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ELA Film and Media Festival Draws Big Names, Big Crowd

The 16th annual Emerson Los Angeles Film & Media Festival, reimagined this year to celebrate the professional success of alumni, drew more than 200 people on Saturday, October 22. Attendees enjoyed a full day of film screenings, tech demonstrations, and panels featuring high-powered alumni. This year’s festival highlighted the professional work of alumni in film, television, and new media. 

Festival-goers mingle during the 16th annual Emerson LA Film & Media Festival. Photo/Daryl Paranada

“This year’s festival is a realization of all of my hopes for it in bringing alumni and current students together,” said Emerson LA (ELA) Founding Director Kevin Bright ’76. “It’s wonderful to celebrate our successes and unite over our common passions.”

Films such as the crime drama The Trust, directed by Ben Brewer ’10, and the Tribeca Best Documentary Award winner Do Not Resist, directed by Craig Atkinson MA ’08, were screened at the festival. In addition, four shorts directed by students Molly Benjaminson ’16; Hannah Engleson, MFA ’15; Sean Temple, MFA ’16; and Emily Pietro ’16 also played at the festival. Pietro was awarded the Marcia Robbins-Wilf ’71 Women in Film Production Award during the awards ceremony.

From left: Emily Pietro '16, Sean Temple 16, Hannah Engelson '15, and Molly Benjaminson '16. Photo/Daryl Paranada

“It feels great to be honored for hard work,” said Pietro, a freelance director who participated in the ELA program in the spring. “Being a woman can be hard. Being in film can be hard, so this award is very encouraging to me.”

One of the highlights at this year’s festival was a panel featuring legendary TV producer and writer Norman Lear ’44. Lear participated in a Q&A discussion with alumna Pam Abdy ’95 after a screening of the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, which chronicles the TV legend’s life and career.

Pam Abdy '95 and Norman Lear '44. Photo/Daryl Paranada

The 94-year-old, who is producing an all-Latino remake of his iconic comedy show One Day at a Time for Netflix, received a standing ovation when he entered the room. When asked how he has managed to stay relevant for so many years, Lear said he feels himself “to be the peer of whoever I’m talking to,” and referenced groundbreaking shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons, which brought black families to primetime television. 

“I wasn’t black. [Others] handled the patina,” said Lear. “I knew what it meant to be a human being in relation to other human beings. That’s how I feel about young people—I know where they’re coming from as human beings, not 24-year-olds.”

Norman Lear '44 discusses his career with Pam Abdy '95. Photo/Daryl Paranada

Another popular panel at the festival was “The Hit Makers of AMC,” featuring some of the network’s biggest names. AMC President of Programming Joel Stillerman ’84, Preacher showrunner Sam Catlin, The Walking Dead showrunner Scott Gimple, and The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead creator and executive producer Robert Kirkman joined Bright for a discussion on the evolution of AMC Television as a network and the creation of its biggest hits. When asked for advice from a student about how to navigate the industry, Stillerman said you have to keep the faith.

ELA Founding Director Kevin Bright '76 interviews hit makers of AMC. From left: Bright, Sam Catlin, Robert Kirkman, Scott Gimple, and Joel Stillerman '84. Photo/Daryl Paranada

“The industry really does want to find you,” said Stillerman, who described his time at Emerson as a transformational moment in his life. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but there are points of connection.”

During a curated program hosted by the LA EBONI Alumni Association, narrative and nonfiction shorts and clips showcasing Emerson’s filmmakers of color throughout the decades were screened. The program featured work from a former faculty member, alumni, and current ELA students.

Filmmakers featured in the LA EBONI Alumni Association's curated film program prepare to speak to the crowd about their films. From left: Taylor Jett '16, Betyel Kahsai '16, Theresa Nelson '16, and William Okuwah Garrett '80 with panel moderator Brent Jennings '74. Photo/Daryl Paranada

“I was super nervous about having my film shown,” said Theresa Nelson ’16, a current ELA student whose short was featured during the program. “It was cool to see how each film highlighted some social issue; we just did it in different ways.”

ELA student Jess Morse '16 and Zach Kornfeld '12. Photo/Daryl Paranada

During the “Film Festivals: What’s the Secret?” panel, programmers from top film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Bentonville Film Festival, along with successful alumni filmmakers, shared tips on how films can win the elusive festival lottery in a discussion moderated by faculty member Julian Higgins, MFA ’11. Other panels at the festival included “Just Try… A Conversation with Zach Korenfeld ’12,” of BuzzFeed’s “Try Guys,” who discussed his journey from Emerson College to new media star, and “Music Video Makers” featuring directors Ethan Lader ’02, Ben Brewer ’10, and Ben Fee ’04. The directors discussed their careers in a talk with faculty member Laurel Westrup and offered advice to aspiring filmmakers in the room.  

From left: Ethan Lader '02, Ben Fee '04, Ben Brewer '10. Photo/Daryl Paranada

“Try something different. You’re going to be the person who pushes yourself the most,” said Lader, who has directed videos for artists such as Mariah Carey and Bruno Mars. “The most important thing I have on set is my brain.”

During the awards ceremony, Bright was honored with the special announcement of an annual fund to help provide financial assistance to students wishing to experience ELA. President Lee Pelton and Emerson Trustee Steve Samuels surprised Bright with video tributes attesting to his strong leadership in helping to open the ELA building and devotion to Emerson students, as well as his work with the Perkins School for the Blind. Pelton announced that future recipients of the funds would be known as the Kevin Bright Scholars.

ELA Founding Director Kevin Bright '76 with ELA's Chief Financial Affairs and Operating Officer Joyce Williams and Director of West Coast Develpoment Patrick Smith. Photo/Daryl Paranada

The evening ended with Emersonians partying the night away. Posters adorning the building—of successes from the past year—were a reminder to festivalgoers of the depth of talent at Emerson. 

“I couldn’t be prouder,” said Bright. “Emerson is going to continue to be an incredible part of my life.”