to see for themselves what it takes to reach this level of achievement.”

Sundance Film Festival = Professional Opportunities

When it comes to industry-renowned film festivals in the United States, none is more celebrated than the annual Sundance Film Festival, a program of the Sundance Institute, which takes place in Utah in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden, and at the Sundance Resort in Sundance.

The 2012 festival, which took place from January 19 to 29, is where filmmakers, producers, screenwriters, directors, and press agents all converge like a pack of hungry Labrador Retriever puppies -- equal parts entertainment and business -- to learn which films have what it takes to launch into orbit, and why.

Of the 117 feature-length films presented this year, representing 30 countries, 45 were submitted by first-time filmmakers! Many of these films will make well-respected filmmakers even more respected -- envied, even. It’s what most filmmakers dream of -- the chance to have work seen (and to be seen!) in “the scene” at this career-launching venue for independent-cinema enthusiasts.

Despite its competitive reputation, the atmosphere at Sundance isn’t so much “I hope it happens,” but rather “Let’s make it happen,” a familiar perspective for the five CCA students who made the trek.

And for a young, talented, and aspiring filmmaker, seeing how Sundance shakes out is a pretty extraordinary experience. “Sundance helped me out knowing that there is a place full of film lovers out there with similar taste,” recalled student Nicholas Collins (Film 2013), who together with Ana Quintanilla (Painting/Drawing 2012), Yoni Klein (Photography 2012), Crystal Collins (Film 2012), and graduate student, Christopher Lozano (MFA Program in Writing 2012) -- all braved four days of snow-covered terrain at their first Sundance Film Festival.

“I also got a feel for what it takes to enter a film through viewing them and talking to directors,” added Collins. “I've never been to an event that was so helpful.”

Film Curriculum with Professional Benefits

The opportunity to attend Sundance is embedded in the curriculum of the Film 3: Advanced Production course, which this term is being cotaught by Epstein and Film faculty member Brian Benson, himself a prolific producer and assistant director (four Sundance film screenings over the span of just over a decade), including producing the feature that opened the 2010 Sundance Festival -- Howl, directed by Epstein and then Film visiting faculty member Jeffrey Friedman, who comprise the dynamic team behind Telling Pictures).

Note: While attending Sundance is not a requirement, it is “strongly encouraged,” with additional support from CCA’s Office of Academic Affairs to ensure all interested students have this unique opportunity.

The college’s support made it possible not only to physically get to Sundance but also to purchase film school passes that afforded access to film screenings at each of the festival screening venues, including the more than half-dozen theaters just in Park City alone.

Yet even with the passes, the fierce competition to get into popular screenings remained a challenge throughout the festival. Luckily the passes could be used for admission to other events such as a festival programmers panel, where CCA's young film aficionados learned firsthand what the process for film selection and programming entails for such a high-caliber film festival.

Leadership In and Out of the Classroom

Benson was instrumental in arranging key meetings wherein students met with filmmakers such as Academy Award-nominated director Adrian Belic (who with his brother, Roko, made the film Ghenghis Blues, which won the Sundance Audience Award in 1999 and also was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature documentary in 2000) and director and screenwriter Aurora Guerrero, whose Mosquita y Mari is the first narrative feature by a Chicana director to screen at the festival.

“She was totally inspirational,” student Yoni Klein espoused of Guerrero. “She spoke with us about the hustle that's required to make it as a young, independent filmmaker and all the resources we should be tapping into.” (Klein recently filmed and edited the college’s official “It Gets Better” video.)

Benson also arranged for a meeting at the official Sundance Press Room with Matt Johnstone, senior publicist for Slamdance Film Festival, who shared what it takes to create buzz and market a film.

Johnstone, who was at Sundance representing three short queer films, played on his laptop the film Dol (First Birthday), about a gay Korean-American man who yearns for a family life just out of reach.

Afterward he shared with the group the film’s press notes as well as his publicity plan for the film, detailing the race-against-the-clock urgency of his work and outlining why a strong media pitch is essential to attract interest from potential film distributors.

Then, just like it happens in the movies, the director of Dol, Andrew Ahn, just happened to be walking through the press room! Johnstone introduced him to the students, and before they knew it a spontaneous Q&A with the director ensued!

Such frontline exposure -- even for a seasoned filmmaker -- is truly invaluable. Each of the students walked away from the serendipitous exchange inarguably more knowledgeable about the film process after the final scene is shot and edited . . . and markedly more motivated to start the process themselves!

“The most impressive thing about Sundance was the access to all the filmmakers -- they were everywhere,” shared Lozano. “Having the opportunity to see movies which might not get the national exposure of big Hollywood productions was invigorating, inspiring, and reaffirming.”

And what did Lozano have to say about Benson's role in making the trip happen? “Brian made my experience at Sundance his personal responsibility. He made sure that I was able to get the most out of the festival and get the complete ‘Sundance experience.’”

Good answer!

CCA Alumni & Sundance Labs

Another pivotal exchange Benson procured involved CCA alumnus Etienne Kallos (Film/Video 1997), whose short films have screened at numerous festivals, including Cannes (2006), Berlin (2006), Sundance (2007), Telluride (2009), and Venice (2009).

Kallos was in Park City as an enrollee in the Sundance Institute artists programs: Directors Lab, Creative Documentary Labs, and the Screenwriters Lab. The Labs are highly competitive developmental residencies and workshops. (Epstein has participated in the Sundance Institute artist programs several times.)

Etienne later was honored with the Sundance Institute | Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award, in recognition and support of emerging independent filmmakers from around the world, for Vrystaat (Free State) (South Africa).

Klein nicely summed up his reaction to meeting a CCA alum filmmaker at Sundance: “Etienne was amazing and most inspirational. . . . Sundance was the most unique experience.”

As part of a Sundance Institute New Frontier Story Lab project, a team of four artists -- CCA Photography faculty Chris Johnson, two CCA alumni, Hank Willis Thomas (MFA and MA Visual Criticism 2004) and Bayeté Ross Smith (MFA 2004), and Kamal Sinclair -- joined forces and created Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia art project that seeks to represent and redefine black male identity in America. This project premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Read the feature »

Sundance: A Community of Filmmakers

Klein also got to witness his old friend, Behh Zeitlin, walk away with the biggest piece of Sundance pie -- the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature -- for the post-apocalyptic fairytale Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was the most talked-about film at the festival. In fact, Fox Searchlight purchased the film immediately following the screening!

The feature also saw Quvenzhané “Nazie” Wallis, who was only six years old at the time of filming, honored with a best female performance award. More winning films »

(The only thing more inspiring than watching your buddy walk away from Sundance holding the most coveted award might just be returning to CCA where Rob Epstein is your film instructor -- the director who had his feature film, HOWL, open the 2010 Sundance Film Festival!)

Read about other Sundance acquisitions »

It’s now time to leave Park City and head over to Los Angeles . . .

Insider Knowledge at the Academy’s “DOCS!” Night

As a member the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors (and chair of the documentary branch) Epstein is routinely invited to speak at Academy engagements.

In October Epstein spoke at the Academy’s John Huston Lecture on Documentary Filmmaking panel discussion, titled “The Rise of Non-Fiction Movies.”

Among the impressive panelists were Amir Bar-Lev, Davis Guggenheim, Lourdes Portillo, Ricki Stern, Molly Thompson, and Diane Weyermann.

In February Epstein was invited back to Los Angeles to attend the third Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences “DOCS!” presentation (aka “Oscar DOCS!”) at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, where in addition to providing the opening remarks, Epstein was also asked to introduce the evening’s moderator: a fellow Academy Award-winning documentarian and Academy Documentary Branch Governor -- controversial filmmaker Michael Moore (Farrenheit 9/11 [the highest-grossing documentary of all time!], Bowling for Columbine, Sicko, Roger & Me, and most recently Capitalism: A Love Story).

Because Oscar "DOCS!" features panel discussions with Academy Award-nominated filmmakers for both feature and short documentary films, Epstein stepped up to bat, recognizing a unique opportunity was at his fingertips to take his students with him, where they could witness firsthand dialogues about the challenges and benefits of making documentary films in today’s market.

The lucky group of film enthusiasts represented CCA’s graduate, undergraduate, international exchange, and alumni communities: Josef Alexandersson (a film exchange student from Sweden); Amal Hassan (MFA Program in Writing 2012); Dominique Seward (Film 2013); and alumnae Hanh Nguyen (Media Arts 2009); and Moira Roth (Media Arts 2009).

Student Testimonials

Said Swedish film exchange student Josef Alexandersson, who at the end of the spring term will return to his native film program at Konstfack (or University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm): "You can't put a value on it; it's invaluable. They [Film faculty] give you so many opportunities to get in touch with the world outside school, which I feel is good. I feel connected to the outside world."

Alexandersson is currently enrolled in two Film courses: "Writing for the Film Image" with Film faculty member Jeanne Finley; and "ENGAGE: Documenting the California Hotel," part of CCA's community-focused ENGAGE curriculum, cotaught by Epstein and Johnny Symons.

"I learned so much,” revealed Amal Assan. “I was exposed to movies that usually I am not exposed to, and I heard filmmakers talk about their experience, their art, and their understanding of the documentary [format], which I learned can be an art form to make a statement about an issue that matters.

"I was most impressed by the diversity among the films and hearing the filmmakers talk about them. CCA’s Film Program provides so many opportunities and so much support. As a new Film student I feel welcomed."

Upon Seward's return, she shared, “I thought the event was great. It was an honor to be there. It gave me such inspiration -- not only as a cinematographer but as an artist as well.”

2011 Best Documentary Feature Nominees

Hell and Back Again, Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Pina, Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel
Undefeated, T. J. Martin, Dan Lindsay, and Rich Middlemas (recipient of the best feature documentary award)

2011 Best Documentary Short Subject Nominees

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin
God Is the Bigger Elvis, Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson
Incident in New Baghdad, James Spione
Saving Face, Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen

About Sundance Institute

Sundance Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the discovery and development of independent artists and audiences. Through its programs, the Institute seeks to discover, support, and inspire independent film and theater artists from the United States and around the world, and to introduce audiences to their new work.

About CCA's Film Program

The Film Program at CCA explores the creative possibilities in expanded narrative frameworks, from linear to nonlinear forms, with the goal of guiding young artists and filmmakers to break new ground in storytelling. Beginning with a solid foundation in narrative film and production practices, the curriculum advances to place the full range of filmmaking and new media arts practices in dialogue with each other. Learn more »

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Read how Michael Moore changed the rules for Oscar-nominated documentaries »