Tom Verdi, right, attends a screening of Tommy Wiseau's (middle) cult film The Room. The film was produced by James Franco and Seth Rogan. (Courtesy of Tom Verdi)

Movie Magic: Senior launches film-funding contest, produces short films

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Tom Verdi, ’17, stood on Hollywood Boulevard at the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. He had only found out two weeks earlier he would be a semifinalist at the 2015 HollyShorts Film Festival for his script for Son of Blackbeard, a short film he will be producing this summer.

“I didn’t expect the festival to be as big a deal as it was,” Verdi said. “It was absolutely crazy, all the industry people that were there. Just the sheer amount of creativity and passion that these writers and directors, producers, everybody brought to their projects was completely unprecedented.”

HollyShorts was called the “Cannes of short film festivals” by IndieWire.

Verdi wrote his first film script the summer after he graduated from high school and produced it during winter break of his first year at Lehigh.

“I went from watching movies to making them,” he said.

Verdi is an English major, with a concentration in creative writing and minors in film studies and entrepreneurship, but he started out in the engineering school.

Verdi described his interest in film as a “haphazard journey.” He’s always loved movies and been passionate about watching them. Movies have always been his “thing,” he said, but he felt detached from them and saw them just as a source of entertainment.

It wasn’t until his friend approached him to make that first movie, and they actually did, that he realized it was something he could pursue seriously.

Tom Verdi on the red carpet at the HollyShorts Film Festival in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Tom Verdi)

“Making that first short film over winter break just completely changed my perspective on how I looked at my career path,” Verdi said. “It didn’t make sense to pursue something I wasn’t going to be passionate about.”

Avi Setton, ’15G, has served as a mentor to Verdi. He completed his undergraduate degree in film at New York University, and received his masters in English at Lehigh, where he also taught classes. He has experience in the industry and is now working on virtual reality projects at Google.

Verdi sought Setton out and sent him a script, which Setton thought was good — especially for someone who didn’t have much formal training in screenwriting. Setton is now helping Verdi by co-producing Son of Blackbeard.

Having lived in Los Angeles for three years working on movie, TV and commercial sets, Setton has been able to explain to Verdi what the process of production looks like.

“It’s really fun to work with someone who cares about a craft,” Setton said. “I think he’ll be successful and it’s exciting to be around while that happens.”

In his entrepreneurship 312 class this fall semester, Verdi was able to develop a new idea: the Film Fund. Now he has taken his vision and turned it into a real business.

“I’ve learned how incredibly difficult it is to set out and actually do something,” Verdi said.

The Film Fund is a contest that offers short-length filmmakers an alternative way to secure funding for their projects. According to the Film Fund website, contestants are to “craft and submit one sentence with a compelling premise that also conveys why (they) need this funding to achieve (their) vision.”

Tom Verdi works on a short film project. (Courtesy of Tom Verdi)

“I wanted to do something that was really simple that gave everyone a chance and allowed creativity to come to the forefront,” Verdi said. 

He said he was tired of funding opportunities being dominated by industry professionals, and that’s why he started the Film Fund. He said he’s “leveling the funding field.”

Contestants can win up to $10,000 from the contest. The prize money comes from a $25 entrance fee per contestant. Verdi is not pursuing sponsors for the first contest, but might go down that route in the future. The Film Fund launched on Feb. 28 and the contest closes tomorrow.

The contest will be judged by Verdi, as well as Professor of English Dawn Keetley, Setton and filmmaker and artist Eli Hess, ‘16.

“I didn’t want to just do purely filmmakers or producers,” Verdi said. “I wanted to get a broad range of people who have experience in the art community because at the end of the day film is kind of encapsulating everything.”

Joshua Ehrig, a professor of practice in the department of management, has worked with Verdi in his independent study, a mountaintop project and also as his professor in his senior capstone project.

“Regardless of whether (The Film Fund) ultimately succeeds or not, (Verdi) is going to succeed,” Ehrig said. “Without question.”

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