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Wish List come true 

After winning a Student Academy Award, UNC filmmaker Sean Overbeeke is Hollywood bound

click to enlarge Sean Overbeeke accepting his gold medal June 10 at the 33rd Annual Student Academy Awards in Beverly Hills - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS AND SCIENCES
  • Photo courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
  • Sean Overbeeke accepting his gold medal June 10 at the 33rd Annual Student Academy Awards in Beverly Hills

Last month we visited with Sean Overbeeke as he prepared to travel to Los Angeles for the Student Academy Awards on June 10, when his short film Christmas Wish List would be up for a student Oscar. When I caught up with Overbeeke last week, he was driving along Cahuenga Boulevard, lost somewhere in L.A.

Overbeeke, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill last year, could be forgiven his confusion. He hadn't even planned to still be in California on this Wednesday, four days after the award ceremony. But plans have a way of changing when you win the top narrative prize at the Student Academy Awards, as Overbeeke did on Saturday night. Co-host Kevin Smith handed him a gold medal with an Oscar on it, and Overbeeke also pocketed a $6,000 cash prize.

Smith, who shared hosting duties with Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, cracked to the audience assembled in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater that he would not be socializing with the winners. "He said, 'I surround myself with losers, which explains my long-term relationship with Ben Affleck.' We all lost it," Overbeeke said. "The guy's really just a comedian."

Overbeeke may not be able to count on the director and star of such films as Mallrats and Jersey Girl as a friend quite yet, but he's got many other people vying for his attention now. "I've extended my stay to Sunday," Overbeeke explained as he drove. "Then I'll come back to Chapel Hill [briefly] to regain my composure."

It doesn't look like Overbeeke, a Connecticut native, will be a North Carolinian much longer. When we spoke last month, he was optimistic that he could pursue a filmmaking career in Hollywood while continuing to live in his Chapel Hill condo. However, it's since become clear that living in Hollywood is mandatory for a young talent who needs to introduce himself to many, many people. Potential managers have been circling around Overbeeke ever since he learned he was a finalist for the Oscar, and he finally signed with Simon Millar of Firm Entertainment last week.

Now that he has a manager, Overbeeke must find an agent. A manager guides his client's career, but by law only an agent can negotiate work for artists. "I'm meeting with ICM and William Morris to try and find an agent," Overbeeke said before dropping the inevitable second shoe. "They really want me to move out here."

Overbeeke has few personal contacts in Hollywood, so the 25-year-old filmmaker has been turning to his UNC mentor David Sontag for advice. "Every time I have a question, I call him," Overbeeke said.

Sontag, who is the Wesley Wallace distinguished professor and founding head of UNC's new film and theater writing program, has a long history in Hollywood. Speaking from Santa Fe, where he is finishing a screenplay of his own, Sontag acknowledged the significance of Overbeeke's achievement but stressed that others in his fledgling department have succeeded as well.

"Sean was in our first class, and all 10 graduates are working in the industry today," Sontag said, noting that one, Meghan Gambling, will be producing one of her plays this summer at the New York Fringe Festival and is a member of the playwrights' unit of the Actor's Studio.

Sontag came to UNC in 2000 as a visiting professor, after a long career in writing and development in the film and television industry. "They asked me what I thought was missing from the Communications Department, and I said, an interdisciplinary program on writing for film and the stage. It took us a year to put it together and it was approved."

Once a permanent faculty member, Sontag began assembling a department, bringing in, among others, screenwriter Bill Svanoe and groundbreaking television director Joan Darling--both of whom were closely involved with the development of Overbeeke's script and film. "We have a mentoring relationship with all the students in the program. Bill, Joan and I all read drafts of Christmas Wish List," Sontag said.

The UNC curriculum is not a film school, Sontag stressed, but an undergraduate writing program. Hence, the 35mm film that Overbeeke produced was an outside project, albeit one in which Overbeeke consulted with his mentors, according to Sontag. "Joan and I looked at various cuts of the film and gave him notes. But it's his film."

Sontag's role as department head extends to being an unpaid career counselor and buffer, fielding calls from industry people in Hollywood hoping to reach Overbeeke through his teacher. "I was getting phone calls from the day the nominations were announced. It's only increased since he won."

While Overbeeke ponders his next move, he's still got some unfinished business with Christmas Wish List. The film has just been accepted to the Heart of Gold festival in Sydney, Australia, and Overbeeke will travel there in October. Although Christmas Wish List began its life as a "calling card" film, he's wondering if he can sell the film now that it has fulfilled its original objective in such a spectacular fashion.

"We're pitching it to Coke, and maybe we'll try the Hallmark Channel," Overbeeke said. "I don't really know the short film market." As it happens, selling the film would just be icing on the cake. "Just in prize money alone," he said, "it's earned back its budget."

There is a possibility that the award-winning run of Christmas Wish List is not over. As the gold medal winner at the Student Academy Awards, the film will now be considered for the regular Oscar in the live action short category. This is not a long shot, Overbeeke was informed. It's happened to 35 other student winners.

Overbeeke will surely learn very quickly to navigate the sprawling city while talking on the phone, but now he has to get off because he is lost on Cahuenga Boulevard. "I'm at the deep end of the pond right now," he said before hanging up. "I don't know what's coming next. It's kind of scary."


THE GALAXY GOES DIGITAL

Cary's Galaxy Cinema has stayed in business operating under a business model that combines popular Bollywood films targeting the area's South Asian community with regular art house fare. Still, six screens is a lot of acreage, and the Galaxy has undertaken a number of initiatives to vary the offerings even more. In a recent phone call, manager Jon Morgan said, "We're looking for ways to expand our audience. Six screens is a lot, and sometimes the content isn't always there."

The schedule shake-up includes no less than four separate programs, and two of them will make use of the theater's new digital projection capability. With its Digital Series, the theater plans to show high-quality films that are commercially too marginal to commit to an expensive 35mm print run. Last week the theater showed Lajos Koltai's difficult but powerful Fateless, a tale of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy from Budapest.

On the last Wednesday of every month, the digital screen will host the Galaxy's new IndieWire Undiscovered Gems series, which focuses on acclaimed films that lack major distribution. The series kicked off earlier this month with The Puffy Chair and continues next Wednesday, June 28 with Four-Eyed Monsters.

Weekdays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., the screen is dedicated to a Kids Summer Movie Series, in which titles like Curious George and Zathura will be shown for the low, low price of $1.

The theater is stepping into the second-run business with Second Look Cinema, which brings in recent releases that are otherwise headed out of town. Last week's title was United 93, and I was delighted to catch this riveting--and, to me, epochal--film one last time on the big screen. Tickets are $4.

The Galaxy's Web site is www.mygalaxycinema.com.


WAY TO GO, CHATHAM

And this Saturday, those thousands of Triangle residents who cheered Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth have an opportunity to show support for a locally produced documentary titled What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire. This work-in-progress is having a fundraising preview screening at Carrboro's Acme Bar and Grill on June 24 at 11 a.m. The film's producers are Chatham County-based Sally Erickson and Timothy S. Bennett; Barbara Trent of the Empowerment Project is serving as consultant. For more information, visit whatawaytogomovie.com.

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