Asheville 90-Second Newbery Film Festival builds on inaugural event’s success

COPS AND PENGUINS: Students from the Asheville Community Theatre Youth Theatre program pause between shooting an adaptation of “Mr. Popper's Penguins” for the inaugural Asheville 90-Second Newbery Film Festival in 2017. The group turned Florence and Richard Atwater’s prize-winning novel into a murder mystery. Photo courtesy of Asheville 90-Second Newbery

The young filmmakers who participated in Asheville’s inaugural 90-Second Newbery Film Festival last year were literally given the red carpet treatment.

As the teams and people responsible for 13 brief cinematic takes on a John Newbery Medal winner or Honor book entered Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium, a “paparazzi” of volunteers bathed them in camera flashes. The artists then got to pose for a photo with a large, inflated Oscar-type statue. Seated in the front of the room, the kids were called up after their film was screened to receive a statuette of their own, as well as thunderous applause from more than 170 attendees.

“They loved it,” says Elliot Weiner, Asheville 90-Second Newbery coordinator. If everyone who was inspired by last year’s festival to submit a film this year actually follows through, Weiner says, “It’ll be wonderful.”

Wednesday, Feb. 14, is the last day for submissions, but the national organizers are fine with a little wiggle room. “If kids want to submit films and they don’t think they can make that deadline, they should just write me [at], and we can work things out since our festival’s not for two months after that deadline. That was a national deadline, but they’re OK with sliding it as we need to,” Weiner says. “The most important thing is to make it fun for the kids and to give them time to do what they want to do.”

All local entries will be screened on Saturday, April 14, 1-3 p.m., at Lord Auditorium. Game to turn the event into an annual tradition, Weiner and Jesse Figuera, Buncombe County Libraries’ head of youth services, began planning the 2018 edition mere days after the debut festival. The two helped get the word out to local schools and groups such as Asheville Community Theatre’s Tanglewood Summer Camp, and the selections and approaches Weiner has heard about thus far suggest another eclectic group of films is forthcoming.

“The ones I’ve seen run the gamut from the big-cast, full-of-sword-fight books down to one person telling a story with a puppet,” he says. “There are some old standbys like [E.B. White’s] Charlotte’s Web and [Louis Sachar’s] Holes and other books that seem to be captured every year. And then, every once in a while, a kid will pick out a book that’s never been done before. I’m hoping that will happen this year with the kids in school programs that are interested in doing it.”

Over Christmas break, Weiner and ACT program director Chanda Calentine helped some of Calentine’s students shoot Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats. Due to limited availability over the holidays, five kids portrayed the numerous felines, rewrote the story and came up with their own costumes and characters.

“They were just really wonderful, and the film came out so much better than Chanda and I pictured, just sticking to the book,” Weiner says. “The whole thing with Newbery is kids should take liberties and make it science fiction, or you can make it horror or a mystery or a musical. You don’t have to just do it the way it was written — but you do have to read the book. That’s the kicker. You’re still telling the basic story in a couple of minutes, but you should take liberties with how you tell it. The more creative, the wilder, the better.”

Weiner stresses that 90-Second Newbery is not a contest, but a celebration of individual imagination. And though everyone receives a trophy, he views the award not as a mere sign of participation, but a recognition of one’s success. Also encouraging is the positive impact he’s seen the festival have on local children, many of whom are typically shy but go beyond their comfort zones in making a film. Furthermore, based on the increased cinematic vocabulary he’s witnessed among the young artists, Weiner has high hopes that participants will continue pursuing the craft and go on to do great things.

“What I’m seeing more than last year is kids who are actually reading the story with the film in mind and using words like, ‘OK, here’s the shot list,’ and things like that, which we didn’t hear last year,” he says. “Some of it’s catching on, and that’s really cool because now they’re reading the book with the idea that, ‘How am I going to turn this into a film?’ rather than, ‘OK, I’m just going to read the book and then figure it all out.”

Weiner adds, “Someday, somebody’s going to be standing on the Oscar stage, thanking the Newbery Film Festival for his or her start years ago.”

For more information about the festival or to submit a film, visit


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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