By Diane Y. Welch
The independent film "URFrenz," co-produced by 2007 Torrey Pines High School grads Michael Gallagher and Jana Winternitz, was chosen from more than 5,000 entries to be a part of the Slamdance Film Festival that will be held Jan. 21-29 in Park City, Utah.
"URFrenz," from Virtually Exposed Productions, examines the dark side of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Its storyline was inspired by the 2006 suicide of teenager Megan Meier following an online bullying incident.
The Slamdance festival, which runs concurrently with the Sundance Film Festival, began 16 years ago.
"Sundance originally started out as a showcase for independent films, but then slowly became a place for big studios to submit their less expensive movies," said Gallagher. "That inspired the launch of the Slamdance Film Festival. To qualify you have to be a first-time filmmaker and the project has to (have cost) less than $1 million (to produce)."
Winternitz and Gallagher were a part of a creative team that worked swiftly to make the October deadline for entry into the festival.
"We shot the film in 16 days in August and we only had the rough cut when we submitted the film," Winternitz said. "We were so elated to get chosen. The story must have resonated with the judges, as this was not a polished film."
That, plus the fact that the story is extremely topical.
"There are many reported cases of cyber-bullying, kids getting too involved in the online world, people pretending to be others, and this is what the movie is about. It shows how a parent may take protective measures too far and how this can actually be devastating," Winternitz said.
This was subject matter close to the heart of director and screenplay writer Jeff Phillips, an industry pro with more than two decades in Hollywood.
"Because of his own experience (Jeff) was adamant about keeping the realism to tell the story," Winternitz said. "The film handles the subject matter in a very mature way through a beautifully crafted story. And by the end of the movie, the message is hit home hard. It stays with you long after.
"The film is based on the story of Megan Meier who, through MySpace, fell in love with a boy who turned out not to be a boy, but (a former friend's) mom, taking on the identity of the boy. The girl ended up committing suicide as a result of the humiliation caused by this hoax."
Winternitz said she can relate to the dangers of social-network sites.
"Growing up, I was surrounded by this virtual world, and it's something that is really coming to its height. Everybody is always on their Blackberry, texting and being online, and it feels like there is always a need to be connected. Interaction does not necessarily have to be face-to-face anymore. People can hide behind their computers. The interesting thing in this plot was that the mother was involved, doing something that she wouldn't normally do, face to face. (These sites) create a power that hadn't been there before."
The Virtually Exposed Productions team is hopeful about its chances of winning in the feature film narrative genre. And after the screening at Slamdance 2010, Gallagher and Winternitz, both Los Angeles residents, look ahead to the possibility that their movie will find a home nationally, with a distributor or a studio.
"The goal is to have your film seen by as many people as possible, to be shown in theaters or distributed as a DVD," Gallagher said.
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