GCU students inspired to pursue filmmaking dreams at Sundance

College of Arts and Media faculty attend the Sundance Film Festival with 12 GCU students in Utah. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Craig Detweiler)

“Prepare to be humbled and for your brain capacity to be overwhelmed. … Oh, and don’t forget business cards … and a journal and a pen,” said GCU film student Diamond Benjamin of her first Sundance Film Festival experience.

College of Arts and Media Dean Dr. Craig Detweiler and Film Chair Lisa Tervo had the chance to take 12 Grand Canyon University students to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in late January.

After winning GCU’s Film Festival and PitchFest at the beginning of the school year, these Lopes finally got to relish in their awards and accomplishments by attending the prestigious event for aspiring filmmakers, thanks to the generous grant from the Bridges/Larson Foundation.

Diamond Benjamin, senior film major, participates in the question-and-answer panel with professional filmmakers. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Craig Detweiler)

“Every day was so full off knowledge, I had to write stuff down. Each day I was learning so much,” Benjamin said.

GCU students spent a week attending various film screenings. They were gifted 10 film tickets to select specific screenings in which they were most interested. Each was followed by a question-and-answer session with filmmakers and producers in which students got to hear about the filmmaking process and intentions behind the work.

They also got to attend Windrider Summit, a Christian filmmaking partner of Sundance co-founded by Detweiler. Guest speakers and different companies presented panel discussions and workshops in which students got to network and establish connections.

“It was an environment like no other,” shared sophomore film major Kennedy Beckius. “It didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, this is a film premiere.’ No, everyone was just in comfy clothes and sat with a bunch of normal people. The people who had their films and were big creators, they were the most genuine people.”

Some of the established filmmakers that made an appearance included Ben Proudfoot, Oscar winner and current Oscar nominee for “The Last Repair Shop,” Sean Wang, current Oscar nominee for “Nai Nai and Wai Po” and winner of the Sundance Audience Award: US Drama, and Natalie Rae and Angel Patton, co-directors of “Daughters,” Sundance documentary winner and winners of the Audience Award: US Documentary.

“I was putting myself in their (filmmakers') shoes and thought that is going to be a cool part when I get to make something like this and will get to watch people react and connect to it,” said Beckius.

GCU students take a picture with filmmaker Sean Wang (center) at the Windrider Summit. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Craig Detweiler).

Despite a rough start to the week in which a flight delay caused a late arrival to the festival kick-off, GCU students still made the best of the situation and had a successful week.

Tervo encouraged the students to still attend the kick-off event despite the long day of travel to take advantage of every chance to connect with other aspiring filmmakers and professionals in the field.

“Maybe unfairly so, but I said to them, ‘No, no, there will be people here tonight that aren’t going to be here the rest of the week. You need to network,’” said Tervo.

As predicted, an Oscar-winning filmmaker was in attendance that particular night, and Tervo did not waste any time encouraging her students to introduce themselves to him and initiate a conversation.

Twelve student winners from GCU's Film Festival and Pitch Fest got to attend the Sundance Film Festival in Utah late January. Accompanied by College of Arts and Media faculty, students spent a week in Park City where thousands of aspiring film makers gathered for the famed festival. Students got to preview screenings, participate in discussion panels and network with professional film makers. Story
Sophomore Kennedy Beckius and freshman Steven Sellin meet Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville (left), accompanied by GCU alumnus Stephen Trull (right). (Photo courtesy of Dr. Craig Detweiler.)

“They were sleepy, but I had to get them out there. It was worth it because when we were driving back, I asked them if they got anything out of it. They all had many things to share.

“All this stuff came from pressing them to network. I think it set them up, because for the rest of the week, when we had guest speakers come in, our students would always raise their hands to ask questions, go out of their way afterwards to talk to them, and find out a little bit more about how they could help them.”

Students said Sundance was a surreal experience and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

They said they were exposed to a plethora of filmmaking styles they could apply to their writing and production process. Whether it was filmmaking styles they were familiar with or learning for the first time, all left feeling inspired, shared Benjamin.

GCU students and College of Arts and Media faculty at the Windrider Summit. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Craig Detweiler).

Steven Sellin, a GCU business marketing major, took advantage of the opportunity when he first pitched a film idea at GCU’s PitchFest and set his eyes on the prize of a Sundance Film Festival ticket.

“I was in Dr. Lisa’s office and heard her talking about film,” explained Sellin. “I noticed a Sundance poster she had in the background, so I was like, ‘not that I am going to switch my major or anything, but how do you go there?’ She mentioned the PitchFest, and two weeks later, I pitched a documentary short idea, and it ended up winning.”

After hours of watching films, sitting in numerous panel discussions and connecting with multiple filmmakers, students walked away with a better understanding of their art and new ideas for their personal films.

Storytelling should be specific to one’s personal story because that is what makes it most universal in the end, Benjamin and Beckius said. It was their biggest takeaway from the festival. Regardless of how long it takes, the important thing is to keep creating and push forward.  

“It’s not something I ever pictured myself going to, but it was really cool to be there,” Sellin shared. “I know I am new to college, but I don’t think I will get to do anything better than that. It was just a really great week.”

GCU staff writer Izabela Fogarasi can be reached at [email protected]

Related content:

GCU News: Bridges/Larson grant supports film students with Sundance trip - GCU News

GCU News: It's lights, camera, action on a chance to get film funding, go to Sundance - GCU News

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