By Nick Velonis
From the Intern Desk
It's 9:27 and I skipped breakfast. My bus to Carnegie Mellon is turning out to be a mirage on the crumpled Port Authority bus schedule in my coat pocket. I hold on to the straps of my backpack. That disheveled blur, sprinting down Forbes Avenue. That's me. Your Friendly Steeltown Intern.
I'm five minutes late but everybody is all smiles at CMU's Purnell Center for the Arts. On the stage in front of hundreds of soon to be filled seats, I pull a tablecloth taut across some collapsible tables transforming them from church basement relics to judges' quarters. From here a panel of entertainment insiders will evaluate the three finalists of the Steeltown Film Factory. The winner will receive $30,000 and priceless guidance to see his or her vision through to the big screen.
I've watched the contest as the pool has narrowed from 256 scripts to three contestants across the rounds of competition. The contestants' scripts have tightened and their production plans have slowly become more and more feasible. Today Carnegie Mellon Theater students will make the contestants vision a reality for a brief moment on stage, and hopefully earn them a step towards a life on screen.
The power of the contest is in the dialogue between the contestants and the judges. Each round has brought a new panel, their advice ranging from thoughtful and sensitive to acerbic but honest. The judges for this round have a formidable rap-sheet of credentials with Steeltown co-founder Maxine Lapiduss (Writer/Producer, Roseanne, Ellen) joining her sister Sally Lapiduss (Writer/Producer, Hannah Montanta, Family Matters, Mad About You) as well as producers Youree Henley (Somewhere, The Bling Ring) and Michael Killen (Blood Brother, Co-founder of Animal VFX Company).
There is a sense of envy and excitement as the audience shuffles in, slowly filling the auditorium. Upstairs the contestants and their cast make last minute preparations for their stage performance. The actors down casks of coffee and snack on the food available in each rehearsal room. The three remaining contestants shuffle through pages of script, plastered with cryptic last minute notes. None of them have time for coffee. A different energy is already coursing through them and they appear torn between panic and lucidity but all three are quiet and candid when they aren't exchanging with the actors. They have a story to tell us and their concentration seems fixed on channeling it through their actors.
It's hard not to write about it with some whimsy but the competition is a mix of fantasy and harsh reality. All the contestants muse on their stories, the changes they have made and the way they will execute for the camera. The actors bring it to life. I'm really, really hungry. The audience cheers and whoops. Each performance ends. The judges explain their concerns with a genuine attention to detail and thoughtfulness that resembles creative input where others may have scrutinized. The stage goes black for a short film remembering Ellen Weiss Kander, one of the founders of the Steeltown Entertainment Project. I never met her. She passed away before I started interning at Steeltown. But I know her. She looks just like my Mom and as the auditorium empties for intermission, there is a collective exhale.
I sneak upstairs to the rehearsal rooms to look for something to eat. Everyone else is downstairs waiting for the judges to return with their decision. I find three pristine, unopened sandwiches in the midst of crumb littered wrappers and plates. My hunger slips away. The contestants are going to need these sandwiches more than I am. They've got movies to make.