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March 31, 2008

Screening Kudos

Industry Professionals At First Look 2.0

By Tiffanie Wu

Larry Auerbach, the associate dean of the Office of Student-Industry Relations and Dean Elizabeth M. Daley enjoy a casual afternoon of alumni and student films at First Look 2.0.
USC's School of Cinematic Arts hosted its annual student film festival, First Look 2.0, this weekend, incorporating for the first time an awards system to recognize top student films.

Forty-six films debuted at the festival, which USC community members and entertainment industry professionals attended.

The top three films will be awarded cash prizes - $2,000, $1,500 and $1,000, respectively - Wednesday at the Directors Guild of America, a dramatic change from previous years when films were only screened at the festival, and no winners were recognized.

This year's prizes will allow someone to be declared the winner and the best student film to be recognized, said Larry Auerbach, the associate dean of the Office of Student-Industry Relations.

Festival winners will be determined by Alumni Council judges, successful industry professionals who attended USC prior to beginning their careers.

"You look for storytelling and you look for production value and you look for creativity, and how original the story is, and how fresh it is," said Randy Zisk, an USC alumnus, director and executive producer of the television series Monk. "It's the whole film, how well it's both put together on a visual level and on a storytelling level."

In addition to Zisk, the judges included producer and editor Bob Ducsay (The Mummy, Van Helsing); Ramses Ishak, an agent from William Morris and producer Michelle Manning (The Eye, The Breakfast Club).

Judges were not given any set criteria to evaluate the student films, but rather were allowed freedom to use their varying experiences and backgrounds to look at the films from different angles.

"Ultimately, you respond to which movies hit you emotionally and which ones you become passionate about," Zisk said.

The film that received the best reception from viewing audiences will receive the Audience Award, a $1,000 prize. Faculty members will also present Artistic Awards to students in the categories of cinematography, sound, editing, writing, directing and producing.

Judges said First Look 2.0 provides an invaluable opportunity for cinema students.

"I think it is a big deal just to have your work screened and to go to the Directors Guild, where it's on the screen in front of your peers," Zisk said. "It's a big honor, and it's a great step to when you get out of the business, seeing what it's like to be singled out or rewarded in that way. It's not unlike when we get nominated for Emmys or when our show goes up for awards."

Shyam Balsé, director of the student film Monsoon, agreed.

"USC provides this great opportunity of First Look … and USC, being the pre-eminent film school, garners a lot of attention from the industry, so people really look to see who's coming out of there and what the talent is like, and the place to see that is at the First Look Film Festival," Balsé said.

"They really distribute these films all over town. They will be seen by a lot of people, and people who will hopefully open doors for us," Balsé said.

The School of Cinematic Arts at USC is well known throughout the country, especially in Hollywood, where many successful industry professionals have graduated from USC.

"George Lucas everyone knows, but in the recent graduates we had Jon Chu, who directed Step Up 2, Stephen Sommers, who's doing The Mummy and all these films, Shawn Levy, who did Night at the Museum, and Jay Roach, who did all the Austin Powers movies," said Sandrine Cassidy, director of Festivals and Distribution.

Monsoon from Shyam Balsé was one of 46 films screened over the weekend.
Cassidy believes that First Look is an opportunity for students on campus to see what their peers and university alumni have done.

"You know the students all across campus are going to the movies and watching a lot of feature films in theaters, and sometimes they realize, and sometimes they don't, that a lot of the directors of these films come from our school."

Cassidy added that students who attend events such as First Look can see the work of directors who will potentially become famous.

"That really makes it fun," Cassidy said.

Zisk said that USC played an integral part in his success.

"USC was a huge help; it really just sparked my interest in the business, it's a great school and I see the future filmmakers when I see these films," Zisk said. "I'm so impressed with their understanding of production, and the films are so well produced, and the subject matters are so vast, much more so than when I was there ... I'm amazed at how well the students do with these movies."

Auerbach said that the majority of the faculty at the cinema school are industry professionals.

"Students are getting advice, education, lessons, teaching from people who are doing it themselves now, and that's invaluable," he said.

Balsé said that not only is attending the School of Cinematic Arts a great experience, but USC's alumni network also helps to open doors.

"You know everyone calls it the USC mafia because there is this amazing alumni network that comes out of USC," Balsé said. "Everywhere we go to have meetings or start projects, they are in that USC mafia, and they know and we know what we've been through, and there's just a certain level of respect."