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Schooled the Sundance way

In the film festival's hometown, a teacher's screenplay contest inspired some successful writing careers

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Screenplays would have to be her hook. The students, especially the boys, couldn't be less interested in reading, let alone writing, in English class. So Bitsy Beall, a teacher at Treasure Mountain Middle School in Park City, Utah, turned to the town's world-famous Sundance Film Festival for help.

Ms. Beall rounded up funding from Robert Redford's Sundance Institute and persuaded her school to sponsor a screenwriting contest among the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders.

A professional television writer agreed to critique the students' one-act scenes. Contest winners attended the film festival and wrote reviews of the movies they liked best.

Over the course of eight years, a host of Hollywood professionals - some well-known, some working behind the scenes - spoke to assemblies at the school about the importance of writing.

Among them was Robbie Benson, a writer, actor, and director from Park City, who told students how his role as the voice of the Beast in the Disney animated film "Beauty and the Beast" came to life because of the screenplay.

Writing allows people to turn negative experiences into something positive, Mr. Benson told the kids. For instance, if they wrote about a time when they felt intimidated by a bully, they could show what it felt like - and perhaps help turn some would-be bullies around.

Beall has found that when her students write fiction, some take advantage of the chance to confront issues they are afraid of, without letting people know the characters' stories reflect their own. Some years after entering the screenwriting contest, one student confessed to Beall that if it hadn't been for that creative outlet, he probably would have done something violent at school. (This young man is now an independent filmmaker.)

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