Inside USD

Students Get an Eyeful at Sundance Film Festival

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

sundance1Thirty shivering, exhilarated students. Ten independent movies in four days. Two professors. One experience of a lifetime. Taken as a whole? Priceless.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival marked the sixth year that USD professors Eric Pierson and Roger Pace have led a group of students during intersession to explore all that Park City’s most famous event has to offer. Attendees get lasting value out of the three-credit class when they follow instructions to “embrace the spirit of the festival,” says Pierson.

When the pair first conceived of the course, Pierson and Pace were looking for a way to spark their students and get them really excited about the art of film. “We wanted to create a film festival experience for them,” Pierson explains. “We can bring directors to campus to speak, but we wanted to give  them the sort of access to film that they couldn’t get on campus.”

Although he admits to initially being “scared of the idea of Sundance,” Pierson found out that in truth, it is a very user-friendly festival.

“While there’s a strong industry presence, it’s really for people who love film,” he says. It helped that when the two professors proposed the idea to (then) College of Arts and Sciences Dean Patrick Drinan, he was “extremely supportive.” The next thing they knew, Pierson and Pace were on their way to Park City, Utah with more than two dozen students in tow.

Of course, at first there were some kinks to be ironed out, such as making sure that the lodging provided was in the heart of the action, rather than a bus-ride away. Now that the trip’s logistics and details are well-established, Pierson and Pace can devote themselves to making sure that their students get the full benefit of the experience.

Not that it’s all celebrity sightings, popcorn and midnight screenings. In the days leading up to the festival, the students meet twice a day in a classroom provided right in their hotel. “They have homework the first day they get there,” Pierson explains. “But once the films start, we meet less frequently.” Required to view, critique and provide marketing and distribution plans for 10 films from a variety of categories, he’s found real benefits to exposing his students to all sorts of independent film. “They see the power of independent film and its place in the culture,” he says. “These sorts of films tend to deal with more marginalized groups of people and explore subjects that aren’t as comfortable for people to experience.”

In some ways, Pierson says that bad films are just as important to the learning process as gems. “You only get the full experience when you see a film you absolutely love and one you never, ever want to see again,” he says. “That’s part of the learning process, to ask, ‘What were they thinking? How did this get accepted to the festival?’”

Without exception, he says that students come back to campus energized and inspired. “They think, ‘I can do this,’” he says. “Often film is presented as an exclusive club, one where you have to know people, but at Sundance they can see people who had a vision and followed through.”

— Julene Snyder

To view a QuickTime slideshow of USD students at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, click here. (If you do not have QuickTime, download it here.) For a video made by student attendee Stephen Mariucci ‘11, click here.

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