Tom Oliva, Co-Founder AAHSFF:
When I first met Andrew Jenks in the Fall of 2003, he was a young artist eager to share his passion for film with the world. I’ll never forget the day he first walked into my classroom. He had a casual confidence about him but he was clearly still finding his way, desperately seeking adults who could help him reach his full potential. “I know you don’t know me,” he said, “but I was wondering if you could help me start a film club?”
Andrew Jenks, Co-Founder AAHSFF:
Within seconds our relationship was cemented: this new teacher had a desire to do something beyond the traditional scope of education. I was a basketball fan, and there had always been ‘The All-American High School Basketball Game”. I asked Tom, ‘Why can’t we create this for film students? Colleges and professionals should be seeking out our talents” (maybe I had a slight confidence)! In just a few weeks we had a thriving club packed with young filmmakers and interested students intent on exploring the vast possibilities of media.
Andrew and I quickly developed an inseparable bond. I learned more about his long history with filmmaking and we spent every moment of my free periods building the club and the local film festival that would take place that spring. It’s funny, I was never actually Andrew’s teacher in the classroom, but I like to think that what we had was something greater-- an immersive educational relationship that transcended academics. We had something real, something that would last.
Our first film festival was a work in progress… But we would not be deterred. If anything, we worked harder, doubled-down. There were passionate young filmmakers whose voices begged to be heard. By the second year, we had James Earl Jones as our keynote speaker and we packed the school auditorium with 500 enthusiastic students and parents.
Before graduation, Andrew approached me with another question. “I want to make a real movie this summer.” “Can you help?” I now realize that there were two ways I could answer his question. 1. You’re crazy kid. You’re headed to NYU in the fall and we don’t even know where to begin. Seventeen year olds don’t make feature films. 2. Absolutely! Where do we begin?!?! Let’s just say that I made the right decision.
Shortly after, HBO bought Andrew’s first feature documentary Andrew Jenks Room 335. We remained close during the decade that followed, and continued to dream of one day taking our little festival to the national level. Every year, we met more and more young filmmakers yearning for opportunities in film and every year the seed grew. As Andrew’s career flourished, we knew that the time was right to make our dream a reality.
When friends think back to old times, and ask, ‘Who was that teacher, your favorite... the teacher you’ll never forget?”, I always have a weird response. “Well, my favorite teacher, was never actually my teacher.” Mr. Oliva was an English teacher that I had heard about in the hallways. Friends said that he was invested and energetic. So I wasted no time in introducing myself. Teachers that only tell you information don’t have a lasting impression. Teachers that only teach, well, you may remember what they say. But teachers that involve their students, make it impossible for us to forget…
Brian, who had been running my production company for several years (he was also a student of Tom’s back in the day!), soon joined the festival full time, lending his business acumen and endless creativity. The team was in place, but the work was just beginning.
Brian, Co-Founder AAHSFF:
We knew what AAHSFF could become, but how would we get there? The first six months were filled with spreadsheets and outreach… There are 35,000+ high schools in the U.S. alone and we didn’t want to miss any talented filmmakers.
There were several nervous months waiting for the first submissions to come in. Then, one night during that first year, Tom called Andrew and I and said we had to drop everything and watch a submission he had just received. We all had a good cry that night-- all thanks to a 16-year-old filmmaker’s brave and moving creation. That October we screened 84 films at the AMC in Times Square. The weekend culminated in an awards show featuring Ed Burns and Dylan McDermott. Our dream had become a reality.
We’ve learned a lot along the way, most importantly that our hunch was correct: there are thousands of talented young filmmakers out there and they are craving a community. We’ve expanded our vision to include a variety of year-round initiatives and immersive educational opportunities. Our Traveling Roadshow has reached 20,000 students, our 2016 AT&T film Invitational competition will include 38 teams, and our new Video Production Resource Community is helping teachers further inspire their students.
Tom, Andrew and Brian:
So here we are… The 4th Annual All American High School Film Festival. We have received nearly 5,000 films from 48 states and 40 countries. Most importantly, as of October 9th, we’ll have given away over $750,000 in prizes and scholarships. We hope that our festival stands in sharp contrast to certain realities facing the arts. While many are being forced to cut programs, we dare to build bigger. We invite you to build with us, to dream with us, and to share in our continued efforts to help young filmmakers succeed.