Schooled the Sundance way

In the film festival's hometown, a teacher's screenplay contest inspired some successful writing careers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Screenplays would have to be her hook. The students, especially the boys, couldn't be less interested in reading, let alone writing, in English class. So Bitsy Beall, a teacher at Treasure Mountain Middle School in Park City, Utah, turned to the town's world-famous Sundance Film Festival for help.

Ms. Beall rounded up funding from Robert Redford's Sundance Institute and persuaded her school to sponsor a screenwriting contest among the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders.

A professional television writer agreed to critique the students' one-act scenes. Contest winners attended the film festival and wrote reviews of the movies they liked best.

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Over the course of eight years, a host of Hollywood professionals - some well-known, some working behind the scenes - spoke to assemblies at the school about the importance of writing.

Among them was Robbie Benson, a writer, actor, and director from Park City, who told students how his role as the voice of the Beast in the Disney animated film "Beauty and the Beast" came to life because of the screenplay.

Writing allows people to turn negative experiences into something positive, Mr. Benson told the kids. For instance, if they wrote about a time when they felt intimidated by a bully, they could show what it felt like - and perhaps help turn some would-be bullies around.

Beall has found that when her students write fiction, some take advantage of the chance to confront issues they are afraid of, without letting people know the characters' stories reflect their own. Some years after entering the screenwriting contest, one student confessed to Beall that if it hadn't been for that creative outlet, he probably would have done something violent at school. (This young man is now an independent filmmaker.)

Another student said the contest allowed her to identify herself confidently as a writer for the first time. She's gone on to become a professional writer.

Beall's contest was cut from the school budget in 1998, but alumni success stories continue to trickle in.

The most recent involves the winner of the school's first contest - Enzo Mileti, then a seventh-grader who loved to read stories and listen to storytellers. "Stone Free," the screenplay he submitted, revolved around the world of Paco, a Latino teen whose brother is violently killed in a street gang fight.

Fast forward to last week's Sundance festival, where Mr. Mileti, now 26, gave a big hug to Beall at the first Sundance screening of a film made by High West Pictures, a company in California's San Fernando Valley that was founded by Mileti and four friends from Park City.

"PipeDreams" documents the Olympic aspirations of two Park City boys - Ricky Bower, a world champion snowboarder, and Joe Pack, a freestyle aerial skier who went on to win a silver medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

While tracing the turns each young man makes from "just having fun" to pursuit of the Olympic dream, the film gives audiences an "in your face" look at their respective sports. It also reveals the internal challenges the young men must overcome as family and friends urge them to "go for it."

Mileti's early interest in filmmaking was further nurtured by a high school teacher, Chris Maddux.

"I took his class in speech and debate, and later the communications class, where Chris let us borrow camera equipment and do whatever we wanted," Mileti says. "I shot an anti-hate public-service announcement, music videos, experimental films, and shorts. But he didn't give us an easy A. I had to really work hard for grades in his class, and I had respect for that."

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