There were a few problems when Alan Taylor, a graduate student at New York University, set out to make his thesis film, "That Burning Question." First of all, he says, "we couldn't buy the city of Hoboken," where his offbeat mystery is set, "so being a scrawny student production, we were allowed to close one street one day for maybe 20 minutes."
Then this volunteer-staffed production ground to a halt every time his male lead had to leave to do a scene in his paying gig, the Kevin Costner movie "Revenge."
Still, all the travail seems to have been worth it. Reaction to his movie has been a film student's dream. Tonight, Taylor will be one of the 23 finalists, chosen from more than 900 student filmmakers, who will take home a prize in the 14th annual Focus Awards ceremonies at the Director's Guild of America.
Taylor's may be one of the more idyllic stories behind this year's awards, however. Just a few months after completing work for his master's degree, he was recruited by an agent, received writing-directing offers from such companies as New Line Cinema and was invited to show "That Burning Question" at the upcoming Toronto and New York film festivals.
The 30-year-old novice and the other winners have been brought to Los Angeles for a week of panel discussions, seminars and tours hosted by the awards. Started in 1977 by Nissan Motor Co., the Focus Awards (for Films of College and University Students) have been described as a sort of NBA/NFL draft of young talent for the film industry. According to Scott Ross, vice president and general manager of Industrial Light and Magic, a sponsor of the competition through LucasArts Entertainment, the process has shown a good track record of locating people who will do well later.
"A company that is successful in the arts has to put money back in to mine the new talent," Ross says.
Nissan has been joined by other sponsors--Amblin Entertainment, John Badham Films, Universal Pictures, the Women in Film Foundation, the Eastman Kodak Company--and supplies the Nissan Sentras presented to the four winners of the narrative, documentary, animated/experimental and screenwriting categories. Winners in sound achievement, documentary film editing, documentary cinematography and producing and narrative cinematography receive cash awards.
Another of the 23 finalists is Mark Squier, 30, a Washington, resident who's won an award in the producing category. Rather than "just arrive in Los Angeles (as an aspiring producer) with a bag and a few dollars," Squier decided to get a master's degree in film at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. His thesis film for AFI, the one that brought him a Focus Award this year in the producing category, is titled "The Blue Men" and stars Estelle Parsons.
Squier actually bought the rights to the Joy Williams story on which the film is based. This took, Squier says, tenacity and haggling; eventually he got the price down to a manageable rate.
Then he got a $17,000 grant from AFI and raised another $10,000 through "favors all over town." Actual production work was done by "students and friends, with lots of begging."
"It became a joke," Squier says, "that not many people would return my phone calls for fear that I would want them out on location."
Still, a student film teaches you some important lessons. "Basically, everybody there is volunteering," says Squier, "and if you're not a good manager of people they can walk."
Tricia Garcia, 23, was already familiar with the Focus Awards when she entered this year--last year she made it to the finals.
Her prize-winning animated film this year, titled "Endymion and Selene," was assembled using movable glass mosaic tiles. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Garcia said she will use her Focus prize money to produce another animated film.
But what will these winners do when the awards are over and they return to the painful state called Recent Graduate Limbo?
Squier says he would like to find a producing job with one of the independent film companies. "But of course, everybody else in Hollywood wants to, too."