Monday, April 12, 2010

My report from the Student Academy Awards judging.

I just spent two days judging the Student Academy Awards.

Back when I was in film school, there were student films and there were real films. You could tell the student films because they had lousy sound, inconsistent lighting, terrible acting, and stories involving the trials and tribulations of student life.

You were supposed to see past all that to the undiscovered genius, the raw talent that, in the real world, might have what it takes to create something that was both important and watchable.

Judging by those standards, you'd be hard pressed to tell that the films I watched were made by students.

These were stories about poets and day laborers and security guards and ex-wives, told with confidence, skill, and individual style. They were, almost without exception, productions. Real, legitimate productions.

I'm not talking about the amount of money thrown at them, even though there were several with crane shots and steadicams and one even had helicopter shots of Los Angeles. (One film even had an Academy Award-nominated actor in the lead.) I'm talking about work of professional calibre across the board.

What's important here is that student films are no longer competing as student films. They're competing as films.

That's not to say they were all good. Some were extraordinary. Some were lousy. Just like in Hollywood.

I once met Brett Ratner at some Hollywood function. At the time I was quite proud because I'd written six screenplays that were tearing up the screenwriting competitions. I got something like 32 awards for them.

He was unimpressed. He gave me a bit of advice that I found –– and still find –– incredibly profound. He said (and I'm paraphrasing), "The only contest that matters is real life."

I never entered another screenwriting competition after that, which might have been an overreaction, but the lesson I took away was that you can't qualify your success. You can't just write a screenplay that's good in the context of screenwriting competitions. And you can't just make a film that's good film for a student film. Your work is either good or it's not.

If the people who made these films are smart and ambitious –– and I bet most of them are –– the films I judged in the Student Academy Awards will also play at film festivals. Right up there next to films by established, working directors. Like me.

They'll be holding their own. Even blowing my work away.

That's a good thing. A great thing.

The success of these films isn't qualified. And I'm looking over my shoulder.