(May 6-8, 2011 in San Francisco, California) The stage of the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco has always had a very special place in my heart. It was on the boards of this fine establishment, during a late show of Stomp, where I was discovered and my film career jump-started. I remember the calf-building walks up the street to my apartment after those late shows at the Golden Gate. Whilst walking and cursing Pythagoras for convincing engineers there’s a formula to build streets on a hypoteneuse, I would often pass the red and white logo of the Academy of Art University. Thus, when asked to review the Epidemic Film Festival hosted by the Academy of Art University at the Golden Gate Theatre, the romantic in me had to oblige.
Now, a five-hour night of student films doesn’t have as attractive a ring to it as, say, a five-hour night of not student films. Not to mention naming your festival “The Epidemic” conjures up the idea of an experience with the same name. But, like all black men in this business of show, I understand that giving back to the places where you started ups the street cred quotient, and the Golden Gate has never let me down in the past. I was pleased to discover that the Epidemic Film Festival is the hidden gem of the Academy of Art University. I would go so far as to suggest to all film festivals that they find the worst name you can to describe your event, and like Epidemic, it would be code for a night of huge entertainment value, immense talent, and potential greatness.
On the way in to the city, in an Academy of Art University van, I was joined by some faculty of the school. Being the curious, non-threatening American that I am, I enquired about the origins of this film festival with the uninviting name. As legend has it, the film school already had a festival. Much to the chagrin of the underclassmen, the festival was exclusive to the upper class and graduate students. The underclassmen felt a bit slighted by this archaic stipulation and decided to turn activist. They created their own film festival. With sage-like foresight, they named her ‘Epidemic’ with the belief that, once she was a float, her popularity would spread through the school like (say it with me…) an Epidemic. They were right. So right that the Motion Picture and Television department abandoned their film festival and adopted Epidemic to represent the entire school.
Within ten seconds upon entry to the meet-and-greet part of the night, there was a drink in my hand. A tasty beverage coupled with my old friend the Golden Gate put me in a great mood to check out some student flicks. At events like this one, I try to stay as incognegro as possible. Unfortunately, I was outed as an actor by one of the well-informed faculty, and escorted to a table of Best Actress nominees hungry for the skinny on life in the H to the WOOD. Deanna Gandy, Brynn Ann Kerin, and Wei Ren all exuded an optimism that I fondly remember having as a young “take on the world-er.” All three had very insightful questions about the logistics of being an actor in Hollywood, as well as being very easy on the eyes. There was an energy at this festival that was delightfully infectious, and I wasn’t even drunk yet. The crowd was then herded into the theatre, and the show was on the road.
The festival began with the University honoring film legends Roger Corman and Eva Marie Saint. They both received their Doctorate awards with an eloquence and grace that is rarely seen anywhere south of Alcatraz. Their speeches not only encouraged, but instructed and inspired.
The main event for the night -- the film screenings -- showed an incredible range of talent. From the documentary A Float, about a young circus performer trying to find her place as an artist, to the hilarious romantic comedy For Rent, about a young, lovable kleptomaniac, to my favorite, Angelito, a heartfelt drama about a woman from Latin America whose job as a caregiver is tested by a very spoiled young boy.
For a complete list of the festival winners, click here.
Great Scott! These are student films? How did they get Roger Corman and Eva Marie Saint to a seemingly obscure film school in the Bay? How is it I’ve just discovered this place? How do they keep refreshing my drink without me seeing? The big picture is not just in the Epidemic Film Festival. There’s something special growing at the Academy of Art University.
Richard S. Stephens founded the Academy of Art University in 1929. Stephens, a fine artist and art director, started the University in a loft on Kearny Street to teach advertising art. He believed the best education for an artist comes from those who are professionals in the field. This philosophy is the foundation that became the largest private art and design university in the nation. His granddaughter, President Elisa Stephens, keeps the spirit of Richard S. Stephens alive. President Stephens’ goal was to raise the awareness of the school so it may attract the type of students and faculty true to her grandfather’s vision. Enter one Ms. Diane Baker.
If you do a search for the Emmy-nominated Diane Baker, you’d find that she’s touched every facet of the entertainment business. She‘s an actress of the highest caliber, a Producer, a Filmmaker, and now the Executive Director of the Motion Picture and Television Dept. of A.A.U. Her relationships with the motion picture community in Hollywood are responsible for attracting folks like Roger Corman and Eva Mare Saint to the University. These relationships provide an invaluable wealth of information that’s given to the students through her handpicked faculty. In a conversation with Producer and A.A.U professor Simon Edery, it’s Diane’s passion for making the A.A.U. film school world class that brings talent through the doors.
Here’s the good part: What makes The Academy of Art University the ninja film school is its online degree program. You can attend A.A.U. from anywhere in the world. That means if you want the benefit of Roger Corman explaining the values of text and subtext, or the ability to ask the beautiful Eva Marie Saint a question on an actor's longevity (which they both explained at their panel discussion on day two of the festival), you can do it from China. Any degree with that type of flexibility, credentialed gravitas, and expertise is worth its weight in Oscar gold. There are literally no limits to getting an A.A.U. education.
The Epidemic Film Festival contained some really exceptional work. The level of talent is a testament to the world-class guidance that President Stephens, Diane Baker, and the entire faculty at A.A.U. instill in the young minds of its students. Congratulations to all the festival nominees and the winners for an inspiring evening. The Golden Gate Theatre has always been a magical venue for me. I guarantee, after this festival, I will not be the only one I know discovered on that stage.