Approved or Rejected? Criteria for Senior Film Projects

by Brigitta Sanchez-O’Brien

Last Fall, senior Production student Nicolas Alayo submitted a script to be considered for this year’s senior thesis films. “I was only aware of the types of projects that had been greenlit in the past, but I didn’t really use that as a guideline, I wanted to write something that was more ‘me’ – something I’d be proud and enthusiastic to put hours and hours of my time into.” A follow-up email two weeks later informed him that the project was a “go.” What made his script a good candidate for senior projects? Nicolas conceded, “I have no idea.”

JPCatholic’s Adjunct Professor of Film, Nathan Scoggins, is one of three professors involved in the senior project script selection. He additionally acts as primary professor of approved projects throughout the consecutive stages of production. Together with Chair of Communications Media, Tom Dunn, and Professor of Film Chris Riley, Prof. Scoggins says the reviewal process begins in the Fall when the three professors “‘throw the gates open’ so to speak, soliciting ideas, loglines, pitches and scripts from the student body for consideration for senior project.  We then take a few weeks at the end of the fall quarter, read everything that has been submitted, discuss internally, and then notify students in December of which scripts we believe would be the best fit for senior project.”  According to Prof. Dunn, senior projects serve as “an opportunity for students to show to what degree they have either met or exceeded the learning outcomes the University has identified in the Communications Media degree.”

The school’s mission of ‘Impacting Culture for Christ’ is at the heart of the evaluation process, and helps identify, in Prof. Scoggins’ words, “material that is good for the world in some way, that leaves the audience better for the viewing— even if slightly troubled!” The three professors in turn shared complimentary attributes each looks for in a senior project—attributes which are rooted in principles taught in their various classes at JPCatholic.  Prof. Scoggins says some of the general criteria looks at “whether a story is well-told, whether it has a clear theme, and whether it would be good for the audience.  These criteria can be somewhat subjective, which is why it’s so valuable for the three of us to dialogue about them together.” Prof. Riley says he looks for scripts of quality in “an aesthetic sense. And for those that do all the things a story should do—it grabs us, it moves us, it adds up to something at the end whether that is a surprise, or something that’s meaningful.”

Out of the dozen or so scripts submitted to the senior project review board this year, seven were approved —the most ever to be greenlit.  Alongside these seven were a handful of rejected projects, due to any number of reasons; student guesses being anywhere from length to content.  Prof. Dunn admitted that the evaluation process is “not something we’ve ever really codified or written down, it’s more of a ‘been there, seen that before, and it crashed and burned…’ we want to set the students up for success. We’ve done enough senior projects to know what students are capable of raising from a financing standpoint and how many pages of a script equate to how much they can raise.” He said a script is usually denied “[Because] it’s beyond the scope of what we feel students can succeed at at this level.”

Cole Harter, Production student and senior at JPCatholic, received an email last Fall saying his script was denied. “Every class I’m in they tell me how they’re not interested in nice little Christian stories, but everything they approve is always so safe.” He believes the decision behind his script’s denial is due to his unusual mode of storytelling—a stylistic approach consistent across his films. “Everybody always wants to know everything about what’s going on [in a movie], I don’t understand, the second you explain anything in a film it’s ruined, and it drives me nuts. I think they [the professors] probably have an unspoken set of criteria, but they’re not very helpful when you’re trying to pitch them ideas for senior projects.”

Another Production senior at JPCatholic, Ben Escobar, almost didn’t submit a script for review.  He said “There were a number of things on my mind including grad school, outside connections, and just the potential meaninglessness just another short film could be.” He determined that if he was moving forward with the process it would be a film that he could use to explore independent cinema—a favorite and somewhat uncharted area of interest to him.  He said “Early in the development process I had a phone call with Chris Riley about the idea I was developing and if the significance I thought it carried was just my own insanity. He was thankfully reassuring and gave extremely positive feedback on my development thus far, and showed great interest in the story/concept.” At the end of the writing process, Ben had a 41-page script he submitted for review.

Despite the positive feedback he initially received, the script was not among the seven approved senior projects.  Ben said “He [Prof. Scoggins] gave feedback that seemed as though he looked at the page count, then guessed as much as he could about the story based off the log line. When criticizing the page count as well, he claimed it to be a different (higher) number than what it actually was…” Upon receiving the rejection, Ben expanded his script into a feature, successfully fundraised for its production, and brought friends on board to shoot the film on their own time.  He said “It’s not out of rebellion, but ambition and dedication as to why I refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. Why would I want to let my final opportunity to make something great be dictated by someone else’s vision? It’s not worth it. Even if I’m destined to fail with a project, I’d at least like the liberty of giving 110% into a mistake so that I can receive the same percentage back with experience.”