With Film Academy, WQED prepares students for careers in digital media

When high schoolers Gigi Laurita and Max Mitchell entered the 48 Hour film project last year, they didn’t know what kind of film they would end up producing, but a documentary about the filmmaking process wasn’t part of their plans. plan. . Teams are assigned a genre, character, and line of dialogue and must write, shoot, and edit a short film in a single weekend.

“We didn’t end up finishing the project,” Mitchell said. “We ran out of time with our edit, so it was a little disappointing, but it was a fun experience.”

Months later, Mitchell and Laurita created a documentary about their experience. This film, titled Sidelined: a 48-hour cinematic fiasco, is set to screen at the All American High School Film Festival in New York City next month. It’s one of three films shown at the festival that represent Pittsburgh’s WQED and its new Film Academy. Mitchell studies digital media production at Florida State University in Tallahassee, while Laurita attends film school at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“A lot of my friends are very jealous that I’m going to New York for a film festival,” Laurita said. “A lot of [my classmates] haven’t even been to festivals because they don’t have work to show for themselves, so I’m really grateful.

‘A perfect fit’

The Film Academy was launched in 2015 as part of the Steeltown Entertainment Project, a digital media advocacy and training organization founded by writer, producer and filmmaker Carl Kurlander. A Pittsburgh native, Kurlander saw the organization as a link between his hometown and Hollywood. Steeltown advocated for the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit program, which became law in 2004, and created an independent project incubator in partnership with WQED in 2011.

Youth training programs grew organically, as schools and community organizations asked Steeltown to provide on-site educational opportunities for their students. These efforts have gradually grown to include the tiered Film Academy, where more advanced students are paid to present and produce short films. On-site programs continue as WQED Film Academy On Location.

In 2018, the region’s film industry was thriving and the incubator had run its course. Steeltown’s Board of Directors recognized the youth training programs as the organization’s most valuable assets. Kurlander and Steeltown parted ways amicably, and new CEO Wendy Burtner began looking to forge a partnership with a larger organization that would help maintain and grow the other education and workforce development programs. of the Film Academy and Steeltown.


At the same time, WQED’s education department was looking for ways to better serve teens and tweens and diversify its pool of young, creative talent. Steeltown became a tenant of WQED’s headquarters in 2021, and a partnership began to form. The station officially acquired the lineup this spring.

“It seemed like a perfect fit,” said Gina Masciola, chief education officer at WQED. “[They were] here. We really need a program that has the kind of impact those guys had.

Of the nearly 1,000 community members who engaged with Steeltown/WQED film programs between Spring 2021 and Summer 2022, approximately 727 were college students.

The missing middle

A 2021 report from Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center firmly established that teens and tweens are largely absent from public broadcasting audiences. Through in-depth interviews with young people in this age group, researchers found that they had little knowledge or understanding of public media. As part of a CPB-funded effort to help public broadcasters engage more with Gen Z, the center this year awarded 12 grants to stations “to create content by, with, and for tween and teen audiences.” WQED’s Film Academy was among the winners.

“One of the big challenges we’ve seen is that stations generally don’t have expertise in youth development. … For the most part, it’s news and community organizations,” said Rafi Santo, senior fellow at the Cooney Center. “How to develop the capacity to work collaboratively with young people on the media is just one big question.”

WQED’s acquisition of the Film Academy is an example of how to build that capacity, Santo said. The benefits of such efforts accrue not only to the students — in terms of technical skill development, exposure to career paths, and media literacy — but also to the stations themselves. When done intentionally, involving young people in media production can engender innovation that permeates throughout an organization.

While many youth media programs focus primarily on the training aspect, public broadcasters have a unique opportunity to think about how to serve audiences with youth-created content, Santo said.

“Certain adult audiences, it’s important for them to hear these stories — parents, school administrators, mental health professionals, etc.,” said Santo, who spent ten years working in youth media before turning towards research. “Then there’s the idea of ​​producing content that has a different look and perspective, and that kind of age curve bends down.”

But Santo cautions stations against simply involving young people in the kinds of productions they are already doing.

“It’s very intensive to do this work, so there should be something…product that needed to involve young people, that it was a story that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” he said. declared.

Artists and Engineers

Students enter the Film Academy at the apprenticeship level, where they learn basic technical and creative skills, such as scriptwriting, camera operation, lighting, and video editing. The program is offered three times a year, in the spring, summer and fall, with in-person and virtual options available. At the end of the eight weeks, each cohort produced their own short film.

The Academy costs up to $2,000 to attend, but the price for each student is determined by a sliding scale based on family income. Scholarships are also available. As a rising junior in high school, Mariah Sanchez was paid to attend the 2020 summer session through Pittsburgh’s Partner 4 Work workforce development program. Sanchez is now a freshman at Point Park University studying animation.

“It was a really healthy environment where everyone can do whatever they want,” Sanchez said. “You can explore the things that you like or maybe don’t like, you will find out. It’s just a really nice place to be creative.


After completing the program, Sanchez returned to the trainee level and later became a member of the Reel Teen film crew. Interns act as production assistants on Reel Teen projects. They must log 100 hours before they can become paid crew members and present their own projects. Members of the Reel Teen Film Crew also support client work, including promotional videos for local organizations and live event recordings.

“We have our artists and our engineers,” said Film Academy director Ian Altenbaugh, who started as a teaching artist with Steeltown in 2016. clients. I don’t have to worry about thinking of all the ideas, I can come in and just spin around, “where we have other kids who are like, ‘I’m going to tell a story. “”

These stories can be found not only at film festivals, but also on the Reel Teens YouTube page. A documentary about the local drag scene was featured on WQED Filmmakers cornera local series featuring independent cinema.

“We can reach children anywhere”

This fall, WQED will offer the new Film Academy Lite, aimed at middle school students. Although the program is open to all high school students, staff found that most students in the upper grade signed up.

“We wanted to do what we could to engage students earlier so they could stay with us longer,” said director of film education Mary Ann McBride-Tackett, who also previously worked at Steeltown. “We have had [students that] we affectionately call our ‘lifers’, who will be with us for four years, and it’s truly amazing to watch these students grow.

The program is also expanding its geographic reach by virtually engaging students, as required by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We realized we could do this, we can actually teach this program and reach these students and engage them almost permanently,” Altenbaugh said. “We can reach children anywhere.”


The Film Academy already works with students across Pennsylvania and plans to expand its reach nationwide, according to McBride-Tackett. “This is just the beginning,” she said.

Support for young filmmakers doesn’t stop after high school. WQED also acquired Steeltown’s adult-oriented programming, which includes networking events, crew referrals, workshops and one-on-one consultations.

Graduates of the original Steeltown program are now working in the industry as production assistants, including on the sets of the TV remake of A league apart and the directorial debut of Pittsburgh native Billy Porter, Everything is possible.

“Once students graduate from the Film Academy, then they’re just part of this filmmaking community,” McBride-Tackett said. “As they grow, learn and gain life experience, work experience, we engaged them to come back and then work with the next generation of students.”

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