Starring black-tied guests receiving red carpet treatment, Roanoke’s historic Grandin Theatre recently celebrated its 90th anniversary of screening independent, classic and blockbuster movies produced by filmmakers from around the world.
Less heralded but deserving its own limelight, the Grandin since 2016 has been producing its own award-winning movies through its after-school program called Film Lab.
In just the program’s first six years, Film Lab students have been accepted into some of the country’s most prestigious film schools, and they have earned three National Student Production Award nominations from the organization that hands out the Emmys and entry into more than 30 national and international film festivals.
“One day it’s our hope to be in L.A. or Cannes or New York and sit in the nosebleed seats to watch a Film Lab graduate be recognized,” said Grandin Theatre executive director Ian Fortier.
Fortier credits an editorial in The Roanoke Times with inspiring Film Lab. Back in 2015, the Virginia High School League conducted its inaugural student film festival for high schoolers across the commonwealth.
The editorial noted: “Out of 36 finalists, only three … are from west of the Blue Ridge. That tells us one thing: There’s clearly an opportunity for student filmmakers in this part of the state.”
As the newly hired head of the Grandin, Fortier took the words to heart and used his previous gig at the Jefferson Center’s Music Lab as Film Lab’s model.
“Instead of putting instruments in their hands,” he thought, “why don’t we put cameras in their hands?”
What really got Film Lab rolling was Fortier’s hire of Tyler Lyon as director: “Tyler’s consistency and professionalism have been the number one reason that this program has grown and succeeded in our six years.”
Lyon added: “I don’t take any credit for starting Film Lab, but every point forward I’ve had some part in!”
Each year, up to 24 students from high schools and home schools throughout the Roanoke Valley are admitted to Film Lab. They start the curriculum learning aspects of filmmaking from local college professors and industry technicians: script-writing, acting, producing, cinematography, lighting, sound, blocking and editing. Each student then has the opportunity to develop her or his own script into a film that is produced by the entire class and premieres at the spring Showcase.
“I just love it,” said Alexander Scott, 17, a senior at Hidden Valley High School. “Film Lab is centered in a school format but it’s a way better experience than having to watch a YouTube video.” He credits Lyon’s experience and enthusiasm for the program’s success: “I can tell he’s passionate about what he’s talking about and knows what he’s talking about.”
Film Lab’s students are equally passionate.
“The first time you come in you’re expecting something cutesy and amateurish,” said Mona Raza, mother of two Film Lab students. “But when you come to the premier you see these well-made, professional productions. It makes you so proud.”
“I really thought it was going to be a bunch of bumbling kids,” said Heather Millar, also a Film Lab mom, “but they actually knew what they were doing. They were talking things out and working together calmly and respectfully and with humor. It’s a team sport. It’s not athletic, but it’s really a team-building project.”
Film Lab graduate Reese Robers, who is now in her first year at the University of Virginia, said: “All of us are from different high schools … and we’re super close and that was all through film. We were able to listen to each other, we were able to work together, and we became super good friends at the end of it all.”
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Student filmmakers are making serious films
Students don’t come to Film Lab to create TikToks and social media fluff, Fortier quickly learned. “They were here to tell stories that were deeply resonant.” Stories about bullying, drugs, heartbreak, along with a healthy dose of horror, suspense and occasionally comedy.
Not to mention the occasional train.
“I learned very quickly what an executive producer was when in the very first year one of the teams came to me and said, ‘We need a train,’” Fortier laughed. “The ceiling of any notion of what this program looked like just popped off.”
One of the Film Lab’s biggest fans and earliest supporters was Barbara Parker, who came to the nonprofit amid incredible loss.
In 2015, her daughter Alison Parker, a WDBJ-TV reporter, and cameraman Adam Ward were gunned down while on assignment. Transforming pain into purpose, Barbara and her husband, Andy, founded For Alison Foundation, which gives “young people the opportunity to find their passion in the arts.”
The Parkers came to the Grandin for the dedication of Alison’s star on the theater’s Walk of Fame.
“When I found out about the Film Lab it was like, this is exactly what we want to do,” said Barbara. “So many organizations in the arts try to do programming in the schools, but it might be a puppet show or traveling theater. We wanted to do something different. We wanted to do something that could make a real impact on kids. These kids are motivated and have the opportunity to learn real life skills that most of the time you have to go to college to learn.”
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Film lab grads are winning college scholarships
Even before they arrive in college, Film Lab students are receiving collegiate recognition. Not only have they been accepted into the film schools of the University of Southern California, University of Virginia and others, they’re earning scholarships to pay for it.
Robers won a $20,000 scholarship from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences — the industry organization responsible for the annual Emmy Awards program — to attend UVA.
Raza’s son, Nabeel, won a full scholarship to UVA. At his interview, she says, the award committee only wanted to talk about one credential on his application: Film Lab.
But perhaps the Film Lab’s most significant successes take place behind the scenes.
Wendy Schaeffer’s son, Carter, has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that can cause significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. “He’s a little different, out of the box,” she said. “Before we started Film Lab he was a little more subdued and he wouldn’t really go out and talk to people a lot.”
They tried sports and other activities to no avail. “Once we got him into Film Lab, however, he came home one day and said, ‘I found my people.’”
Carter has produced seven of his own movies at Film Lab and helped with many others. “He’s done voices, he’s acted, he’s written, he’s done a lot of things that I would have never expected from someone who at one point in his life couldn’t hold a conversation with someone, couldn’t hold eye contact with someone,” said Wendy Schaeffer. “We’re incredibly grateful. It was a light in our hearts and in our lives.”
But the outside recognition is appreciated: the three student Emmy Award nominations, Tallgrass Film Festival in Kansas, Newport Film Festival in California, Australia’s STUFFit Student Film Festival, and on and on.
Of all its national and international accolades, Film Lab recognition in its home state remains elusive. Fortier says he hopes one day to have a Film Lab student recognized at the Virginia Film Festival.
Still, says Lyon, “It’s just really cool to know that people all over the world are getting a chance to see what we’re doing in Roanoke, and I hope that’s meaningful for our students, too.”
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These Grandin Film Lab films were nominated for student Emmys: