UF students get a taste of success at Sundance
Gainesville Sun | Febuary 2, 2007
By Rebecca Goldman

The Gator Nation growled at last week's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Fifteen graduate students and all four faculty members from the University of Florida's Documentary Institute braved sub-freezing temperatures to study the industry trends and mingle with some of its biggest players. Between celebrity spotting and meeting privately with a PBS producer, the budding filmmakers congratulated two UF alumni on their Sundance debut.

"Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade" landed first-time filmmakers Michael Verrechia and Lincoln Ruchti in the festival's prestigious documentary competition. The film paints a nostalgic portrait of the 1980s.

"These guys were like my heroes," Ruchti said, referring to professional video-gamers documented in the film. "They could literally play for two days on one quarter."

Ruchti, 29, graduated UF in 1999 with a dual degree in telecommunications and English. ?Playing video games? is a metaphor for the one thing you want to do in life, he said, noting he and Verrechia always wanted to make movies.

"For us," Verrechia said, "[The Sundance acceptance] was a justification for what we are doing."

Those who failed to buy tickets to any of the film's five sold-out screenings were not completely left out of the action. Verrechia and Ruchti converted a small art gallery on the festival's main strip into an authentic early 1980s arcade and switched on free play on the Pac Man and Astroids machines.

Such marketing strategies draw attention to filmmakers, whose advertisements tend to get washed away in the sea of multi-colored postcards stacked on any and every flat surface at the festival, said Documentary Institute alumnus and emerging filmmaker Isaac Brown.

"There is so much potential for marketing out there," said Brown, who was promoting his short documentary, "Gimme Green," an amusing look at lawn care's effects on the environment. "If I do get my film in Sundance, I'm really going to get tacky about it."

Brown gave away plenty of "Gimme Green" T-shirts, hoodies, tote bags and DVDs.

Brown, who graduated last year, co-produced "Gimme Green" with Eric Flagg as their creative thesis project. It will make its festival debut at the prestigious Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Mont., on Feb. 15-21. But Brown would love to get into Sundance as well.

"From everything I gathered, it is the epicenter of the independent film world," he said.

Despite the festival's status, Brown and current Documentary Institute students said they were pleasantly surprised at how approachable people seemed to be.

"Everyone embraced the reason they were there-- a love for film," said Evans Pemba, a first-year graduate student in the program.

In his five days at the festival, Pemba saw nine films and attended several panels. He is one of 15 students who received free credentials through the "Students at the Festival" program offered by the Sundance Institute, said Sandra Dickson, co-director of the Documentary Institute.

It was the institute's first trip to Sundance.

Besides the credentials, which give students access to panels, each student received five screening tickets.

Dickson and the other faculty members also organized a private sit-down for the students with Craig Harris, a coordinating producer for Independent Lens, an independent film series on PBS.

He spent three hours with the students listening to pitches and offering professional advice.

"I think for us," Dickson said, "it was exciting to watch all of [the students] demonstrate their passion for filmmaking."