STUDENTS DAZZLE MOVIEGOERS WITH INNOVATIVE FESTIVAL ENTRY : THEIR DAY IN THE SUNDANCE.
The lights go down in a Sundance Film Festival screening room, an usher's flashlight beam dances across an aisle as he shows latecomers to their seats and excited chatter gives way to nervous silence.
An instant later, a full-color, 16 mm image blooms across the movie screen and an improbable dream has come true: The teen-age filmmakers of Valley-based Next Generation Productions are screening the feature film they made themselves at the prestigious film festival.
The film, ``Common Bonds,'' is about a teen-ager (played by Kate McKinney, 17, of Northridge) who encounters a moral dilemma while working in a home for senior citizens.
As the final credits roll later, a large group of kids stands blinking, answering eager questions from the audience.
``How did you deal with all the clashing egos?'' a woman wants to know.
Tony Manriquez, the 16-year-old from Sun Valley who directed the movie, fields that one. ``I had my mom to come home to,'' he said. ``And Evelyn and Mr. Gleason (the program's adult advisers) were always there to support us, along with all the parents who helped.''
It's not the sort of response you usually hear from a filmmaker, but then, filmmakers aren't usually 16. Manriquez, in fact, was 14 when filming began, and most of his collaborators were within two or three years of his age.
For the past few days, the kids, who were first inspired to make a movie on a field trip to Sundance several years ago, had been touting their accomplishment to potential attendees as ``the first-ever movie made by teen-agers.''
Now, the curious who ventured out to see ``Common Bonds,'' say they're impressed.
``I was stunned,'' said David Greenberg, 24, a graduate film student from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. ``It had great camera work, the script was layered and well-developed and the acting was incredible considering they used nonunion actors.''
Deanna Oliver, a Salt Lake City resident said it was better than expected. ``Because they were teen-agers, I thought it would be some silly little thing, but they had put real values in the story. I was pleasantly surprised.''
David Riddick, 23, another undergraduate film student at LMU said, ``I didn't expect it to be good at all. But the story had some good twists in it, and the cinematography was amazing.''
But for all the interest in their creative and technical accomplishments, the kids, who were introduced to Sundance as part of a film production class at the Pacoima Magnet School taught by James Gleason, focused on their personal growth when asked by members of the audience what they learned from the experience.
``It was about learning to get along with the people you're pretty much married to when you're working on a project, and those are skills you'll need in any job,'' said Manriquez, who claims his mother got so involved in helping him through the rough spots that she was given a credit on the movie of ``production shrink East'' (connoting her East Valley residence).
Yin Nguyen, 17, of Pacoima said she learned ``a lot about myself. It was the experience of a lifetime.''
Not all the kids were so serious. Emily Greene, a 17-year-old from Northridge who was the movie's assistant director, went on to work as a production intern on ``Jerry Maguire.''
``Did you meet Tom Cruise?'' someone shouted out. ``Of course! He's going to call me tonight,'' Greene quipped.
Josh Gray-Emmer, 18, of Reseda took the occasion to deliver an important message for the teens. ``Everyone here is looking for jobs, so if you know someone who could use that information, please pass it along!'' he declared.
The mood at the movie's first-ever public screening, which took place Monday at 11 p.m. at a Sundance facility normally used for press screenings, wasn't always so upbeat.
Fifteen minutes before showtime, it looked as though the kids would suffer a major disappointment when the crowd they'd been recruiting for days failed to materialize.
But discouragement was fleeting. As a couple approached the screening room door, Gray-Emmer leapt toward them. ``Are you coming here for `Common Bonds'?'' he asked. ``No,'' they answered. ``Well, come on in; it's a free movie,'' Gray-Emmer persisted. And they did. The teen-ager grinned. ``That was easy.''
By showtime, there were some 100 people, including the teens, for the screening - not bad, considering the late hour and off-the-beaten-path location.
Among the key supporters in the audience was Midge Pierce, the programming executive for WAM!, a division of the Encore cable channel, which provided the teens with the $50,000 in production seed money that made the movie possible.
``Common Bonds,'' which will be broadcast on WAM!, is the first original movie the division has financed. ``Hands-on education is part of our mission, so the fact that the kids have had this learning experience makes this one feel really good,'' said Pierce.
After the screening, ``Common Bonds'' producer Dan Aeberhard, 19, of Culver City reflected on the modest turnout. ``We should have been more aggressive in getting people out here,'' he said. ``I mean, we were aggressive, but it should have been a nonstop effort.
``I myself was so struck with awe just to be here that it took me half a day to come out of it and start talking to people.''
After Sundance, Aeberhard will direct a public service announcement to be shot in 35 mm and screen in movie theaters, as part of a series New Generation Productions is producing in conjunction with Councilman Richard Alarcon.
Manriquez, who dropped out of school after ``Common Bonds'' was complete because he was intent on a filmmaking career and felt that high school classes were a waste of time, has passed his high school equivalency exam. He is enrolled at Los Angeles Valley College and says he plans to pursue a master's degree and possibly a Ph.D.
``I'm not really at Sundance to promote myself, because my goal is to get an education first,'' he said.
A second screening of their movie was held Wednesday at the Sundance Institute for an audience of senior citizens from nearby Provo, and then the teens headed back to Los Angeles.
But earlier, as a group of the Valley teens walked along a slushy sidewalk, they talked about what they liked most about the festival.
``It's so friendly here,'' said Gray-Emmer. ``If this festival was permanent and there were studios here where you could make films, I would never leave. This would be what you call heaven.''
Next Generation Productions' ``Common Bonds'' will have its world premiere Feb. 10 at the Santa Clarita International Film Festival. For information on the festival, call (805) 257-3131.
Photo: (Color) ``Common Bonds'' director Tony Manriquez and crew post a flier advertising their film in Park City, Utah.
Randall Michelson/Special to the Daily News
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