Student films have not always been given the praise that they deserve, but this has changed since the arrival of the Angelus Student Film Festival almost 15 years ago.
The festival gives students the opportunity to show their work to an audience and be judged by professionals in the industry. The festival prides itself on showcasing student films that portray redemption, spirituality, dignity, tolerance, equality, diversity, hope and the triumph of the human spirit. Some of the alumni of the festival include Greg Marcks, director of 11:14 and Echelon Conspiracy; Sabrina Dhawan, writer of Monsoon Wedding and Oscar-winner Barbara Schock, director of the short film My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York.
The festival’s director, Monika Moreno, has worked there since 1998. Since then, she has helped it grow into a serious festival where students have the chance to begin their careers in film.
Moreno discusses the past, present and future of the festival here with MovieMaker.
Michael Gerali (MM): You have worked with the Angelus Student Film Festival since 1998. What was it like when you first started working?
Monika Moreno (MORENO): When Angelus began, you could count the number of student film festivals on one hand and still have fingers left. Film departments weren’t as prevalent internationally, and domestically the smaller film schools (outside the top five) had significant challenges—equipment and access. However, the craft of storytelling never changed and the stories were just as rich and satisfying in the winner’s circle as they are today. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t always have the means to create a polished and professional work of art. Today, technology certainly has revolutionized the industry. Also, we were the only festival around with our particular bent (“human dignity, redemption, triumph of the human spirit”) and now there are many, which is great!
Interestingly enough, we had to get past the stigma of “student film,” which back in ’98 was akin to saying “home movie,” and persuade Industry professionals to spend their valuable time as a jury, screening these gems in a dark theater. We plied them with good food and lured them to the screening room (VHS, if you can believe…) and they were floored. It took time for our staff to find the gems, but we knew they were there. Now, we have people calling, asking to jury.
MM: How has the festival grown in the past couple of years?
MORENO: The Angelus Student Film Festival has seen a huge influx of films in the past few years—entries and sponsorships have increased, though a few sponsors had to downsize due to the economy. Despite the economic conditions, we have kept our entry fee low ($35 early) and we find the student film festival world is still flourishing. We are now holding “Angelus Alumni” events throughout the year—get-togethers for the filmmakers to network and play catch-up with us. Many Angelus filmmakers forge relationships and work together on projects, often from different film schools and backgrounds, on the strength of their mutual talents and time together at Angelus.
We have increased our global outreach. In 2008, select filmmakers traveled to Prague, Czech Republic and held screenings in downtown Prague, the American Embassy and FAMU (Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), the world-renowned film school there. The downtown Prague Library screening drew standing room only crowds (400+) and we were all surprised since we did not know what to expect. Clearly, all cultures appreciate excellence in storytelling in film, but to bring these films and documentaries to the post-Communist audience in Prague was indeed special. This trip was sponsored by the Peter Glenville Foundation, one of our largest sponsors. The Angelus filmmakers loved it. In 2010, we will screen in three different cities in Italy. In addition to international growth, we have added side trips to Sundance—through sponsor Windrider Forum—and select universities such as Notre Dame University, who invited Angelus to participate as part of their Center for Ethics and Culture program.
MM: What is the process like for a student who enters their film to be judged at the festival?
MORENO: Once a filmmaker enters Angelus, each entry is screened by three jurors before determining if it rises to the next level. Then the process is repeated at the semi-finalist level before advancing to finalist, then winner. If we appear OCD in our lengthy jury process it is because I truly believe our jury process sets us apart from the rest. It is why audiences never go away unmoved or not entertained. I like to see a good mix of male/female and a variety of backgrounds/cultures in our jurors because we all bring something different to the table. When we have consensus, cream rising to the top, we have winners.
This year, all entrants received a free subscription to Creative Screenwriting magazine, and semi-finalists received posters as well. All our entrants are important to us because we know what it takes to create a film/animation/documentary and they have poured their soul into their vision. We communicate with them often, letting them know what is going on, yet I am still surprised at the number of filmmakers who thank us just for saying hello.
Once a student is a finalist, they are invited to the Angelus Finalist Luncheon, which is usually a huge BBQ with special industry guests and Angelus alumni, and we announce the winners. This is always fun because we meet them for the first time and can get to know them better. The actual festival is held at the Directors Guild in Hollywood in mid-September and is so large now it is difficult to talk to everyone one-on-one. As of now, we only have the resources to screen the honorable mentions in the day and the winners in the evening. I look forward to the day when Angelus can increase to several days and we can screen all the deserving films.
All finalists leave with a stuffed goody bag from industry sponsors and the winners take away cash prizes ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.
MM: You’re giving students the chance to really begin their careers with this festival. What kind of an impact does winning have on the students and their future careers?
MORENO: Winning a festival is a tremendous boost for all aspiring filmmakers and/or screenwriters, and we believe when a filmmaker wins Angelus, they do have some leverage and also make friends for life. Since our goal is to give the promising artist visibility and assistance in their career, we try to assist where we can. Money always helps, so we have put the bulk of our resources into large cash prizes. We have made introductions and helped get representation, but for the most part, it is up to the resourceful young filmmaker to make the win work for them. The Angelus alumni return year after year to Angelus functions and screenings, so it has become quite a large community—now, an international one!
While the trips are amazing opportunities for the filmmakers, we are just now realizing the global impact Angelus is having on worldwide audiences. It has made us all recognize the universal needs for stories that reflect the complexities of the human condition.
Most recently, 2008 Angelus winner Justin Lerner was in production with his first feature, Girlfriend, starring Jackson Rathbone. We helped Justin spread the word and he asked for assistance in finding crew in Massachusetts. We held a reunion/congratulations dinner for Justin and Hilla Medalia—a previous Angelus Documentary winner, who was in town for the debut of her latest documentary, After the Storm, chronicling young actors in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Many alumni came and networked.
Another recent Angelus alum, Destin Daniel Cretton, met up with us at Sundance last January and we celebrated with him as he clinched the Sundance Shorts Jury prize for his film Short Term 12.
Since Angelus films reflect redemptive, diverse, triumph-of-the-spirit and human dignity themes, the filmmakers themselves tend to be pretty open and generous and caring individuals; they are a pleasure to be around. Or maybe we’re just lucky. But I don’t think so!
MM: What are some of your favorite films to have come out of the festival so far?
MORENO: Just when I am convinced that one year’s crop can’t be surpassed in quality and creativity, the next batch slays me. We are at the 15-year mark in 2010—perhaps we will create a Best of DVD, but it’s probably impossible. Personally, I shy away from the clichéd, predictable fare, so you won’t find that with Angelus. We love it all, the quirky, dramatic, comedic, smart and entertaining projects, but they all have one underlying element: They must touch the heart. The FujiFilm Audience Impact award usually leaves audiences in tears or laughter, but I believe on some level, they all do. I hope I am not sidestepping your question—I have a library of favorites, which are not necessarily all winners. Many semi-finalists and finalists fall in that category, too; too many to name, too little space to screen them all!
MM: As a screenwriter—and having dealt with the entertainment industry—what is the best advice you would give to the aspiring moviemakers you work with each year?
MORENO: The filmmakers I have seen succeed have worked extremely hard to get there. They are self-promoters who believe in their talent, their unique stories (well told and well executed) and ability to create. They are focused and passionate. They are crazy social networkers and work insane hours for little pay. They are courageous yet humble. They care about their crew and never forget their friends. They always answer e-mail and phone calls and nothing is ever beneath them. They are always willing to help their fellow filmmakers—by giving notes, advice, spending time, etc.—despite ridiculous schedules. I omitted “talented” because while that is a key component, it is not sufficient in itself for success. The filmmakers that succeed are the people industry professionals want to work with. Perseverance is paramount, networking is critical, but above all, artistic and personal integrity go further than one may realize.
MM: What’s next for you and the festival?
MORENO: I hope that Angelus increases to a longer, several-day festival to include screenings of all the worthy films and perhaps add seminars and networking opportunities for the filmmakers and guests. Right now, we have experimented with tours in Hollywood (meet and greets) as well as a panel here and there. We are looking for more partners to help realize our dream of honoring and assisting young filmmakers as they create works that respect the dignity of the human person. Personally, I have a couple of comedic screenplays in option or development hell!
For more information on the Angelus Student Film Festival visit www.angelus.org.