Screen success

With an important film festival award in his pocket, Deon H. Hayman is speeding toward the next step to making his 20-minute short into a feature.

The Glendale filmmaker wrote, directed and co-produced “The Don of Virgil Jr. High,” which received the Audience Favorite award in February at the Pan African Film Festival held at the AMC Magic Johnson Theatres/Crenshaw in Los Angeles.

The audience voted on the films and the votes were tallied at the end of the day, said Moza Mjasiri-Cooper, community relations director with the festival.

“The audience award is very important,” she said. “We have 40,000 people who come through the 12-day event. It showed they enjoyed it.”

The 39-year-old filmmaker, who was inspired to get into the entertainment business through his college friendship with rapper Ice Cube, was ecstatic with his first festival award.

“It felt great,” he said. “It felt like the industry had validated me as an official filmmaker.”

But, he was also surprised. When they announced the winners, Hayman’s film didn’t get in the top three.

“We were confused, he said.

“The audience reaction to our film was better than the other films. I didn’t know they had an Audience Favorite. It’s one of the best awards, so they saved it for last.”

Hayman and his partners at Rising Nile Productions — Jaleel Ghafur, executive producer, and Eric Bivens-Bush, co executive producer — are in negotiations to make the short into a feature film, Hayman said.

The trio reportedly met last week with “a major Hollywood actor” who is expected to sign on with the project next week.

“We are in preproduction and raising money for it and, with the attachment of him, we should have the money within a month and shoot during the summer and have it ready by a fall release,” Hayman said.

The film, which is based on a true story, is about a nerdy junior high school kid who finds popularity hustling sodas and snacks after vending machines are banned from the school.

A friend’s stepson told Hayman a story about a kid who did this after the L.A. Unified School district took vending machines out of the schools, he said.

“He wasn’t interested in making money,” he said.

“It was about people coming up to him and being his friends. I thought it would be a good idea for a short film.”

Ghafur’s son, Jilani Ghafur, 11, was cast in the lead role. “I liked being the cool kid, the one everyone looks up to,” he said.

“When you try to be cool, you pretty much think outside the box to get people to like you.”

But, acting, Jilani said, isn’t as easy as it looks on TV.

“It’s hard not to laugh,” he said. “I had to go from nerd to being cool, and it was hard to transition from it.”

Jilani liked working with Hayman because he lets the actor create the character.

“If he tells you to do something one way and you do it the other way and he likes that way better, he will let you do it that way,” Jilani said.

Another screening of the film is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the Beverly Hills Shorts Festival.

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