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For fledgling filmmakers, ‘open screen’ cracks open the Hollywood dream

Why We Wrote This

The film industry is notoriously difficult to break into. But a practice that encourages new filmmakers to screen their films is opening the industry, at least a little, to newcomers.

Alvin Buyinza/The Christian Science Monitor
A man buys a ticket for an open screen event at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Mass., on June 12. Throughout much of the year, the Coolidge Corner Theater holds open screen nights every month, during which several movies, each under 10 minutes, are aired.

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Consider it an open mic night for filmmakers. By most accounts, the film industry is a dog-eat-dog world, in which connections rule and newcomers face a steep barrier to entry. A concept called open screen is changing that by inviting up-and-coming filmmakers to screen their short films to audiences at independent theaters across the country. Filmmakers are guaranteed an audience, and with it feedback that can help them hone their craft. In turn, audiences enjoy the cinematic version of a chocolate sampler box, a mix of interesting movie shorts, from documentaries about Antarctica to dramas about stolen art. In subtle ways, open screen is also changing the artistic process by allowing filmmakers to go out on a limb creatively. “It provides an inexpensive platform for experimentation,” says Ross Brown, program director for the MFA in writing and contemporary media at Antioch University in Santa Barbara, Calif., and “it opens the door for discovery of new voices and new talent.”

Of all the ingredients that go into a movie – actors, lighting, costumes – one isn’t guaranteed: an audience.  

But a concept called open screen is changing that by inviting up-and-coming filmmakers to screen their short films to test audiences at independent theaters across the country. Consider it an open mic night for filmmakers. Directors are guaranteed an audience, and with it, feedback that can help them hone their craft. 

“Open Screen benefits the filmmaker by simply providing them with a live audience,” Anthony Ruiz, co-programmer of open screen events at New York's Latin American Theater Experiment Associates (Teatro LATEA), writes in an e-mail. “A test audience gives the filmmaker an instant response that is invaluable. If they lean forward in their chairs, they're interested. If they shift around a lot or start looking around the theater, they're bored. You can't fool an audience.”

In subtle ways, open screen is also changing the artistic process. It enables fledgling filmmakers to screen their works – a lifelong dream for many – without the typical barriers, like entering a film festival. It also gives them an opportunity to go out on a limb, artistically, and receive almost immediate feedback on their choices.

This concept provides a valuable testing ground for new filmmakers and gives them opportunities to advance in the industry, says Ross Brown, program director for the MFA in writing and contemporary media at Antioch University in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It provides an inexpensive platform for experimentation,” says Professor Brown, and “it opens the door for discovery of new voices and new talent.”

That’s because open screen events especially help screenwriters who are just starting out. For example, Brown says a new writer can benefit from watching a scene he or she wrote that seems to go on and on. “You see an actor struggle with saying those words onscreen and you're going, 'Oh my God, why did I write all of that?' ” Brown says. 

Even experienced filmmakers benefit from feedback. “That’s the reason professional movie studios have previews and sometimes recut films after they’ve been previewed,” says Brown. He worked on “National Lampoon’s Vacation” as first assistant director, and notes that after test audiences reacted poorly to the ending, producers reshot it. 

How Main Street does open screen

Patrons looking for open screen events can typically find them at independent theaters, like the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass., which resumed monthly screenings after a summer break. Various movies, each under 10 minutes, are aired, giving audiences the cinematic version of a chocolate sampler box. At a June open screen night, the audience watched a documentary about Palmer Station, a US research base in Antarctica; a video featuring a Freddie Mercury action figure dancing; and a film about a stolen painting.

Frank Hegyi, a filmmaker who screened the documentary about Palmer Station, was happy with its reception. “It’s always cool to see how an audience reacts to stuff, like laugh[ing] at parts you didn’t expect,” Mr. Hegyi says. 

At The Bug Theatre in Denver, Facebook blasts, prizes, and themes – like Wild West and pirates – help draw about 40 people to each open screen event, held every other month. 

And New York’s Teatro LATEA shakes up its open screen events with a hot seat segment in which filmmakers take the stage after their film airs, and, blinded by a bright spotlight so they can’t see the audience, take questions and receive feedback. 

“The audience ... feels free to speak their minds,” Mr. Ruiz says. “And this can be invaluable to the filmmaker.”

By encouraging audience engagement, open screen events also engender a more dynamic, interactive film experience. While they are fun for audiences, they are especially important for aspiring filmmakers, says Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. 

“It’s always a valuable process, to screen in front of audiences who don’t know you and who don’t know in advance anything about your work,” says Professor Basinger.

In a competitive industry in which connections and name recognition often rule, open screen literally opens the screen, at least a little, to more people. 

“I certainly think that this is one more door that’s opened for new talent to display themselves and their work,” says Brown.

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