John Fusco knows the importance of the FOCUS student film awards.

Ask his William Morris agent.

Or ask his banker.

Or ask Fusco himself, who will tell you that because of FOCUS he was able to sell his first--repeat, his first --screenplay, titled "Crossroads," for $250,000. And now, only a year out of New York University, he is doing postgraduate work at Columbia--that's the studio, not the university--where director Walter Hill has just filmed Ralph Macchio in "Crossroads," which won a FOCUS screenwriting award last year and is soon to be released.

Fusco returned to the site of his 1984 triumph Thursday night as a presenter for the ninth annual FOCUS awards, held at the Directors Guild Theater. "If it wasn't for FOCUS," said Fusco, sporting some slick Hollywood threads and a tan to match, "I'd still be kicking around New York tending bar."

But FOCUS (Films of College and University Students, with awards funded by the Nissan Motor Corp.) came to the rescue, advancing his career and his wardrobe. For FOCUS is the romper room for future movers and shakers, where fledgling film makers look for an opportunity to wheel and deal, initiate a few contacts (read agents) and, they hope, improve their chances of making it in the motion-picture industry.

It's as much a rite of passage as it is an awards ceremony.

That was certainly the case Thursday night, when the very best college film makers in the country collided to demonstrate to the capacity audience of 500 members of the entertainment industry that talent, given a forum, can sometimes speak for itself.

"I gotta tell you," said Robert Zemeckis, an award presenter and director of the smash hit "Back to the Future," "student films have come a long way since I was in film school. I was knocked out by these films."

Said Renee Valente, president of the Producers Guild of America and honorary chairwoman for FOCUS: "We have to give something back, and recognizing new talent is crucial. What anybody in the business needs is for someone to open a door."

Actor Peter Strauss, the evening's host, concurred. "It is always a pleasure to celebrate and honor imagination," he said. "But it is the responsibility of our industry to encourage and nurture imagination. That's what FOCUS does."

But as much as the industry happily giveth, the FOCUS participants happily taketh. "I'd like to make narrative films," said Alison Nigh-Strelich, winner of a new Nissan Sentra for her documentary "Debonair Dancers." "So I'm really looking at FOCUS as a way to meet the people who can help me. And I need a car desperately."

Hilary Hemingway, Ernest's niece, took top honors in the screenwriting competition. Her screenplay, "A Light Within the Shadow," is based on the life of Leicester Hemingway, Ernest's brother.

And Kadidja Lewis, an otherwise struggling actress, found instant exposure when the movie "Heroes," in which she co-stars, was named as the competition's best narrative film.

The winners:

Narrative film: first, Camille Thomasson, "Heroes," USC; second, Phil Joanou, "The Last Chance Dance," USC; third, Frank Kerr, "Caesura," New York University; fourth, James Mangold, "Barn," California Institute of the Arts.

Documentary film: first, Alison Nigh-Strelich, "Debonair Dancers," Brooks Institute of Photography; second, Kathryn Johnston and Iain Stobie, "On the Rocks," University of Colorado at Boulder; third, Lucy Ostrander, "Witness to Revolution," Stanford University; fourth, Mehrdad Haghiri, "In Our Image," Art Center College of Design.

Animated film: first, Doug Chiang, "Mental Block," UCLA; second, James Duesing, "Impetigo," University of Cincinnati; third, Joanna Priestly and Steven Subotnick, "The Dancing Bullrushes," California Institute of the Arts; fourth, Ellen Woodbury, "I Want to Be Like You," California Institute of the Arts.

Screenwriting: first, Hilary Hemingway, "A Light Within the Shadow," University of Miami; second, Brian Helgeland, "MacAfee's War," Loyola Marymount University; third, Carol Frank, "Free Ride," UCLA; fourth, Randall Hurlbut, "White Cross," Columbia College, Chicago.

Film editing: Mona Campanella and Karen Croner, "Heroes," USC.

Cinematography: Robert Brinkman and John Schwartzman, "The Last Chance Dance," USC.

Sound: Arthur Shapiro, "Barn," California Institute of the Arts.

Women in Film Foundation Award: Camille Thomasson, "Heroes," USC.

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