VMA students bring home awards

Allison Teixeira

October 27, 2011

Two Visual and Media Arts students were honored in October at two separate film festivals, one for a screenplay pitch, and one for a documentary film.

Zach Ehrlich ’14 won the Austin Film Festival’s Pitch Competition for his 90-second pitch for an hour-long TV comedy called Ramrod. Graduate student Elaine McMillion won both Director's Choice and Audience Choice awards at the West Virginia Filmmakers Festival for her film Lincoln County Massacre.

Ehrlich beat 152 other competitors at the Speakeasy Lounge in downtown Austin. According to him, Ramrod is the story of a selfish, smooth-talking, party-loving congressman who gets kicked out of office and tries to jumpstart his political career by bringing the same tactics to his new job as mayor of a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Zach Elrich pitching judges.
Emerson sophomore Zach Ehrlich made his winning pitch at the Austin Film Festival's Pitch Competition at the Speakeasy Lounge in downtown Austin.

The pitch competition is one of the major events at the festival’s annual Screenwriters Conference. Assistant Professor Jim Macak, who took 14 Emerson College students -- including Ehrlich -- to the Screenwriters Conference, said it’s like “American Idol for screenwriters.” Ehrlich and the other contestants pitched their projects on stage with a microphone in hand to three judges and a capacity crowd of festivalgoers. The judges gave feedback and scored each contestant. The crowd also had an impact on the final decision, cheering for the best pitches.

Ehrlich’s pitch was the first TV pitch -- as opposed to a feature film pitch -- ever to win the competition. “Even before I knew the results, just getting that response from the audience, getting those laughs was incredible,” Zach said.

Macak suspected Ehrlich would win “when -- just before the winner was announced -- we saw the contest directors remove the wine from the prize bag and replace it with a bottle of hair conditioner,” said Macak. (Ehrlich is 19 years old -- under the 21-year-old drinking age in Texas.) Ehrlich’s other prizes included a Producer's Pass to next year's festival and a pass to the Great American Pitch Fest in Los Angeles.

McMillion’s documentary, Lincoln County Massacre, made its festival premiere at the West Virginia Film Festival to a theater packed with an eclectic mix of burly motorcyclists and families with young children. It was chosen from among some 30 films for the two awards.

The 56-minute documentary tells the story of police brutality in West Virginia in the 1980s. It focuses on an incident between the West Virginia State Police and two motorcycle clubs, known amongst motorcyclists as the Lincoln County Massacre.

Elaine McMillion and motorcyclist
Motorcycle enthusiasts came from all over Appalachia to attend a screening of graduate student Elaine McMillion's (left) documentary Lincoln County Massacre at the West Virginia Film Festival.

McMillion said she first set out to make a film about the incident from the perspectives of both the State Police and the motorcyclists, but the police were not willing to participate. In the end, she made a film from the viewpoint of the motorcyclists, and uncovered a side of the story that had never been told.

“It was a small festival and it was my first festival, so I was really excited to get two awards,” said McMillion. “But, I think overall the most excitement wasn’t about the awards. I’ve had so many people writing me letters and emails thanking me for finally telling their story. The awards are awesome and they help with credibility for my future projects, but the gratitude that’s been expressed has been way more rewarding.”

McMillion started making the film while working as a journalist in West Virginia in 2009. Though she didn’t create the film as an Emerson project, she finished it outside of class last spring, with help and advice from Emerson faculty members Jan Roberts-Breslin, Marc Fields, and Linda Reisman.

For more information about the film, visit www.lincolncountymassacre.com.