That’s showbiz, baby: ASU finds competition and common ground in the Phoenix Film Festival

Sun Devils use the festival to take their filmmaking careers to the next level

A man with a necktie wrapped around his head discovers a lemonade stand while biking through the Arizona desert. Hijinks ensue. 

It may sound like an unlikely or impractical plot for a short film, but that didn't stop it from being shown at the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival

“Lemonade,” directed by Keegan Carlson, a junior majoring in film and media production, is part of a small ASU presence in a festival that has given students and faculty a chance to compete against and learn from ambitious young filmmakers from around the world.

Carlson’s movie kicked off the "College Shorts" category at the festival, which runs from April 4-14 at Harkins Scottsdale 101.

While the film festival also features larger budget films, Carlson said he and his team had to find creative ways to compensate for a smaller budget.

“We got the entire wardrobe (for the movie) from Target,” he said.

Carlson said that when it came time to shoot on location, his team was “delayed two or three hours” after being forced to improvise a piece of equipment for the camera.  

The film was created as part of an assignment while Carlson was attending Scottsdale Community College. He said the assignment required him to shoot "Lemonade" in 16mm motion Kodak film and include no audible dialogue. 

He said the short film’s eccentricities, like its obsession with symmetry and its liberal use of cursive fonts, were inspired by director Wes Anderson

Even though many of the films in the festival might run on small budgets and tight deadlines, the difference in spending between the smaller budget films and their flashy, larger budget counterparts doesn't detract from the quality of storytelling in either category.

That level of quality is at least partly thanks to festival leadership like executive director Jason Carney.

Since he stepped on as director in the early 2000s, Carney said the festival’s approach has gradually become more focused on attracting up-and-coming filmmakers rather than big-name celebrities. 

“We’re looking for story-driven films, films with strong technical components,” he said.

He said the collegiate aspect of the festival has been around from the very beginning and has become an “extremely competitive” part of the event. 

Beyond student submissions, ASU found representation at the festival through a short film directed by Cassandra Nicholson, the digital marketing coordinator at Arizona PBS.

Nicholson, a Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication alumna, co-wrote and directed “Tender Matches” as part of a separate film competition that required submissions to be "buddy comedies" with two female leads.

She said finding affordable and accessible locations for shooting was a major production hurdle for her crew. When she and the team found a restaurant they could film inside, she said they had to work around the business' schedule.

“We had to jump right into it,” she said. “Shooting took two full days.”

Nicholson counts filmmaker Ava DuVernay among her major influences, citing DuVernay's insistence on "making sure every one of her directors is female."

Nicholson is a seasoned media professional whose IMDb credits list her as producer and director for short films like “Vault of Souls: The Pact” and “Dark Dignity.” 

She said while her educational background and daily job center around journalism, both the film and journalism fields find common ground in their ultimate purpose.

“At the end of the day, it’s all storytelling,” she said.

Reach the reporter at or follow @ChristopherJCI8 on Twitter.

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