Third annual NXT UP Fest put a spotlight on the year’s best films and students’ commitment to ‘fighting to get your vision’
By Cristina Schreil
In the opulent Brava Theater, a historic reminder of eras past in the heart of the Mission, Academy of Art University’s School of Motion Pictures & Television (MPT) looked forward, hailing the next generation of filmmakers.
The awards ceremony for the third annual NXT Up Festival—celebrating the recent work of students in the Schools of Motion Pictures & Television (MPT), Acting (ACT), and Writing for Film, Television, & Visual Media (WRI)—took place Friday, May 3. A celebration mimicking the Academy Awards, faculty presented accolades in 18 categories.
Encouragement and support resonated from the evening’s start, which Executive Director of the Schools of Entertainment (ACT, MPT, WRI) Jana Memel kicked off with MPT Director Randy Levinson. “You are all incredibly talented, brave, innovative artists and we’re really lucky to have you as our students,” Memel said from the Brava’s stage to a large audience. She also spotlighted NXT Up’s “fearless leaders,” MPT Production & Post-production Operations Manager Lia Garcia and Academic Vice President of Entertainment & Broadcast Media Melissa Sydeman, for their work in spearheading the festival.
As in years past, the event announced the 2019 winners and commended all students for their efforts to grow as storytellers and follow their passions, no matter the sacrifices.
“It takes a lot of time, it takes working two jobs, for some of you it takes defying the situations you were raised under to say, ‘I’m an artist.’ And, it takes exposing yourself every single day,” said Memel. “I’m so proud of everything you do. It’s amazing, amazing, amazing work.”
It was the second year in a row that industry professionals and faculty weighed in as judges. The professional judges included guests who spoke at a NXT Up panel talk that afternoon: production designer Michael Goldman (“Iron Man,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp”), producers Stephen Nemeth (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”) and Andrew Muscato (“The Zen of Bobby V.”) and cinematographer Hiro Narita (“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”).
Students were also able to vote in three Audience Choice awards, judging Best Short Film, Best Long-Form Film, and Best Acting Performance.
“It’s an interesting thing as an actor and a teacher and then in a learning environment to set things up as ‘best,’” Damon Sperber, ACT director, said at the pre-ceremony reception at the Brava Cabaret. “The way that I spin it, though, is that part of what we do as artists is that we want to be recognized … one constant is to be recognized for the effort, commitment and passion that you bring, both to the craft as a career or to a specific performance.”
Sperber was one of several instructors that evening who echoed this sentiment. Another moment was right before the award for Best Director (Over 12 minutes). “I think it’s really important to not have the final judge be from outside,” said Jack Perez, lead directing faculty in MPT. “You know whether your stuff is any good or not, regardless of whether you win or have been in any festival.”
The night’s biggest winner was “Vincent,” a film about an introverted artist who forms a bond with an affable waitress. It took home six awards, including Best Picture (Over 12 minutes). “Vincent” was also part of two ties: for Best Editing, along with the film “Patrick,” and for Best Picture, joining “Carma.”
“Not for Comedy,” a short directed by Liv Li about a comedian’s return to stand-up after his husband’s death, nabbed four awards, including Best Picture (Under 12 minutes) and Best Performance by actor Mario Mazzetti.
As is typical of past years, a portion of the event also paid tribute to a faculty member. This year’s was instructor Paula Lima. Clips of students and faculty praising her guidance played onscreen before Lima, shocked and teary at the tribute, went onstage. “You guys are an inspiration to me every day, all of you,” she said, acknowledging coworkers and students.
Love for building worlds and characters—through imagination, grit, and teamwork—resonated in several clips and acceptance speeches. Students not only thanked instructors, colleagues, friends, and family but also shared some struggles and challenges while plotting the course.
“Three years ago, when I first came here, I kind of quit directing because I felt, ‘I’m not good enough to be a director’ … I doubted myself,” shared M.F.A. student Sunhee Na, who won Best Director (Over 12 minutes) for the dark and gritty “Carma.” She added that encouragement from Memel was pivotal. “I changed my major to shoot this film and I’m here today.”