These days, any teenager with a camera and a Mac can produce a movie. But will it be a good movie? In early 2006, two local high school media teachers decided to start a contest that would motivate aspiring Coens to do their very best work. "I'm a coach, and I like competition to bring the quality of people's performances up," says Tom Preska, a communications technology teacher at Essex High School. With Jim Shields, who runs the imaging lab at South Burlington High School and, like him, coaches lacrosse, Preska decided to start a local filmmaking contest with strict rules and a time limit, similar to others across the country. (Apple Computer's Insomnia Film Festival showcases 3-minute films created in just 24 hours, and the Lake Placid Film Forum hosted a "Sleepless in Lake Placid" 24-hour contest for college students last summer.)
Though the contest is open to all Vermont high schoolers, Preska says it usually attracts a small pool of entrants who are already serious about film: "When you get those kids together, who are the cream of the crop, it pushes them to put the best they've got out there." About 20 teams of four or five students register for each weekend of frantic filmmaking, roughly half of those manage to submit finished products. Nine films emerged from the fourth and latest edition of the contest, which ran November 2-4.
To keep entrants from sneakily shooting footage in advance, Preska and Shields give them "prompts" that change with each contest. Last year, the film had to be a romance. This fall, the students produced thrillers. The prompt dictated that they include a "roadside mailbox," a "character that is indecisive," and five lines of dialogue chosen from a list.
Though the teams - which sport band-ready names such as Spontaneous Combustion and Evergreen Dazed - handed in their films weeks ago, they won't know who won till this Thursday, December 13, when the entries are screened at 7 p.m. at the Essex Cinemas. (The screening is open to the public.) The judges are five or six industry professionals, Preska says, including Vermont filmmaker and Dartmouth instructor Peter Ciardelli and a South Burlington High grad who's now editing the hit show "Heroes."
Given the thriller prompt, this contest generated "some films that are on the hard and edgy side," says Preska. But don't expect to see gore at the screening - as educators, he points out, the organizers have to weigh the students' artistic impulses against a sense of what's appropriate in school. "You don't want to encourage violence in our society."