The names in the spotlight at the Ghetto Film School screening at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills on Monday weren't A-list director David O. Russell or actors like Chris Tucker and the evening's host, Max Greenfield. Instead, center stage belonged to director Niko Baur, writer Gillian Lyons, cinematographer Eugene Ko and production designer Joyous Herron, who joined comedian Larry Wilmore in a discussion following a screening of their film, Ghost of a Chance, shot in London last summer.
"It's a very special program and it's changed a lot of kids' lives," Russell, who has been involved with Ghetto Film School for 14 years, told The Hollywood Reporter. "Arts education is very important, and these kids have a very high rate of high school graduation, high rate of going to college, higher rate than any public high school in New York."
It begins every summer, with 30 to 40 students in New York and Los Angeles producing six-minute shorts, which are then voted on by fellow students and faculty. The finalists are presented at Lincoln Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, respectively, with three winners earning $1,000 scholarships. Attending regular high school during the fall and winter, they take classes at Ghetto Film School on weekends, writing screenplays running 15 to 20 pages. They then pitch their ideas for whatever position they prefer, be it director, cinematographer, production designer, etc. It's no surprise that this year nearly all of them hoped to direct, but it was Baur who won the honor of helming Lyons' screenplay.
"They opened it up after the table read, and you have David O. Russell and Lee Daniels asking these young writers difficult questions about their films," said Greenfield, who participated in a table read last year at Brett Ratner's home, where industry pros gave notes to the young filmmakers. Greenfield was so impressed with Lyons that he asked her to come by the writers room of his Fox show, New Girl. "All the writers loved her. She came back again and we've created an open-door policy."
In Ghost of a Chance, a talentless playwright passes off an undiscovered play by Shakespeare as his own. Unfortunately, the Bard's ghost haunts the production in the days leading up to opening night. "What inspired you to write such an accurate story of Hollywood narcissism and backstabbing?" Wilmore joked with Lyons.
"You can never predict what kids are going to be about," Russell noted. "Their stories are not all about the neighborhood. These are budding Steven Spielbergs."
Founded in the Bronx in 2000, with backing from the New York City Department of Education, GFS established its Los Angeles outpost in 2014 in MacArthur Park, serving 75 students with a 30-month college-level program undertaken on weekends and after school.
Support comes from public sources ranging from the city to the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as corporate donors like 21st Century Fox. Additional contributions come from James Murdoch and fellow board members Daniels and Russell. Lecturers include Harvey Weinstein, Spike Jonze, Jim Jarmusch, Sofia Coppola and Mark Wahlberg, who is also an advisory board member.
Past cities to host the school's International Thesis Project include Mexico City, Paris. Shanghai and Tokyo. Next year's film will be shot in Israel, and already students are meeting Israeli filmmakers and learning about the culture and politics of the region.
"All the skills you learn - problem-solving, improvisation, team work - I think there should be filmmaking classes in all the schools," said GFS founder and CEO Joe Hall.
Currently, more than 250 graduates of the program are working in film, TV and advertising. "If this is the future of our industry, we are in really good hands," Wilmore said at the end of the evening.