Over the weekend, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that hands out the Oscars, turned up at a screening taking place during the South by Southwest Conference in Austin.
In and of itself, the appearance wasn’t a surprise; as part of her official duties, Isaacs attends a great many deal of film festivals. But, it was telling. She was here to support and lend some gravitas to a fledgling program sponsored by Giorgio Armani that showcases the work of young filmmakers. As part of the so-called "Films of City Frames" program, students enrolled at film schools, abroad but also in the United States, get a real budget so they can hire a real crew and shoot an original short of their own. For the filmmakers, it’s not too often they get that kind of creative license handed to them.
“It’s wonderful to have a budget!” Isaacs said. “And that there are companies that get behind this sort of program.”
Six film students, from ages 21 to 30, hailing from five schools—in Tel Aviv; Prague; Boston; Beijing; and Ludwigsburg, Germany—participated in the program this year, while the Oscar nominee (Lion) Dev Patel, 26, worked as a counselor and sounding board before the films were screened.
“The first time I saw them, I was so impressed all of them had a unique fingerprint, even though everyone had the same concept,” Patel said. “Mentoring doesn’t really sit well with me because I feel like a peer. I’m looking forward to having a drink with these guys and conversing about film.”
Armani, which has a long history with film going back to Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, for which the designer provided the wardrobe, began the program three years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has since traveled with it to the BFA London Film Festival and now here, to SXSW.
It is not alone among fashion labels in working constructively with the film industry. In fact, in recent years, European luxury houses—which routinely align themselves strategically with festivals, film or otherwise, of all stripes—have moved beyond dressing the latest starlets on the red carpet by having some proverbial skin in the game. For instance, Chanel works with Through Her Lens: The Tribeca Chanel Women’s Filmmaker Program, which supports up and coming female American filmmakers. And, Gucci supports the Tribeca Documentary Fund, which focuses on feature-length documentaries of social importance.
For a label with the image savvy of Armani, getting in bed with young filmmakers early on is about much more than playing lip service to the arts. It’s one way to discover emerging talent.
“It allows us to see their ideas in the movies and to see their perception of the brand,” said the designer’s niece, Roberta Armani. The designer himself, by the way, is also involved in the process: “Each time we had a meeting with my uncle, he’d say, ‘No change this music, or do that;’ it’s interesting to see how they’ve changed. He has opinions about everything, always. So it’s interesting to see the evolution of the films,” Armani recalled.
The main creative challenge for the filmmakers is crafting a piece that, while incorporating the “Frames of Life” eyewear collection, won’t feel like a glorified commercial.
“I have very strong opinions on filmmaking, and even from the first day I said, we’re not making a commercial,” said the Brit, Luca Infante, 21, a student at the Beijing Film Academy whose film was a meta Wong Kar-wai-inspired story of unreciprocated love between a director and his star. “The last couple of 'Frames for Life' were really about creating a commercial and maybe getting some expression from the director. This year Armani really gave us the range and allowed us to say something,” Infante continued. (Armani works on the project with the Italian distributor and production company Rai Cinema and Luxottica, which licenses the label’s various eyewear collections.)
Among the other students—Luis Mejias and Luke Zvara (Emerson College); Luzie Loose (Film Academy Baden-Württemberg); Ran Li (Prague Film School)—Dmitry Konoplov, 30, of the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television in Tel Aviv, was a crowd favorite at the Austin screening. His short, involving a hapless young lawyer who must go through all sorts of misadventures and pitfalls in rush hour traffic to retrieve key evidence (a pair of sunglasses, natch), was his most ambitious in a brief career. “In this film, I did things I hadn’t done before before because I never had so much money,” he said. “You can tell he’s built for comedy,” Patel said of Konoplov. “It’s such a tight piece of work, I can see him having a wonderful future. He reminded me of Wes Anderson.”
The actor said it might be a fertile time for young filmmakers because producing work doesn’t necessarily require studio input or having an agent (though, “agents are very helpful”). “The internet has made it so much easier to put content out there to a very wide audience,” Patel said.
Surprisingly, Infante and Konoplov don’t harbor any ambitions of storming Hollywood; they want to stay and work in their countries.
“Why would you want to continue pushing something in Hollywood when you can start something new in China? Infante said. “I’m here because I want to be part of some new film generation.”
The 2017 shorts can be streamed here.
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