Last night's ninth Annual Spring Benefit for the Ghetto Film School featured plenty of celebrities, a few surprises, and six very happy high school students. Presenters Lee Daniels, Julia Stiles, and sportscaster Gus Johnson were all on hand to honor the six college-bound high school students who earned $2,500 in college scholarships to continue their film education. Held at The Standard Hotel's Biergarten in the Meat Packing District of Manhattan, the benefit featured at least three unannounced celebrity guests including the Roots frontman Questlove, who helped DJ the after-dinner party, "Nashville" star Connie Britton, and director Wes Anderson, who sent in a surprise video introduction for fellow benefit honoree Peter Becker, the president of The Criterion Collection. Becker was named a GFS Champion in honor of his organization’s support of the GFS.
GFS Filmmakers Council member Lee Daniels was given the same designation three years prior. The director of "Precious" and "The Paperboy" has been an integral part of the operation for years, and even hires interns from the program to work on his films. Dressed in bright red sneakers, shorts, and a form-fitting sweatshirt, Daniels arrived at the event with Pamela Williams, a producer on his upcoming film, "The Butler." Before the ceremony, Daniels joked he’s been working so much lately, he hasn't had a chance to help the GFS as much as he wants.
"I haven't done anything. That’s why I'm here tonight. I feel so guilty," Daniels said. "This didn't exist when I was around and if I can just pass on what little I know to these kids, it's a big deal to me. It's important to me as a filmmaker."
Two tickets to the premiere of "The Butler" were up for auction, but the most buzzed about item available to the highest charity bidder was a speaking part in longtime GFS supporter David O. Russell's upcoming film, "American Hustle." Julia Stiles, a friend of Russell's, was on hand to present a scholarship check to Josue Loayza, a student who commuted an hour and a half every day to attend the program.
"I wish there was something like the Ghetto Film School when I was growing up," Stiles said before the ceremony. "Filmmaking in general is the kind of thing you learn through trial and error, so having a jump start on trying to come up with stories, being able to use equipment, and the access to the kind of mentors that they have access to would have been indispensable."
After presenting checks to each of the students, the focus turned to the night’s other honoree, Peter Becker. As president of The Criterion Collection, Becker has awarded more than $200,000 in college aid to more than 200 students. He's also helped build a film library of more than 1,000 titles for the GFS. Becker makes regular trips to the school to teach classes using movies like "M" and "Do the Right Thing." Becker said he hopes the students are able to apply what they learn to both classic films and today’s blockbusters.
"I feel fully confident that future Criterion filmmakers will come out of GFS," Becker said. "We want to help students not just to make films, but express themselves. Young people have always driven culture and that’s how it should be."
The six skilled scholarships award winners are Tiye Amenechi, Yamel Garcia, Josue Loayza, Kirsten Tanjutco, Antonella Velez, and Nicholas Farfan. Multiple students said they didn’t even know how to use a camera before entering The Cinema School — a full-fledged high school founded by the GFS with a focus on teaching kids about film — or by attending weekend and summer courses through the GFS.
GFS also offers MasterClass courses for students across the country. Run as a series of Google+ Hangouts between students and respected directors, the virtual classroom has featured many experienced directors including Daniels, Wes Anderson, Catherine Hardwicke, and many more professional filmmakers. GFS Founder Joe Hall announced the next season of MasterClass will focus on helping teachers introduce new and effective film-based curriculums in their classrooms.
Applications for MasterClass can be filed at the GFS website, as can more information about joining The Cinema School.