Robert Zemeckis won one 30 years ago. Spike Lee picked up his eight years later. Trey Parker nabbed his in 1993.
On Sunday night, just one day after his 23rd birthday, wild-haired director Jaron Henrie-McCrea accepted his with tears of joy and the words: “I would like to thank the academy.”
No, not for an Oscar, but for a Student Academy Award.
Now in its 32nd year, this lesser-known competition sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences honors the work of student-filmmakers from colleges and universities across the country, as well as worldwide in a special foreign category.
Forget red-carpet fashionistas or the Kodak Theater’s sprawling resplendence. Never mind timed speeches or celebrity hosts. Only modest displays of grandeur greeted Student Academy Award winners and their entourages at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.
Culled from three U.S. regional competitions, then voted on by academy members, this year’s 12 winners beat out hundreds of contestants to qualify as finalists in four categories: narrative, documentary, animation and alternative.
They received either medals in their respective categories, along with accompanying cash prizes — $5,000 for gold, $3,000 for silver and $2,000 for bronze — and a chance to hang in Hollywood for a few days.
“It’s really quite an honor for the kids,” said June Foray, a member of the academy’s board of governors and the one-time voice of Rocky the Squirrel and Natasha in the animated series “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” “It gives the assurance that perhaps they could be great filmmakers. It IS an encouragement for them.”
'Pretty blown away'Self-described as “nervous and ambitious,” Henrie-McCrea is the first-ever student from Indiana’s Ball State University to win a Student Academy Award.
His energetic alternative category entry “Knock Knock” — a romantic comedy based on the use of tautonyms that plays off such phrases as “Bora Bora” and “Zsa Zsa” — garnered a gold medal.
“I was pretty blown away, being here, because it’s always been a dream I would achieve in a graduate program,” said Henrie-McCrea, who will begin at New York’s Columbia University as a graduate film student in the fall.
New York University graduate student Cary Fukunaga directed his silver medal-winning narrative entry “Victoria Para Chino” — a brutally claustrophobic look at a truck packed with illegal immigrants traveling across the Mexican border — as a reflection of his own interest in immigrant issues.
The 27-year-old Fukunaga himself grew up moving from town to town, going to four different elementary schools, two junior highs and one high school.
“My original inspiration was the idea of trying to put the audience in the seat of an immigrant for just 10 minutes, because it was part of our curriculum, making a 10-minute film,” he said. “I wanted to show people that are so desperate for work, for a better life, they would put their lives on the line.”
A personal effortFukunaga, back only days from filming a documentary on war-torn Haiti with hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, noted the discrepancy between being lavishly honored by the academy and the tragic subjects he films. Yet his appreciation flowed anyway.
“I don’t come from a wealthy family, so these prizes allow me to do what I want to do,” he said.
Documentary bronze winner Kimby Caplan has also funneled her own life experience into her work. The 31-year-old Southern Methodist University graduate student was born deaf and as a child participated in a pioneering therapy program.
For her documentary “Listen,” Caplan used footage featuring herself as a child in the 1970s working with seminal speech therapist Doreen Pollack, who coincidentally died last week.
“The recognition from the academy has given me the kind of attention I need to make the larger film about Doreen Pollack’s life,” said Caplan, who’s already been approached by agents about the project.
“When you’re one of thousands of people who want a job, all you have to do is say is ’The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences singled me out, singled out my achievement,”’ said Charles Bernstein, a board of governors member and music composer. “That speaks to anyone in the world.”