Young filmmakers bloom with new cinema tools and events

Home movies have long been a training ground for Hollywood careers: With backyard for backlot, Steven Spielberg and the Coen brothers belonged to the Super-8 generation, and Robert Rodriguez taught himself by shooting on a JVC camcorder and editing with two VCRs, but the results were generally too scrappy to share beyond a select audience of friends and family.

Not so for today’s kids. Hi-def consumer cameras and easy-to-use home post-production software help take the amateur out of the equation, making it possible for aspiring young talent to work with the same equipment Sundance helmers do. Thanks to YouTube, anyone can share the result (and thousands do), but the truly ambitious kids aren’t content to stop there. That’s where sprocket operas come in, with a special youth festival circuit popping up to showcase the best of the bunch.

“We’ve had a child-produced segment since the late ’80s because there were so many great producing entities internationally and we wanted to jump-start the interest in child-produced work here in the U.S.,” says Chicago Children’s Film Festival founder Nicole Dreiske, citing orgs such as Cinetig in Wales and Belgium’s Camera Enfants Admis that offer training to kids.

Such programs account for many of the 300-plus submissions the festival receives, though Dreiske notes the quality of independently made youth pics has improved in recent years. Of the 260 films that played Chicago, fewer than 40 were made by children, with the eligible age range narrowly drawn from 6 to 14. That meant someone like 15-year-old Joseph Procopio, who has continued his junior directing career after winning the fest’s $2,500 Montgomery Prize for his short film “Drive” in 2006, was too old to compete.

Other festivals, from Los Angeles to Tribeca, feature sidebars for student-created work, but young filmmakers chafe at the idea of being stuck at the kids’ table.

“Every big festival wants to have a youth section to seem like they’re supporting young filmmakers, but they separate it out so much from the rest of the festival,” says 23-year-old Jesse Harris, who persuaded his parents to let him skip college and spend the money it would have cost making his feature debut, “Living Life.”

In 2007, he co-founded the Natl. Film Festival for Talented Youth for work created by helmers 22 and under. This year, the event screened 113 films for more than 4,000 people over the course of three days, dividing entries (nearly all shorts) by category, rather than by age.

According to Harris, the best youth-produced work tends to be in shorts, but every now and then, a strong feature comes along. This year, his fest screened “Perfect Sport,” written, directed and starring Anthony O’Brien, who was 22 at the time.

“When you see a lot of the films that get into these other (mainstream) festivals, the quality is all over the place,” says O’Brien, who was impressed by the quality of the other films he saw at the fest. “I found that the most talent was coming from a very young group of kids between the ages of 10 and 13. There were times watching their short films when I thought, ‘These kids are really far ahead. I mean, this is better than a lot of the stuff I saw in film school.’”

Back in 2001, with no place to show their work, a pair of Brown U. collegians established the Ivy Film Festival as an outlet for student films. But there’s a reason few avenues exist for such pics, points out Daniel Wolfberg, exec director of the 2009 edition who got a taste of the fest circuit with a short he made at age 14.

“When students make films, it’s less to reach a wide audience, as may be expected at some of the more established film festivals,” he says. “They’re not trying to please anybody, they’re just trying to find their own voices.”

The student-created, student-run Westport Youth Film Festival in Connecticut focuses on shorts produced by teens worldwide (no college kids allowed), a model reflected on a smaller scale by events such as the Harvard-Westlake Film Festival in Los Angeles.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are. Some of the best films I’ve seen are from middle school students,” says high school senior and the fest’s co-director Katie Hacala.

Westport program coordinator Sandy Lefkowitz estimates that 75% of the young directors — who hailed from 30 states and seven countries — are serious about making films professionally. Others are just passionate about movies.

“I didn’t know how to turn on a camera until earlier this year,” Hacala confesses.

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