It was just after the long Fourth of July weekend when the Ghetto Film School assembled its 2010 fellows at its headquarters in the South Bronx, a few floors above offices of the state parole division. Introductions were made, and then the 21 teenage students eagerly took possession of high-definition video cameras and began learning how to make movies.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
From left, Isabel Balazs, Rebecca D’Agostino and Dylan Salcedo, students at Ghetto Film School, at work in a Bronx park. The school is located in the South Bronx.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Students at the Ghetto Film School, which has a summer session and continues during the year.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Kirsten Tanjutco pitched her movie idea, as did other students, to professionals.
Founded in 2000, the nonprofit, not-for-credit Ghetto Film School aims, among other things, to broaden the pool of filmmaking talent and subject matter feeding the entertainment industry by providing opportunities for young people who might otherwise be overlooked. The name, of course, is meant to play with a stereotype. But the program itself is serious, and has won the support of Hollywood and the city government.
This year’s fellows are diverse, in terms of background and interests. Hurricane Katrina drove the family of Ashante’ Parker, a bubbly 17-year-old, to Manhattan from New Orleans. Josué Loayza, 15, has immigrant parents, his father a carpenter from Ecuador and mother a housekeeper from Honduras. Jared Ray, 16, is from the Bronx and studies at St. Raymond High School for Boys there.
“We get people who apply from everywhere,” said Joe Hall, 45, the school’s founder who is a former Bronx social worker and film student. “But our commitment is to the Bronx in particular and the city in general.”
As the Ghetto Film School, which has an annual operating budget of just under $1 million, has taken root over the past decade, its activities have extended to projects like Digital Bodega, a production company that provides opportunities for the school’s 136 alumni and also some income to supplement the funds that come from government and foundations. Recently, for example, Digital Bodega was awarded a contract to make a video for General Mills’ annual meeting; Mr. Hall sent an e-mail blast to alumni, who then made presentations to win the job.
Of even more recent vintage is the program’s partnership with the city’s Education Department, the Cinema School, a new public high school that opened last year on East 172nd Street in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Mr. Hall said Ghetto Film School helped design curriculum, obtain equipment and train staff for the school, which he described as “the first film high school in the country.” Cinema School is expected to enroll about 350 students eventually.
“The more they can penetrate the public schools the better,” said the film director David O. Russell, a member of the Ghetto Film School’s board. “The more kids they can offer opportunities, the more motivated” the students will be “after school and during class.”
“Just look how many great people came out of the High School for the Performing Arts,” he added.
The nine-week summer program that ended Thursday is just the first phase of a much longer process. Beginning this month the fellows will attend Industry 101 classes on Saturdays and some weekday afternoons to acquaint them with the business side of filmmaking. And eventually the group will make a thesis film together; one fellow’s script will be chosen, and he or she will then chose a director.
In the past the fellows have traveled to Paris; Mexico City; Rio de Janeiro; Belfast; and Kampala, Uganda, to make their thesis films. The current group is scheduled to go to Shanghai in 2011 to shoot.
But first the fellows must each make a six-minute movie. A few weeks into the program they trekked to the mid-Manhattan offices of the Sundance Channel to get a taste of an industry ritual: the pitch meeting. There were 19 fellows, and each tried to sell a project to the director Maurice Marable and Evan Shapiro, president of IFC TV and the Sundance Channel, as well as the Ghetto Film School’s chairman of the board.
Some of the pitches were polished, others not, but all the fellows got notes, showbiz parlance for suggestions and comments. “There is too much story” to squeeze into so short a film, Mr. Marable told a student, while Mr. Shapiro praised others for having tight, succinct pitches.
In previous years fellows often seemed to gravitate toward making films with “drama, violence and mayhem,” Mr. Hall said. This year, he noted, “more comedies are being pitched than usual.”
In one proposal the protagonist hopes to impress the girl of his dreams by winning a hotdog eating contest. Another is for a lesbian romantic comedy that, in Mr. Shapiro’s words, boils down to “nice Jewish girl meets nice Jewish girl.” And another centers around two brothers and a box of cereal. High concepts, however, don’t always translate into good scripts.
“Comedy is hard, harder than drama,” Mr. Shapiro cautioned the fellows toward the end of the session. “Either it’s funny or it’s not.”
Though the Ghetto Film School program’s emphasis is on doing, like most university film schools it also demands that students view and analyze films that were box office hits or considered creative triumphs. This summer the fellows’ screenings have included gritty New York stories like “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Midnight Cowboy” and European art films like “M” and “8 ½.”
Sometimes a film’s director shows up to talk with the students about what they have just seen or does so via Skype. The list of participants has included Spike Jonze, Edward Burns, Lee Daniels, Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson and Mr. Russell, all of whom are enthusiastic about the possibility of new voices being heard.
“How do you not get turned on by this whole thing?” asked Mr. Russell, whose films include “Three Kings” and “I Heart Huckabees.” “It’s an inspiring thing to do. Hollywood is so unreal and weird that you really cherish experiences that are real and down-to-earth with people who have compelling stories to tell.”
Last week the group trooped to the Criterion Collection, on Union Square, to watch “George Washington,” an early, low-budget coming-of-age film by the director David Gordon Green. Afterward Mr. Green, whose more recent credits include the hit stoner comedy “Pineapple Express” and the HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” answered technical questions about filmmaking, like how to get the most out of a limited production budget. But he also offered some sober career advice.
“This is an exhausting industry,” he told the students. “If you’re not really into it, you’re better off going to watch movies.”
Even so, many of the fellows dream of eventually becoming directors or screenwriters. Darrell and Amber Vanterpool, who are the second sibling pair to be in the program together, want to follow in the footsteps of the Wayans and Coen brothers. “We do almost everything together, and we’d like to keep it that way,” Amber said. “He’ll be the director, and since I’ve always loved to write, I’ll be the writer.”
But some technical-minded students have also developed an interest in more specialized areas of filmmaking (also part of the curriculum) like cinematography, lighting, sound and set design. “I’m fascinated by everything about cameras, color correction and editing,” said Mr. Loayza, who will is a sophomore at the Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens. “There’s just so much to choose from, so many things that go into making different kinds of shooting styles.”