The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, a multisite national event showcasing short films based on children’s books, will be accepting films submitted from Asheville until Wednesday, Feb. 8. The festival is entering its sixth year, but this year marks the first in which Asheville will host its own festival, and organizers are making a push for submissions from area kids.
Entries have to be around 90 seconds, they have to feature mostly child actors, and they must dramatize all of the key events from a novel that received either the prestigious Newbery Award or a Newbery Honor medal. “The idea is to make sure the person watching gets the entire story of the book,” says Elliot Weiner, who initiated the effort to make Asheville a festival site.
Adults are allowed to help, if needed, which is how Weiner first got involved. A transplant from Washington state, Weiner had worked with kids in Tacoma to produce several entries. After moving to Western North Carolina, Weiner — aware that the festival had already received entries from area kids — thought Asheville should host its own event. “I was the gadfly,” he says of his efforts. “I said, ‘Hey, we should do this!’”
Weiner first sought the help of Jesse Figuera, a children’s librarian at Pack Memorial Library, who immediately offered Weiner the use of the library’s auditorium. “Librarians are interested in connecting stories and books with children,” Figuera says. “Anything that starts with a book. And when kids have positive, memorable experiences that come out of books, that’s just a bingo.”
Figuera also referred Weiner to Leslie Hawkins, the proprietor of Asheville’s Spellbound Children’s Bookshop.
“It’s been a great example of local businesses being so rooted in the community that we can network with each other and make something happen pretty quickly,” Hawkins says. She provided Weiner with her press list and talked the festival up among her clientele.
Eventually Weiner networked with Chanda Calentine of Asheville Community Theater and the kids in ACT’s youth program to produce two shorts: adaptations of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater, and The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes.
The festival’s book-centered approach drew Calentine to the project, she says. “We’re doing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe right now, and when we do a show like this, I’ll ask kids if they’ve read the book, and they’ll say, ‘No, but I’ve seen the movie.’ What I love about this project is it makes them read the book.”
Kids also find producing the films a rewarding experience, Calentine says. She tells of one student, a member of the Penguins cast, who insisted on wearing the makeup from his penguin costume on the day after filming. “He wanted to go into school with a little orange nose so he could tell everyone what he was doing.”
Weiner had a similar experience with a shy student who at first only wanted to be an assistant. After one day of shooting, however the student changed his mind. “He wanted to be in the movie because it was so exciting,” Weiner says. “Here was a kid who blossomed doing this project.”
The national organizers have extended the deadline for entries by one month — to Wednesday, Feb. 8 — for groups producing shorts in Asheville. Asked whether it’s possible for young filmmakers to put together a production in the time available, Weiner cites his experience with the kids at ACT. “We put ours together in a week,” he says. “It can be done in a weekend.”
Money is even less of a consideration than time. “You don’t have to buy costumes,” and many kids will be able to film and edit on their smartphones — or those of willing adults. What’s more, Weiner explains, filmmakers are only limited by their imaginations. Past entries have used drawings with voice-overs, stick-figure animation, and a variety of live-action approaches, including Charlotte’s Web as a horror film.
Figuera shares Weiner’s can-do attitude. “We think in noes more often than we think in yeses,” she says, “but kids are much more capable than we give them credit for.” She stresses that educators, librarians and other adults can facilitate young filmmakers without dropping everything else. “A display of Newbery Award books — even just a list of them — can be enough to get kids started. This is a chance to show kids we care about what they think and what they’re doing.”