Spy Hop Productions to mark 20th anniversary of PitchNic with Nov. 3 premiere of four student-produced short films

PitchNic, one of Spy Hop Productions’ signature programs,is marking its 20th anniversary this year and is doing so in the manner it knows best, with young Utah filmmakers making their creative debuts in impressive fashion.

In its two decades, the PitchNic film program at Spy Hop Productions has succeeded because student filmmakers first learn the rules of crafting a good narrative for a short film, whether it is fiction or a documentary piece, and then learn how to break them, as needed, to serve their artistic purposes. One important lifelong lesson for students is the instrumental value of pushing their creative and perceptive boundaries to find their ideal voices as a filmmaker. The premiere of four new PitchNic shorts will take place on Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. A public reception will be held in the lobby, starting at 6 p.m.

PitchNic starts with students mastering the art of pitching compelling story ideas for their projects. Students in PitchNic know they have a high bar of quality to vault, especially as they screen and critique the films of their predecessors. The students pitch the final projects to the public for funding during the annual spring benefit for Spy Hop. They spend the summer and early fall shooting, editing and completing a polished short film. It is at that point when all of the students, regardless of whatever project they are working on bond and support each other. Perseverance also is one of Spy Hop Productions’ most cherished values. In the year-long program, they experience many of the same barriers and problems professionals in the movie industry confront continuously in their work.

A solid legacy

Many PitchNic filmmakers also enjoy the fruits of their dedication, even when it occasionally represents among the most stressful experiences they have encountered. Nearly 95 percent of the PitchNic films have thrived in film festivals and have garnered numerous awards over the years. Sown (directed by Calvin Mumm), about how students’ lives have been affected by years of gun violence in schools, won best doc honors at the All-American High School Film Festival in 2020 and was selected for DOCNYC that year as well. Miguelito (2018, directed by Steven Uribe), the first bilingual fictional narrative in PitchNic history, was a finalist for the student division of the Utah Short Film of the Year juried competition at the Utah Arts Festival. Meanwhile, Sanguine, a 2018 short documentary about two chronically ill children who focus on the pleasures, joys and hobbies that young people enjoy, earned Cade Langsdon a finalist nomination as best director at the Midnight Film Festival in New York City. 

Native (directed by Isaiah Woods), a 2017 PitchNic film, screened at the California’s American Indian and Indigenous Film Festival in San Marcos. The film returned for a second time as a feature at the SFO Museum’s Fly and Explore Video Arts exhibit in the international terminal hall at the San Francisco International Airport. Native also screened on UNC Charlotte TV. Six films from the PitchNic and Reel Stories program screened at the All American High School Film Festival in Harriman, New York. PitchNic short films are professionally polished and ready for festivals, thanks in part to the extensive working relationship Spy Hop has sustained with Redman Movies and Stories in Salt Lake City, which provides production gear. Films from the 2015 class had an outstanding festival run. By The Hour and A Wealthy Diagnosis – screened at the International Family Film Festival in Los Angeles and the latter film won that festival’s award as best documentary as a short film. Relativity, an outstanding narrative also from 2015, was screened at the 2016 Super International Teenager Film Festival in Romania, while On The Outside, from 2015, was screened at the Tower of Youth Film Festival in Carmichael, California.

When a team of students (Alex Mack, director; Chad Benton, cinematographer) premiered their short documentary Mother Superior in 2005, filmmaker and producer Ken Verdoia arranged for its broadcast on KUED, the PBS television station based at The University of Utah. To illustrate the extent of the meth epidemic in Salt Lake City – which ranked third in the nation at the time for meth use among women – the students followed the stories of mothers who were addicted. The students did not distill nor sanitize images showing the damage of sustained drug abuse, as shown in one particular scene filmed in a dentist’s office. The film attracted local and national attention. Salt Lake City police used it for educational programs about drug abuse. The film was accepted for the juried Los Angeles Film Festival, indicative of the strong quality for which impassioned mentors and students were capable.

Mother Superior set the bar for other outstanding short documentary films of broad civic engagement, including the 2011 Even Handed (Samantha Highsmith & Gabriella Huggins). The film screened at festivals across the country and won numerous honors including best documentary from Westport Youth Film Festival and recognition from the United Nations Plural + Festival. Even Handed explored why a straight teen believes it is important to advocate for gay rights.

Many Spy Hop alumni from the organization’s film programs have advanced to major industry careers. Erika Cohn, who was a student in the 2005-2006 term, has won Peabody and Emmy awards for her work in documentaries. She directed and produced The Judge, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 and co-directed and produced In Football We Trust, which premiered in 2015 at Sundance and the Emmy Award winning Belly of the Beast, a film about four women and the injustices they encounter in exercising their reproductive rights.

The 2022 Class

This year, one objective Jose ‘Pepe’ Manzo, a mentor, has worked toward when guiding PitchNic students who are working on narrative short films is to focus on telling a story in as concise a timeframe as possible. Short narrative films that run under 10 minutes, and ideally, seven or eight minutes, are more likely to be slotted in a festival’s short films slate than if they run longer, such as 20 minutes or even longer.

Both narrative shorts in the 2022 slate this year appear to emphasize how students have matured in telling concise, complete fictional stories within a matter of several minutes, even as ambitious as the young filmmakers were in selecting among the largest casts ever featured in a PitchNic narrative short and one film which was shot in a half dozen locations. “This year was a good lesson in how to get better shots and leverage the economy of shots for visual impact,” Manzo says.

The Young Men’s Guide to Bloodsucking is a coming-of-age horror comedy in which the main character is about to set off on his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) mission. However, he is about to reveal that not only is he gay but he also is a vampire. Manzo says the team wanted to go for a “genre buster” in a story that seems to have been inspired by the sort of cinematic vibe popular in the late 1970s. Written and directed by Max Rhineer, 18, a University of Utah student, the creative team included producer Noah Thomas, 17, a Wasatch High School student and director of photography Conrad Porter, 18, a University of Utah student. 

Rhineer says the story was inspired by a variety of sources he has enjoyed, including the Dracula legacy, the Netflix supernatural miniseries Midnight Mass and the vampire character in the popular Dungeons and Dragons game. Mormonism was something Rhineer already knew so this amalgam coalesced eventually into the script for the short film. The initial version had to be trimmed a lot, as Rhineer came with a 30-page screenplay but it was honed to less than half of the original length.

The filmmakers were resourceful, managing to secure locations including Capitol Park near the State Capitol in Salt Lake City’s northern downtown area and the satisfying coup of shooting a pivotal scene inside an LDS ward chapel with enough extras to give the sense of a large congregation. “This was one of the most intense shoots I’ve seen since becoming a mentor,” Manzo says. As producer, Thomas echoes Manzo’s words, adding that “it was stressful because we had to budget for the extras but thanks to Max [Rhineer], some did it for free. And, we could not have done it without some of the parents paying for and making food for everyone involved.” Porter adds that the four days of shooting were among the “most stressful I have ever experienced but they also were the greatest days of my life so far.”

Meanwhile, the companion coming-of-age narrative short The Drowning of a Man-Boy had the challenge of weaving layers of realistic story elements into its own concise, cogent package. Directed by Erin Stotts and produced by Cecilia O’Brien, 16, who is a student at Utah Online School, the film’s creative team also features Julia Roller, 18, who is attending Utah Tech University, as director of photography and Lamis Shaikh, 19, a Weber State University senior, as production designer. The protagonist is a teen who is about to set off to college but has had difficult times relating to his parents. Meanwhile, his mother has learned that she has a medical condition which likely will be terminal. Paralyzed about the whole transition to adulthood, he retreats deeper into the escapism of video games. 

Besides extensive script revisions, O’Brien says the production experience helped them deal with many realities of filmmaking. “One stress was finding a new home for a location of a scene after the owner of the original location came down with COVID,” she says. Shaikh, who aspires to become screenwriter and director, says the experience of working as a production designer was more satisfying than what she expected. “For one dinner scene, I had to make sure that the food looked realistic and that every detail also fit within the costs of the budget we had,” she recalls. 

“Often when students pitch their ideas for films, they have good stories but they sometimes are better suited to a feature-length narrative,” Manzo says. “Here, the team had to do a lot of trimming and rewriting but they also learned about what it means to be purposeful in making their film. Along the way, they learned to be thoughtful about why they are getting a specific shot and the detail they needed to show.”

Amanda Madden, the PitchNic documentary mentor, faced the same challenges with the pair of student documentary teams. Hidden Pride comprises almost entirely soundstage interviews with queer students from Brigham Young University and how they cope with the challenges of balancing their identities with their education and campus activities. Madden says the team did an excellent job in capturing many different stories along the queer spectrum as well as learning how to share stories without them seeming disjointed or gratuitous while also making those who decide to appear anonymously on camera as comfortable as possible. 

The film was conceived and directed by Fletcher Gibbons, 20 and was produced by Maryssa Straw, 19, both Utah Valley University students. Gibbons says the idea came from the experience of their girlfriend, who is attending BYU but while her parents know and accept her sexual identity, she has kept it secret from her roommates for fear of losing her housing or ecclesiastical LDS endorsement. Gibbons, who identifies as an atheist, says it was an opportunity to step back and find out and hear what other queer students at BYU had to say about how they dealt with similar issues. 

Gibbons adds that it was heartening for the filmmakers as well as the students featured in the short doc to realize that they do not “have  to feel so alone and that there is a community where they can find trust.” Same-Sex Attracted, a widely distributed and released documentary from 2020, highlighted LGTBQ+ students at BYU, and questions about how they balance faith with the requirements of the school’s honor code. But, this most recent account in its short documentary form focuses on the challenges BYU students face after a 2021 speech by former BYU Jeffrey Holland, who also is a senior LDS apostle, in which he called upon church members to uphold LDS teachings targeting the social dangers of same-sex relationships and marriages. In Hidden Pride, the subjects talk about the difficult realities of finding a support system but also of their desires to stay at the school as well as remain committed to their faith, at least for the moment. Their answers might surprise viewers who wonder why students do not just leave BYU if they don’t feel that they are welcome there or why they cannot express their queer identities freely and truthfully. 

Just as sensitive in treatment is Queen Bees, which Madden says became a “passion project” for a high school filmmaker who is fascinated by the art of the drag performer. Credited with the concept is director Riley Nickel, 16, a junior who is graduating early from Jordan High School. Eleanor Condie, 15, of Olympus High School, is producer. Nickel became a fan six years ago, thanks to watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race reality television competition, and then was hooked when she saw drag performers at Utah Pride festivals.

The biggest logistical hurdle for Nickel and Condie was to shoot a documentary with performers whose shows typically are in clubs, which only allow patrons 21 and older. Condie says that she knew very little about the local drag scene but Nickel gave her a quick education. They went to Instagram and found a pool of 12 possible subjects. After a screening process with interviews, the student filmmakers settled on three established drag performers in the community along with a 15-year-old student who is just entering the drag scene and hopes to become a performer. “The students wanted to make a film to help clear up misconceptions and myths about why some people enjoy performing in drag,” Madden explains, adding that the film does have “a stylized, glamorous look.” 

Condie says that she was impressed by how supportive the performers were of each other and it was her school friend, Charlie, who became the fourth subject, to represent the next generation of drag performers waiting patiently in the wings to step onto the stage. Nickel says the experience reaffirmed her love of the art of the drag performer. “The scene is really about how strong the local community is,” she adds. 

The documentary students had a lot of footage to edit and trim down to the short film format. The Hidden Pride team had seven hours of interview footage to condense, for example. Madden says that Hidden Pride and Queen Bees were great platforms to let students appreciate the ethics of documentary filmmaking on topics they already admire enthusiastically. 

For tickets and more information about the PitchNic premiere including a reception prior to the premiere, see the Spy Hop website

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