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Film School Daze

Fierce Independence in New York

Tony Chan did not finish his 1993 film "Combination Platter" until the day before its first showing at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. So that he wouldn't lose his one copy, the Queens native kept the film reels in his lap during the flight from New York to Sundance, Utah.

"I had never even seen the completed film, with sound and picture mixed together, by the time I got there," says Mr. Chan, who ended up winning Best Screenplay at the festival for what was his first feature film, shot in a frantic 24-day stretch. "It was pretty amazing to have it shown for the first time to an audience full of movie critics - it was also pretty nerve-racking."

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Chan, who recently completed his film studies at the School of Visual Arts, is just one of many young filmmakers emerging from the ultracompetitive cinematic scene here. Ever since such genre-busting New Yorkers as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen took Hollywood by storm about 25 years ago, the city has become a magnet for young auteurs who want to be the next Hitchcock.

Add this to the rise of home-grown filmmaking proteges such as Ed Burns ("The Brothers McMullen"), Noah Baumbach ("Kicking & Screaming"), and Hal Hartley ("Trust" and "Amateur"), and it's no wonder movie moguls are hunting in New York for young, well-schooled directors.

"Ten years ago, no one wanted to hear that you came from film school," says Sheril D. Antonio, assistant dean of New York University's Film and Television Program. "But now film students are producing work that studios cannot ignore anymore."

New York University (NYU) graduate film student Jim Taylor spent last summer in Omaha, Neb., helping to film "The Devil Inside," starring Laura Dern and Burt Reynolds. Mr. Taylor was co-author of the screenplay and directed the film's second unit. "I have been on many film sets, but this was the first time I felt like I belonged," Taylor says. (The film will be released early next year.)

But it is the award-winning 15-minute film he made at NYU that sparked studio interest in the aspiring filmmaker. With a fall forest as its backdrop, "Memory Lane" is about a boy sent out into the woods by his father to become a man. The boy encounters a tormented old man who has set up a one-lane bowling alley on a patch of grass. Taylor's film won third place at NYU's spring film festival.

Success stories like Taylor's are becoming less unusual. Reeves Lehman, film chairman of the School of Visual Arts, has watched the movie industry take an increasing interest in student film festivals.

"At our end-of-the-year screenings, the place gets packed with Hollywood types looking for new stories, or new ways of telling old stories," Mr. Lehman says. "Young people see this and flock to film schools because they think they can make that enormous jump from film student to hot young Hollywood director."

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The students at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts are well aware of Hollywood's presence, but they are not too concerned with their careers. Instead, they spend their days learning the craft of film, writing scripts, and assembling short, often intensely personal films.

"If you don't believe in your film, and it does not come from within, you are not going to do good work," says Geoffrey Fletcher, an NYU graduate film student.

These students often disagree on how well they will fare in what has always been a fickle industry. "Even in independent films, which are supposedly doing very well right now, there are still a set number of gatekeepers that control who's in the industry and who's not," says Marya Cohn, a graduate of the NYU graduate film program. John Kelleran, a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts, is more optimistic. "I think the prospects in this business are really good because the thirst for audiovisual media is going to be endless," he says.

Andrew Sarris, a film columnist for the New York Observer, says video and cable "offer an enormous outlet and a wider distribution for independent films."

NYU's young filmmakers are wary of Hollywood. Movie moguls, they say, only change their routine for dollar signs. "It's still a star-driven system, but if Hollywood can market a film in a unique way that will make money, they will run with it," says Gregory Wilson, an undergraduate film student at Tisch. "They can say, 'Look, I got this hot eight-year-old filmmaker, the kid can hardly draw with crayons, but she has a film, and she's a baby [Quentin] Tarantino' - Hollywood is all about hype."

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