On a recent Thursday afternoon, 16 students ages 12 to 19 gathered around three fold-out tables in an Echo Park storefront on Alvarado Street. Shelves of film canisters, movie journals and how-to guides lined the bright red and teal walls of the 900-square-foot space.
Three teachers and a guest speaker instructed the kids to use an array of wooden blocks, plastic figurines and other knickknacks to build miniature models of their ideal cities. The brainstorming session will eventually culminate in a 16-millimeter student-made film that focuses on urban planning.
The two-hour class is part of a 12-week course from the Echo Park Film Center, a nonprofit group that serves as a unique community resource center for film. It provides free courses to disadvantaged youths to teach them how to make movies and a cinema house where aspiring independent filmmakers can screen their movies and talk about their craft.
Open since 2001, the Echo Park Film Center is the brainchild of Paolo Davanzo, 41, an experimental filmmaker, activist and former community college film professor. Born in Italy and raised in Irvine by an Italian father and a Canadian mother, Davanzo launched the center as a tribute to his late parents, who had immersed the family in volunteer work at homeless shelters, food banks and libraries.
Along with his life and business partner, Lisa Marr, Davanzo molded the space into a community center for all things film-related.
“L.A. needed a humble cinema house that celebrated nontraditional work and artists needed access to tools to make their films,” said Davanzo, one of three paid staff members at the center. “Kids needed a safe environment that applauded and celebrated their artistic skills.”
The Echo Park Film Center is primarily funded through a mixture of government grants and private donations, including from the Annenberg Foundation. It receives about $140,000 in annual donations, according to tax filings.
The center also generates more than $30,000 a year by renting film equipment — including 16-mm and Super 8 cameras, digital audio recorders, dollies and lights — and selling tickets for special screenings of experimental movies and documentaries.
A number of aspiring filmmakers have tapped into the center’s services, among them Nicholas McCarthy, who early in his career regularly screened his short films at the EPFC. The writer-director’s feature film “The Pact” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was acquired for distribution by IFC Midnight.
“Paolo was really generous with the space,” McCarthy said. “It can be daunting for someone to make a film in L.A., and the Echo Park Film Center is a safe environment for people to experiment and try things.”
But the main focus of the EPFC is on education. In addition to youth classes, the center offers free courses for seniors as well as affordable adult-instruction seminars on filmmaking, film processing, editing and animation. The courses range in cost from $75 for one-day workshops to $250 for eight-week-long classes, with discounts available for members.
Although a handful of nonprofit entertainment arts courses are available in Los Angeles, such as Hollywood CPR, an 18-month program at West Los Angeles College, the EPFC specializes in serving underprivileged junior high and high school students.
“From Day One, anyone that walks in and is committed and will come to class, we’ve accommodated and made space for,” Davanzo said. “We’ve never turned a student away.”
When the students turn 19, the maximum age at which they can qualify for free classes, they’re invited to volunteer as programmers, curators and teachers at the center.
“There was no other place that said, ‘It’s OK to be who you are or to not grow up this certain way, and it was empowering,” said student-turned-instructor Walter Vargas, 20. “The first film I made here was a portrait piece about my mother. Now I’m finishing up my first year at Cal Arts studying film and video production.”
In 2007, a $75,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation enabled EPFC to expand its services even further. The center purchased an old school bus and transformed it into the Filmmobile, a mobile classroom and cinema used to hold filmmaking workshops and to screen classic films across the city.
EPFC also provides free on-location workshops for students at local schools, including Thomas Starr King Middle School in Silver Lake and George Washington Preparatory High School in Westmont, as well as for mothers and children at Good Shepherd Center in Westlake and former prostitutes in transitional programs through the Mary Magdalene Foundation.
“They came to work with me when I had a creative writing class one year and we did a film project,” said Steve Abee, an eighth-grade English teacher at King Middle School. “The Echo Park Film Center is really about creating a community of creative young people who are interested and engaged in making art in their city.”
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Photo: Students and instructors discuss upcoming film projects at the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles. Credit: Glenn Koenig/ Los Angeles Times
Where the cameras roll
Sample of neighborhoods with permitted TV, film and commercial shoots scheduled this week. Permits are subject to last-minute changes. Sources: FilmL.A. Inc., cities of Beverly Hills, Santa Clarita and Pasadena. Thomas Suh Lauder
/ Los Angeles Times