February 12, 2008

Sundance Shines

SCA Lights Up Park City Festival Scene

By Mel Cowan

The Wackness, winner of the Audience Award in the Dramatic category was produced by 2004 Starkies Keith Calder, Felipe Marino, and Joe Neurauter.
A touch of Southern California sunshine warmed the snowy landscape of Park City, Utah as the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) celebrated its most successful year of screenings ever at the Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals. Running from January 17-27, the festivals featured entries from over 45 alumni, students and faculty, with genres ranging from comedy to documentary to 3-D concert films.

Among the films receiving accolades, The Wackness, winner of the Audience Award in the Dramatic category was produced by 2004 Starkies Keith Calder, Felipe Marino, and Joe Neurauter and tells the story of a college student who sells marijuana to his psychiatrist in exchange for therapy. Sony Picture Classics recently closed on a deal to acquire the film’s North American rights for just under $2 million.

“Although we were exposed to every aspect of the film business at Stark and we were thoroughly prepared to put an independent film together, nothing can prepare you for the volatility of the festival experience,” said Marino, who was ecstatic that The Wackness resonated with buyers, despite what he called, “an atmosphere of caution,” regarding the current writer’s strike.

Captain Abu Raed, the first independent film to come out of Jordan, won the World Cinema Audience Award in the Dramatic category. Produced by Kenneth Kokin ’90, B.A in Production, the film is a poignant tale about an airport janitor with dreams of traveling the globe, but can only imagine it, through books and meetings with richer travelers. When he starts wearing a discarded captain’s hat, the children of his neighborhood come to believe that he is a real airline pilot, and beg to hear stories of his travels.

Sundance has long celebrated cinematic offerings from around the world, and Kokin witnessed the vitality of international filmmaking firsthand. “I started learning Arabic on the set mostly from the child actors. The crew had 14 nationalities represented…and had incredible pride, unlike anything I have experienced in the U.S.”

Can A Car Run on Algae?

With a highly competitive slate of documentaries at this year’s festival, one from executive producer and ’87 Stark alumnus John Goldsmith took home the Audience Award. Fields of Fuel is a whirlwind historical and social document of the world’s addiction to oil that highlights alternatives for sustainable energy, focusing on the emerging biofuel industry.

“We were on the side of the angels,” said Goldsmith. “Saying you’re against biodiesel is like saying you’re against air. It’s another tool in the arsenal to lessen our dependence on foreign oil.”

Visual effects were a standout among the films as the talent of Josh Comen, ’95, B.A in Communications was represented in two films in competition at Sundance and one at the Park City Music Film Festival.

“Visual effects work is full of surprises, and producing them is about dealing with those surprises,” said Comen, who was faced with the challenge of doing his job on an indie budget. “In the end, if the audience cannot tell there are any visual effects in a movie, then we have done our job.”

Friends, Old and New

Capturing the joy of the E.I.N. Sundance 2008 trip.
Over 250 people attended the school’s annual cocktail party held at Riverhorse on Main, where SCA faculty, alumni and students from every division gathered to catch up and discuss the festival offerings. 

“It’s always such a great pleasure for me to see our alumni come together at Sundance. Not just for the events, but also in the wonderful films and interactive projects that they’ve teamed up to produce,” said Dean Elizabeth M. Daley.

Jerome Sable and Ian Christian Blanche, both M.F.A. Production students, head up the Entertainment Industry Network, the primary student organization at SCA, with the mission of bringing together students from all the school’s different divisions through a variety of events and programs. Together, they coordinated a Sundance Trip for over 100 students and alumni, which provided ample opportunity for interacting with industry luminaries.

“It was a fantastic time,” said Sable. “It seemed as if everyone had fun, and from our standpoint the trip was a great success.”

But networking goes beyond just a drink between movies: a meeting at the USC mixer at Sundance 2007 between Loren Mendell, an ’01 graduate from the M.F.A. Production program, and Bob DeMars, ’02 Marshall Business School and Cinema-Television minor, led to their collaborating on this year’s Slamdance-screened documentary, Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene.

After being introduced to DeMars by Director of Student Industry Relations Bonnie Chi, Mendell said “it was one of those ‘your
Elle Fanning stars in Phoebe in Wonderland from two production alumni.
chocolate is in my peanut butter; your peanut butter is in my chocolate’ moments.” DeMars hailed the SCA network as a vital part of his festival experience. “It’s one of a kind in comparison to other schools.  It’s the first place I look when I need to find a talented professional of any kind.”

Another strong documentary contender was Slamdance-screened USC collaboration, View from the Bridge: Stories from Kosovo, written, produced and directed by Laura Bialis, ’00, and John Ealer, ’98, and photographed by Sarah Levy, ’99, all graduates of the M.F.A. program.

Daniel Barnz, ’95 and Robert Hoffman, ’90, two graduates of the M.F.A. production program, respectively directed and edited Phoebe in Wonderland, while Red, which was co-directed by Trygve Diesen, ’93 with Lucky McKee and written by M.F.A. production grad Stephen Susco, ’99 was also featured at the festival. Red was truly an ’SC affair with Starkie executive producer Bill Straus, ’00 and associate producer Chris Ridenhour ’96.

Sundance Times Two

No stranger to film festivals, writing professor Howard Rodman had two films he penned in competition. After successful screenings of August and Savage Grace, Rodman took a moment to laud the festival as a long-time standard bearer for quality screenplays.

Howard Rodman on the set of Savage Grace.
“The work of screenwriters is more appreciated at a festival like Sundance than it is than most places in the world,” he said adding, “The opportunities for doing interesting writing are far greater in the context of independent features than that of large-budget studio pictures.”

Rodman also spoke warmly about his working relationship with his students. “The pleasure of being part of a community which includes large numbers of students is the constant reminder that if you have an idea in your head that there’s no other way to get out of your head than writing a screenplay, then that’s the best reason to write a screenplay.”

This year’s USC reception was sponsored by Avid, Fotokem, Turning Leaf and Stella Artois. Avid graciously gave away two copies of industry-standard Media Composer software, and Fotokem donated a $500 gift certificate for services at their facilities.