Six short films, representing months of work by more than 50 ACU students, were destined for a Paramount Theatre screening at the ACU FilmFest gala in early April. But when classes moved online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, so did FilmFest.
On April 23, the gala, which typically draws a full house at the historic Abilene theatre, instead screened online during a specially produced livestream, premiering the year’s student film submissions in the first event of its kind in FilmFest’s 16-year history.
The planning began in the Learning Studio, which has worked with FilmFest since 2011, but soon included the help of staff and faculty members across the university to produce the 90-minute live broadcast.
As in years past, FilmFest 2020 had a student host, Tyler Henderson, junior convergence journalism major, who filmed his direct-to-camera portion of the show a month in advance in an empty library. Nathan Driskell (’07), media production specialist in the Learning Studio, then edited and rendered the gala broadcast from his home, and his wife Jesiree (Guerrero ’06) Driskell, marketing director for Hendrick Health System, recorded voiceover segments for the event.
At ACUTV’s on-campus studio, associate professor of journalism Nathan Gibbs (’00) helped test livestream options in advance and was in the studio the night of the event, making sure the stream ran smoothly over ACUTV’s YouTube channel.
In the Maker Lab, director Darren Wilson helped produce the coveted FilmFest trophies, designed by Driskell and built from laser-cut acrylic and laser-engraved wood bases.
Reflecting the varied backgrounds of FilmFest’s student participants, the event’s sponsors this year included the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Biblical Studies, and the College of Business Administration, as well as ACU’s Student Government Association. And for the fourth consecutive year, Adobe sponsored the event, providing senior award-winners with an additional free year of access to its Creative Cloud software suite after graduation.
“This was a community effort that took a lot of hands,” said Deanna Tuttle (’16), the Learning Studio’s training and support manager. “If you just watched the livestream itself, you’d have no idea about all the intricacies that went on behind the scenes, and all the people who had to come together to make the event happen.”
The online gala included the premiere screening of all six student film submissions, followed by awards in 13 categories. ACU faculty and staff, along with FilmFest judges, presented the awards via short video clips recorded from their homes.
Senior Rankin Dean Bullard and junior Hannah Sanza collectively took the top prizes of Best Picture and Best Director for their film On a Different Page, which also won Best Cinematography for sophomore Braden Garner’s camera work on the film.
Freshman Brody Jasso and his teammates were also recognized with awards for two films, including the People’s Choice award for the western shootout Burnt & Buried. And junior Katie Pantoja’s film Dandelions In the Sky finished strong, taking Best Producer and Best Writer for her collaborative work with sophomore Rozyo Castro Becerra, junior Cate Dunne and senior Chris Jimenez.
While the gala may be the most visible part of FilmFest, each fall its participants begin their filmmaking journey with a series of immersive on-campus learning experiences.
“FilmFest is more than a gala,” said Melissa Henderson, now in her second year coordinating FilmFest for the Learning Studio. “Last fall, we began with workshops and training opportunities hosted by Learning Studio staff as well as ACU faculty from the departments of theatre and journalism and mass communication. We bring in judges from the industry to mentor and assist the students on their films throughout the school year, and to offer feedback after the event. It really is a massive undertaking.”
Judging this year’s ACU FilmFest submissions were Randy Brewer (’93), founder of Revolution Pictures in Nashville and longtime champion of ACU’s student film community; Chris Krebsbach, co-director of the Los Angeles Film Studies Center, which for years has hosted ACU students for a semester-long immersion in the film industry; Matt Maxwell (’07), a documentary filmmaker whose film Finding Home in Boomtown netted awards at several festivals last year; and Brent McCorkle, a Nashville screenwriter and director whose credits include Woodlawn and the 2018 sleeper hit I Can Only Imagine.
“The talent among these ACU students is incredible,” said McCorkle. “I look forward to seeing what they make every year, and more than that, I can’t wait to see what they go on to do. Their futures are bright, for sure.”
For those who missed it, the full FilmFest gala livestream is available at acu.edu/filmfest, along with a full archive of past films. In its first 24 hours online, the gala broadcast had been viewed more than a thousand times – or, roughly the attendance of a packed Paramount Theatre.
ACU FilmFest’s gala is scheduled to return to the Paramount again in March 2021.