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Are Cell Phone Films the Next New Visual Medium?


Cell phones have become a central force in the daily life of teens around the world. In addition to calling each other, and sending text messages, they use their cell phones to connect with web sites, play music and games, and take pictures. Now, a U.S. college is holding a competition, giving young people a chance to get really creative with this tiny hand held device. They're being challenged to produce a cell phone film.

"It needs to be edited. It needs to have some kind of audio, voice-over or music, and it needs to tell a story," contest organizer Dianne Lynch says. It must be shot entirely with cell phones.

She adds that the best film will not be very different from an award-winning movie in any other format. "It has to have a beginning, a middle and an end," she says. "It has to come to some kind of closure. The best of the stories will evoke some kind of emotional response: surprise, laughter, anger, perhaps, confusion, maybe, with a point. It's just that they have 30 seconds to do it."

This Cellflix Festival 'for cellular short films' - sponsor ed by Ithaca College in New York - is open to all high school and college students between the ages of 13 and 20, anywhere in the world. Ms. Lynch, dean of Ithaca's Park School of Communications, came up with the idea last year, after attending a conference on the future of the mobile delivery of content.

"I left that conference thinking what does this mean for my students?" she wonders. "What do students entering our program need to know to be successful in that shifting and changing media landscape? Then, I realized that I had video on my cell phone I can take video and I'm not a filmmaker, but thousands if not millions of students around the world are."

She says a contest that gives young people a chance to use their cell phones to create their own stories seemed like a perfect match. "For kids, they don't have that kind of emotional or psychological barrier that adults maybe sometimes have using technologies," she says. "When we first started talking about this I'd say to adults or parents particularly, 'We're going to have this cell phone contest,' and there would always be this pause. They would say, 'What?' But when you talk about it to students, there was never a moment of hesitation. They got it immediately and thought, 'That is cool. I can do that.'"

Sudhanshu Saria grew up watching India's Bollywood films, and is now a senior in filmmaking at Ithaca College. He jumped at the chance to participate in the cell phone film contest. "When I first heard about the CellFlix, I thought, well, it's pretty unique and it's a chance for my generation of filmmakers to give a new language to something that doesn't currently have one," he says. "I think that cell phones have a very powerful advantage. I'm holding it in my hand and it's very close to me. I have friends in India, in London. So I take that video cell phone and film people in different parts of the world. I also found the whole process very exciting because when I make films I'm inspired by this or that director, but there is no precedents here."

Not only is it exciting, but says fellow competitor Jon Katz, creating a story for such a small screen is also tricky. "It raises a really difficult challenge to the content, " he says, explaining he has to take "into account the different problems that might come up as competency of file type and quality of the actual image."

But challenges are part of the creative process, according to Victoria Lynn Weston, founder of Zoie Films, a producer of independent films and film festivals. Three years ago, her company organized the world's first cell phone film festival.

She says competitions like Ithaca's can play an important role in launching a new era. "I feel like this is the cell phone era," she says. "It's our new friend. So for riding a subway, or taking a bus or sitting in an airport, we can now look at the stock market, but then more importantly we all like entertainment, being able to click on your cell phone and look at a 90 second mini movie, a little comedy sketch or a daily soap opera. I think over time it will become even more popular."

Audiences are already used to watching cell phone images. Dean Lynch points to fast-breaking news stories, like last year's terrorist bombings in the London subway, and the flooding in New Orleans. "Very often the first images came from average citizens' cell phones and those images were broadcast and pod-cast on line all over the world," she says. "So the notion that you can capture video and use it to produce media has come to its own."

Dianne Lynch says she had no doubt Ithaca's CellFlix Fest would inspire creative uses of this new visual medium… and, she received around 200 entries. The winner of the $5,000 grand prize will be announced online, at www.cellflixfestival.org, on January 30th.

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