Soaking up Sundance: UArizona film and television students take trip to storied film festival

four people sitting on a couch having a conversation

Film and television students (from left) Phoenix Lawson, Rene Marcelle and Ashland Johnson speak with Sterling Hampton IV, the filmmaker of "Merman," which is playing in the short film program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

It's peak season for anyone who loves film and television: The Emmys earlier this month crowned the year's best TV shows. The nominations for this year's Academy Awards were announced this week.

And the Sundance Film Festival has taken over Park City, Utah, as it has done since 1985, bringing thousands of attendees to the resort town for a week of film screenings, panels with filmmakers and more. As one of the most influential events in cinema, Sundance regularly launches the careers of filmmakers each year and informally kicks off the spring film festival season.

Ten students in the University of Arizona School of Theatre, Film & Television, in the College of Fine Arts, are in Park City to take it all in. The students traveled to Sundance as part of a weeklong trip organized and funded by the school's Hanson FilmTV Institute.

Mia Farrell, director of the Hanson Institute, is herself a film-festival veteran, having attended Sundance and countless other festivals numerous times over a nearly three-decade career in film publicity. This is Farrell's second trip to Sundance with students as director of the Hanson Institute.

"It's always special and always a learning experience as professionals to see and be able to witness through a young person's eyes their first festival experience, and especially a festival on the level of Sundance," Farrell said. "To see the excitement, the joy and the enthusiasm for the profession that they're choosing to go into, it absolutely recharges my battery and renews my love for wanting to work in this space."

10 people posing for a group photo at sundance film festival

UArizona film and television students at a Sundance Ignite networking event. Back row, from left: Phoenix Lawson, Rene Marcelle, Fausto Perez, Ashland Johnson, George Romero and Jackson Huffman. Front row, from left: AJ "Stash" Castillo, Fernanda Yescas, Fiona Paskoff and Tiffany Wang.

Attending students are part of a festival-run program called Sundance Ignite, which provides young filmmakers ages 18-25 access to networking events and other career-development offerings in addition to the festival screenings and panels. Students are also event volunteers, getting a first-hand look at what goes into producing a top-tier film festival such as Sundance.

And Farrell leaned on her extensive experience in the industry to find even more opportunities for UArizona students. A group on Sunday met informally with Sterling Hampton IV, the filmmaker of "Merman," which is playing in the festival's short film program this year.

Tiffany Wang, a senior double-majoring in film and television and in law and was still taking in all Sundance had to offer on Monday afternoon. Wang said her career aspirations are still taking shape, but her time hearing from filmmakers at the festival has led her to consider jobs in content acquisition – the process by streamers and studios to find what they hope will be the next big show or movie.

Above all, Wang said, she looked forward to a week immersed in film, surrounded by like-minded festival attendees.

"Meeting other filmmakers and hearing about how they got started is really important to me because the film industry is filled with people from all walks of life," Wang said. "Hearing about how they got into production is what I'm most looking forward to."

AJ "Stash" Castillo, a senior double-majoring in film and television and in journalism, hopes to put both majors to use with a career in documentary filmmaking. Being at Sundance was the perfect opportunity, Castillo added, to take in the newest additions to the genre.

"My goal is just to watch as many films as possible," Castillo said, adding that high on the list was "Never Look Away," a documentary by filmmaker Lucy Lawless about the groundbreaking CNN photojournalist Margaret Moth that premieres at Sundance this year.

"I just love seeing people's different styles and their take on certain situations, people and ideas," Castillo added.

Other students on the trip were:

  • Fausto Durazo, a senior studying film and television, with a minor in business administration
  • Jackson Huffman, a senior studying film and television, with a minor in marketing
  • Ashland Johnson, a senior studying marketing with a minor in film and television
  • Phoenix Lawson, a junior studying film and television, with a minor in business administration
  • Rene Marcelle, a senior studying film and television, with a minor in music
  • Fiona Paskoff, a senior studying film and television, with a minor in Spanish
  • George Romero, a senior studying film and television, and political science
  • Fernanda Yescas, a junior studying film and television and marketing, with a minor in classic civilizations

Other school faculty at the festival include professor Lisanne Skyler and professor of practice Kevin Black, who are attending events celebrating 40 years of Sundance filmmaker alumni.

Skyler is a two-time festival alum with her feature film "Getting to Know You" and documentary "No Loans Today," both of which debuted in competition before going on to critical acclaim. "Getting to Know You," based on stories by Joyce Carol Oates, had its international premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and includes Heather Matarazzo, Bebe Neuwirth, Zach Braff, Michael Weston and Black in the cast. "No Loans Today," portraying day-to-day survival in South-Central Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, aired on PBS' POV series and is now available on Amazon.

Jacob Bricca, associate professor in the School of Theatre, Film & Television, also attended Sundance with Farrell and the student group. Bricca, an award-winning documentary editor, is another Sundance filmmaker alum; he co-edited the documentary "The Bad Kids," which premiered at Sundance in 2016. He also led a Sundance Collab Master Class in Documentary Editing earlier this year.

"While other film schools bring students to Sundance, we are one of the only ones to provide our students with an opportunity to be fully immersed as part of the official Sundance volunteer team," Bricca said. "It's great to see our students regrouping back at the accommodation, sharing their experiences, seeing how this world works in terms of networking. Sundance is one the few times where, as a filmmaker, you can turn to the person next to you and immediately strike up a conversation, and our students are really embracing that spirit.

This year's festival is also well represented among School of Theatre, Film & Television alumni. Mike Plante, an alum from the Class of 1994, is the senior programmer for short film at Sundance, where he has worked since 2001 as part of the team assessing around 12,000 submissions annually. Of those submissions, Plante and his team select around 1% to be part of the annual shorts lineup.

Among those selected this year is "Flail," about a distracted personal assistant frantically preparing for her boss' birthday. The film's cinematographer, Brody Anderson, graduated from the school in 2012. Anderson, whose credits include the award-winning "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" and Skyler's forthcoming feature documentary "This Side of Midnight," attended Sundance as part of the filmmaking team.

One of the jurors of this year's Short Film Program Competition is 2009 film and television alum Christina Oh. Oh most recently produced "Minari," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to receive six Academy Award nominations.

Also in attendance is casting director Eyde Belasco, who graduated from the school in 1991. Belasco is the casting director for many Sundance-selected feature films including "Sorry to Bother You," "The Words," "Like Crazy," "Pariah," "Here," "Lymelife," "Don't Let Me Drown" and "Half Nelson." Belasco has served as the West Coast casting director for the Sundance Institute Feature Film Lab for more than 25 years. Her 2011 film "Pariah," directed by Dee Rees, returns to the festival this year as part of a 40th anniversary celebration.

The Hanson FilmTV Institute was established in 2004 with a gift from Jack and Vivian Hanson as a place to provide students with practical, hands-on experience for careers in the film and television industry. The trip to Sundance embodies a commitment toward the Hansons' vision, Farrell said.

"We take the legacy of Jack and Vivian Hanson very seriously and programs like our student trip to Sundance are the perfect embodiment of their wishes for the institute to give our students tangible, hands-on experience and exceptional opportunities in the film industry," Farrell added.

The UArizona Sundance contingent will return to Tucson on Saturday. The festival ends on Sunday.

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