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MEIM Faculty, Alumni, and Students Make a Splash at Sundance 2017

By Scott Barsotti

The Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah is one of the film industry’s biggest annual events.

Heinz College’s Master of Entertainment Industry Management (MEIM), a joint program with Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Fine Arts, takes students to Sundance every year in its role as a Sundance Institute Associate. MEIM students get a glimpse of the buzz and the business behind the festival, sit in on some impactful panels and seminars, meet major industry players, and of course, check out some amazing films.

“No matter how much you teach acquisitions and distribution, being at the festival highlights how deals are put together and how relationships in the business are made for the students. That’s why we go to Sundance and South by Southwest (SXSW) every year,” said Dan Green, director of the MEIM program.

This year, Heinz College is proud to report that some of festival’s hottest entries were projects produced by MEIM alumni and faculty, and other members of the CMU family.

MEIM faculty member's hard-hitting drama lands a big deal and a major award

Crown Heights, executive produced by MEIM faculty member Jonathan Baker, is a feature film that tells the true story of a young man named Colin Warner (played by Lakeith Stanfield) who is wrongfully convicted of murder, and his friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) who labors for over twenty years to clear his name. Crown Heights was sold at Sundance to Amazon Studios for over $2 million and will be released in theaters this fall.

“We were very aware in our own strategy about [which distributor] would be the perfect fit. And that was Amazon…they made an impassioned case about the film and its message,” said Baker.

Crown Heights was a breakout success at the festival, not only scoring the deal with Amazon but also nabbing the coveted Audience Award in the US Dramatic category.

“It’s an incredible blessing to have the festival audience endorse the message of the movie. We as filmmakers couldn’t ask for more than that,” said Baker.

Baker and Asomugha, long-time friends and collaborators, formed their production company Iam21 Entertainment to support stories about social justice. Another film at Sundance and SXSW this year is the short documentary Waiting for Hassana, which focuses on the 2014 schoolgirl abductions in Chibok, Nigeria. Iam21 looks for stories that have a message to help build a call-to-action campaign.

“[Crown Heights] has the potential to bring the story of these men to the forefront of the political discussion. That’s what Iam21 is all about, the fact that [the film] can really alter peoples’ perspectives and help them understand the complexity of these issues.”

This year’s festival was sweet for Baker for another reason. It marked the 20th anniversary of the first time he had a film at Sundance, and was happy to share it with the MEIM family.

“I’ve always been touched by the amount of support faculty gets from the leadership. There were 25 current MEIM students at a screening of Crown Heights. The professional and collegiate community came together [to support us], and that was profound.”

MEIM alumna terrifies the Sundance crowd with female-powered XX

February is Women in Horror Month, which makes it the perfect month to release a new horror anthology helmed entirely by female directors.

That’s precisely what Roxanne Benjamin (MEIM ’09) has done with XX, which made audiences jump and squirm at Sundance and showcases the talents of women in a genre often dominated by men.

Benjamin has participated in Sundance multiple times, as a producer on the previous scary treats V/H/S and V/H/S 2. Those films were also in anthology format—stand-alone short films connected in theme and linked by a framing narrative—and both went on to commercial success after premiering at Sundance in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

In addition to producing the film, Benjamin is also a credited screenwriter on the project and directed the segment “Don’t Fall,” which early reviews described as “the scariest” and “the most viciously direct piece” in XX.

XX was released in select theatres and video on-demand on February 17.

MEIM alumnus co-produces impactful short film

William Abanyie (MEIM ’08) worked as an associate producer on Night Shift, which IndieWire named “one of the must-see shorts of the festival.”

He says that getting buzz at Sundance is huge, because it immediately associates the cast and crew with a successful film.

“[People at the festival] knew that Night Shift was a film that everyone needs to see,” said Abanyie.

Night Shift, which was executive produced by award-winning actress Viola Davis (Fences, How to Get Away with Murder) and directed by documentary filmmaker Marshall Tyler (Skid Row), depicts an evening in the life of an aspiring actor who works evenings as a bathroom attendant at a Hollywood nightclub.

Abanyie, who works with New Bumper and Paint Productions, was heavily involved in the pre-production process, but provided support and feedback on Night Shift in post-production as well. He credits the MEIM program with giving him the confidence to succeed in a tough industry.

“Negotiation, management, and marketing classes all come in handy [for knowing] how to pitch a film and stay on top of your game in this industry, because it’s very competitive,” said Abanyie. “The fact that I got through that program gave me the confidence that I can do almost anything.”

The MEIM Sundance experience

Baker says that the MEIM program has many students who have a hybrid “renaissance” mentality, something he personally relates to.

“I say to [my students], this program is designed really well because it gives you the opportunity to ‘date’ a lot of different jobs before you really find what fits your own talent and passions.” He notes that the MEIM program can be a great fit for professionals wanting to straddle the business and creative worlds within entertainment.

“There are some of us who don’t like to be pigeonholed,” he said.

Green notes that experiences like Sundance are the perfect way for students to experience what goes on in the business and get a sense of where they fit in the industry.

“You could come into the MEIM program never having been to a film festival in your entire life, end up in your first year going to SXSW which is very audience-friendly, going to Sundance in the second year which is industry-driven and very much geared toward selling and buying, and going to Cannes in the summer between year one and year two, which is the largest film market in the world,” said Green.

Other highlights of this year’s Sundance:

Jim Swartz, an alumnus of the Tepper School of Business at CMU, had several films at Sundance in 2017. One of the films he produced, Icarus, sold to Netflix for $5 million, considered a very high price point for a documentary.

CMU School of Drama alumna Chanté Adams won the Sundance Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance for her role as hip-hop artist Roxanne Shanté in the film Roxanne Roxanne.

In addition, two Heinz College students, Jeremy Martin (MEIM ‘17) and Krysta Brown (MEIM ‘17), presented findings from past MEIM capstone projects to over 100 industry professionals at the Sundance Creative Distribution Initiative event. The event focuses on helping independent filmmakers launch their projects.

  • Martin presented on “The Effects of Content Piracy on Independent Films,” based on research completed by MEIM 2015 graduates Mouna Coulibaly, Katie Felix, Kailin Gao, and Chris Whittine.
  • Brown presented “Maximizing Non-Theatrical Distribution for Independent Filmmakers,” based on research by MEIM 2014 graduates Laurel Charnetsky, Taylor Grabowsky, Jueying Li, and Azrah Manji.  

Featured photo courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jemal Countess


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