This weekend will be the fourth annual Pens to Lens gala, featuring a full day’s worth of professionally-made films written by students in East-Central Illinois. Even after three years running, in a town where people will line up around the block to watch movies all day for five days straight, I hear folks express amazement when I advocate taking an entire Saturday to go to this film festival. In my experience, the creativity of a young imagination paired with the skills and vision of an experienced artist is a recipe for success. Seriously, just ask the guy who made Axe Cop a thing. With participants from CU Film Society, Champaign Movie Makers, support by CUDO, and additional guests from Chicago and Hollywood, this talent show is well worth a weekend investment. 

The day traditionally begins with a red-carpet press gala, complete with a step-and-repeat for the screenwriters, filmmakers and actors. Photographers crowd against a velvet rope and members of the press ask questions of the talent, young and old. Each screenwriter gets a copy of their professionally-designed film poster, created by a graphic designer volunteer in C-U’s Design Organization (CUDO), and they get to see their films on the big screen. Local directors, actors, producers, artists and designers all mill around talking with their new young friends and old partners. From their mission statement, Pens to Lens is seeking to “educate local youth about filmmaking”, and that certainly includes the recognition of a full-blown awards ceremony.

The gala is always split into two unique parts, with showings beginning at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. and no films repeated between them. In the past the split reflected the age groups, with younger winners being shown earlier and older later. In recent years, the first show has been plugged as “family friendly” and features films that have content appropriate for all ages of viewers, regardless of the age of its screenwriter. This year is the first time that the offshoot project, the Student Film Festival, has been open to students younger than high school, so these younger Festival winners will be screened at the 2 p.m. show.

(Thank you, Fluffystein, for the learning experience about age groups.)

Thanks to a local connection, a special Q&A panel with Brenda Chapman (director, Brave) and Kevin Lima (director, Enchanted) hosted by Matt Fagerholm (assistant editor, RogerEbert.com) will follow the earlier screening. Since Ms. Chapman has been working with the Grand Theatre in Lincoln, Illinois to hold a film festival there later in the fall, she heard about Pens to Lens and offered to give a talk. Mr. Fagerholm was already planning to attend in order to cover the event for RogerEbert.com, and faster than the internet, this festival went national.

After a dinner break and another short red-carpet session, the screenings will resume at 6 p.m. with the older-skewing films written by high school students, and the high-school winner from the Student Film Festival. The emcees of the events always feature local talent, and this year we will be guided from one film to the next by Cara Maurizi and Chris Taber, both of whom regularly appear in local films, local plays, PechaKucha, local classrooms, and often grace the articles of SP. They will not only introduce the films, but recognize the screenwriters, actors and producers. Both these ladies have been hilarious in recent roles, so I also expect some witty banter. (No pressure) Additionally, they will announce the winners of the writing awards given to quality scripts that were unable to be produced. Be prepared to applaud extensively, because there is a lot of talent and effort to recognize.

The hard work for these kids began at least eight months ago, if not more. In fact, at last year’s awards gala, one screenwriter told me she already had ideas for this year and would be writing and polishing until the deadline on February 29th. The film festival accepted submissions during the month of February only, but I’m sure several of these writers put a few months’ work into it before finally sending their scripts in. After that comes the process of reading, weeding, choosing and creating, which is all out of their hands. After a script is chosen, however, the young writer is often involved in some elements of the process, meeting with the directors and talent, sometimes even having a cameo in the film.

The process of choosing the films is nearly as arduous as writing them. Champaign Movie Makers access the scripts through private internet software that allows them to read, rate and request the ones they feel strongly about. According to Thomas Nicol, a festival organizer, this allows the best-rated scripts to get more attention, but it also highlights scripts that haven’t been read as often to make sure every entry gets a shot. “Each filmmaker has their own taste,” he explains, “and each year a number of scripts that don’t have high ratings are made into really fantastic shorts anyway.” The inverse is also true, he continues, “…there are also many really great scripts that aren’t shot for one reason or another, and that’s why we hand out writing awards in addition.”

Films in the past have covered every genre: spy thriller, fantasy, science fiction, horror, Oscarbait, caper movie, historical, slice-of-life. There have also been entries from every format: live-action, hand-drawn animation, real-time puppets, CGI, stop-motion puppets… erm, if you can think of another style, it has likely been done, check the past-years P2L youtube channel.

For the Student Film Festival winners, the workload is even heavier, because this competition requires that the films be produced after February 1st, 2014*. These entries must be written, directed, produced and acted by students who have completed grades K-12. Of course, the younger bracket (K-8th grade) is allowed to have adult assistance on the production side, but the rules explicitly state that all creative decisions must be made by the student. High School submissions must be entirely student-run. With a deadline of June 30th, that’s only four months to finish a five-minute film, a feat that sounds entirely epic from here.

In a way, the participation is the trophy, even still, the amount of hard work, focus, and follow-through exhibited by these 5-18 year olds definitely deserves some recognition. And as a community, we deserve a chance to see these quality films, and to show our support and appreciation to the next wave of creative laborers in our community.

So consider spending your Saturday, or just part of it, at the Pens to Lens 2016 Gala. If you’ve been to anything arts-related in C-U, you are sure to see someone you know. Tickets are free for anyone under 18, but adults have to pay $12 for a full day pass or $8 for one session, each beginning at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., available at the door or online. Get there at 1 p.m. for the red carpet, though, and catch a glimpse of tomorrow’s talent today.

The showcases will run as follows:

2 p.m.:

"The Search for Pizza" by Evan Unzicker, 4th Grade

"Burrito as a Pet" by Devante Derrickson, 8th Grade

"The Cody Chronicles: Murphy's Law" by John Nicol, 9th Grade

"Horrors" by Fred Scher, 5th Grade

"Wanda and Pickles Discover the Earth", Ella Kirwan, 8th Grade

"The Runaway Toilet" by Adrian Blume, 3rd Grade

"Bananas and Mr Snake's Big Adventure" by Caleb Wolters, 3rd Grade

"The Alarm Clock" by Nathan Lee, 2nd Grade

"Listen" by Ethan Grinberg, 8th Grade

"The End of the World" by Caleb Pyrz, Chase Vickers, Nik Johnson, and Brett Barcus, 8th Grade

Winners of the Student Film Festival: “The Weirder it Gets” by Rowan Fisher 3rd grade; “Flying Jedi” by Florence Lin, 5th grade

Q&A Panel featuring Brenda Chapman (director, Brave) and Kevin Lima (director, Enchanted) hosted by Matt Fagerholm

Dinner Break

6 p.m.:

"Bumps in the Night" by Madeline De Coste, 8th Grade

"The Goldfish" by Katarina Blakeslee, 11th Grade

"Love and Death" by Cameron Johnson, 11th Grade

"Fast Rodney, Who Was On His Way Out", by Gabriela DeLisle Diaz, 11th Grade

"The Potato Boy" by Shardale Negre and Kayla Gardner, 8th Grade

"The Star Prince" by Parker Evans, 10th Grade

"Lance Lawson: The Case of the of the Misplaced Politician" by Mitchell Flanagin, 12th Grade

"Hello Fear" by Autumn Ellis, 10th Grade

Winner of the Student Film Festival:  “Summer Daze” by Sarah Stelzer, 9th grade

Images from a variety of sources, mostly authorized, including photos by Scott Wells and Rebecca Knaur, logos by Matt Wiley, and a poster by CUDO volunteer Miriam Martincic. 

*an earlier edition of this article omitted the year "2014" from the paragraph about the Student Film Festival. Nicol submitted the correction, stating, "we want kids to know that they can submit other stuff they've made for other projects, and don't actually have to get a short together in just a few months (although I believe all of the entries this year did, which as you say, is super impressive!)." -- ed.