Pens to Lens Brings the Hollywood Vibe to Downtown Champaign

A beloved toy turned into a carrot-chomping monster. A superhero fighting a different kind of battle. A young girl on an unusual mission. A sanitized Satan battling over burgers. Miners, monkeys, dinner parties, and even a tunnel to the other side of the globe. Those were some of the cinematic treats devoured by a very enthusiastic packed house at the Art Theater last night. The unexpected part? The scripts were all written by kids.

It was the gala celebration for a new and exciting program called Pens to Lens. Just a few short months ago, local filmmakers from the CU Film Society and the Champaign Movie Makers got together to present a singularly unique opportunity for area students: write a short story, no more than five pages, in the form of a screenplay (a writing form almost completely unexplored in most elementary and secondary schools), and send it in. The filmmakers would review the scripts — over 120 submissions in all — and pull out a few to make into actual short films.

As a fledgling member of the Champaign Movie Makers, I was at the meeting where the scripts were chosen. If there’s one thing I heard time and time again, it was awe at the natural creativity of these kids. I think part of the benefit for the adults involved was that breath of fresh air, the excitement of new stories to tell. And since many of the stories were about kids (“write what you know,” right?), children were cast in the films as well. Some directors even invited the writers “on location” to watch the filming, which I’m sure was a very eye-opening process indeed. The whole thing reminded me of the behind-the-scenes tv specials I used to watch as a kid; I can’t even imagine witnessing that firsthand, and involving a story I had written myself, no less!

The true highlight of all of this was last night’s gala event and screening. Nine films, two live readings, and over fifty movie posters were on display — done in true Hollywood style with a real red carpet, themed backdrop for photo ops, and a professional photographer. The house was packed with kids and families, all of whom cheered when their names or their friends names were displayed on the big screen. TV host Matt Metcalf was the charming emcee, providing the final touch to an outstanding event. I don’t know how many of last night’s attendees have ever watched the goings-on at the Oscars, but the organizers did their homework and created a wonderful interpretation scaled down only slightly for the venue and the crowd.

My 11-year-old son, and aspiring screenwriter, at his first film festival!

My 11-year-old son, and aspiring screenwriter, at his first film festival! His script, “Fred the Pie”, won an award for Best Unproducible Script.

I have to admit, when I first heard about Pens to Lens back in January, I thought this had to be something in the works for the school year to come. To think that these folks wanted to make those connections in area schools (complete with curriculum!), get the entries, film them, and present them within just a couple of months sounded — well, frankly, speaking as a former teacher (and notorious over-planner), it sounded downright impossible. But I have never been so happy to be proven wrong. The stories were wildly imaginative, the final films simply beautiful, and the event itself was such an enjoyable treat that I’m already looking forward to next year. My kids are, too, which is of course the highest mark of approval.

If you’d like to know more about Pens to Lens, you can visit their website at If you’re not in my area and wish there was something like this where you are, why not reach out to the CU Film Society or the Champaign Movie Makers? They’re wonderful, creative folks who I’m sure would be happy to share what they’ve learned from this project. After all, we need to keep encouraging young writers! They proved last night that there are always new stories to be told.


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