Student Academy Awards Provide ‘Momentum’ for Young Filmmakers

03 February 2024

While most people know about the Academy Awards in Hollywood — the awards known as the Oscars — few know about the Student Academy Awards.

But to those who know about the industry, they are a big deal.

A top-three finish at the Student Academy Awards can lift a young filmmaker's career.

A replica of the Academy Awards statuette on display prior to the 96th Academy Awards nominations announcement on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
A replica of the Academy Awards statuette on display prior to the 96th Academy Awards nominations announcement on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Freddy Macdonald knows this.

His short movie, Shedding Angels, placed third in the narrative film category in 2022. It was his thesis film after two years of study at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles. A thesis is a big project that is needed to complete a study program.

Just being selected as a finalist was a dream come true, Macdonald said.

"Having that stamp from the Academy helped give me so much momentum to create my first feature film."

Macdonald is 23. He said the recognition from the Academy helped launch his career. After the award, he said, investors paid more attention to him, and he was able to create excitement for a full-length movie.

That movie is a longer version of another one of his short films called Sew Torn. He directed it when he was 19.

Sew Torn, he said, tells the story of a seamstress who gets involved in a violent drug deal.

The full-length movie will be shown at film festivals this year and Macdonald hopes it will be shown in theaters sometime in the near future.

History of success

Macdonald could be one of the more recent filmmakers to go on to a successful career in Hollywood after receiving a student award from the Academy.

The awards program celebrated its 50th year in 2023. Some of the past winners include Spike Lee, known for his movies, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, He Got Game and others. Lee won an Oscar in 2019 for BlacKkKlansman.

Lee won his student award in 1983 when he was studying at New York University (NYU). His film was Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.

Other student winners include Robert Zemeckis, who won an Oscar for directing Forrest Gump in 1994. Pete Docter won a student award, too. He later earned Oscars for his animated films Up, Inside Out and Soul.

Kendra Carter is a Vice President at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs both awards programs. She said the Academy hopes to open the film industry to people from many different backgrounds and "create a pool of highly skilled, diverse talent."

Serious exposure

In 2023, 640 members of the Academy voted on the awards, which means the student work was seen by hundreds of people in Hollywood. In addition to the award, many students come away from the event with a business agent who can help them get more work.

But that's not all. The gold-medal winners can choose to have their work submitted for the Academy Awards. Last year, an animated short film by a student from Australia, An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It, was considered for an Oscar.

"Once your name is tied to a Student Academy Award, it just opens all of these doors," the Academy's Carter said. "It's so transformative for emerging filmmakers."

The program is now open to young filmmakers from around the world. Giorgio Ghiotto of Italy is a student at NYU. He won the gold medal in October for his documentary short film Wings of Dust.

"Everyone thinks it's impossible to be a documentary filmmaker unless you're rich, or super lucky," Ghiotto said. He called his success "an impossible dream."

Macdonald said the opportunity to compete with student filmmakers from around the world was both "extremely daunting and exciting." He said it was a great experience to go to the awards ceremony and meet so many creative people from around the world.

School experience

He would not have gotten that experience without going to film school. Macdonald said he thought about going to an undergraduate film program first.

"And then towards the end of high school, kind of, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, but the big question came what college am I gonna go to? Where should I be applying? And so, I started looking at all the different paths in terms of film school and the American Film Institute always jumped off the page to me...But I didn't think that would be a possibility because it is a graduate program, and I was applying as a high school senior."

Macdonald applied and was the youngest person ever accepted into the directing program. He was qualified because by then, he had already made a short film and done other directing jobs. But because he did not have a college degree, AFI gave him a "certificate of completion" at the end.

While in school, he learned more about the business side of filmmaking than he expected. He learned how to write a proposal that aimed to make investors excited to finance a film.

"And that was really helpful for me to kind of wrap my head around the different ways you can make movies."

‘An honor'

Before being nominated for a Student Academy Award, Macdonald had everything he needed to enter the film industry. He had strong experience before attending AFI. He learned even more in school. He even got attention from some film studios. But the Student Academy Award experience gave him something more. It gave him the sense that other people believed in what he was doing.

"The Academy recognizing it (my film) really gave me belief in myself that the stories that I want to tell are worth telling and that I should keep pursuing them."

The lesson, Macdonald added, was that the Academy liked his work and he, in his words, "should keep fighting to make movies."

I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Jill Robbins.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press and his interview with Macdonald.


Words in This Story

career –n. a job or profession that a person has for a long time

narrative –adj. telling a story

stamp –n. a mark of approval

momentum –n. a push that continues movement into the future

seamstress –n. a woman who sews or repairs clothing

animated –adj. involving moving pictures or cartoons rather than live-action film

diverse –adj. involving many different examples of something

transformative –adj. causing complete change

emerging –adj. just beginning to develop into something fully

pursue –v. to chase, follow or simply continue doing something