A Reel Education

richard wheeler

AN OLD MAXIM of the screenwriting game states that each story told is based on one of only seven basic plotlines. The secret to entertaining an increasingly savvy audience is to bend, warp and even blend those plots together in new and unexpected ways. Similarly, CFI Education, which, like the Mill Valley Film Festival, is under the umbrella of the California Film Institute, seeks new ways to teach mainly young people to understand and appreciate the art and science of filmmaking.

Mark Fishkin is the co-founder of the Mill Valley Film Festival and Founder and Executive Director of the California Film Institute.

1. Conquering the Monster

PLOT: The hero sets out to defeat an enemy that threatens the hero and his homeland.

CLASSIC: Nicholas Nickleby

RECENT: Star Wars IV: A New Hope

REAL LIFE: In the case of the MVFF, the “monster” could be seen as audiences who are content to watch studio blockbuster films filled with empty characters and hackneyed stories. “Our mission has always been to celebrate and promote film as art and education,” says Mark Fishkin, CFI executive director, and one of the MVFF founders. Education programs began soon after the MVFF began in 1978. “Events like Music and the Movies at The Warfield, a tribute to late concert promoter Bill Graham, or workshops — we did 11 workshops for kids within the first two or three years.”


PLOT: A poor protagonist acquires money, power or a mate, and then loses it all but gets it back once she has learned and grown as a person.

CLASSIC: Cinderella

RECENT: Limitless

Real Life: Fishkin relates, “We wanted to do things outside the purview of the festival to expand our base. It was all tied into the fact we knew we wanted to be a year round organization.” George Lucas funded the first program. “That has since gone on to become CFI Education, which serves about 6,500 kids a year,” says Fishkin. While CFI never “lost it all,” it saw only limited growth at first, but hit its stride after acquiring the Rafael Film Center.

3. The Quest

PLOT: The hero and companions journey to locate a valuable object. Along the way they face roadblocks and temptations.

CLASSIC:> Jason and the Argonauts

RECENT: Lord of the Rings

REAL LIFE: According to Fishkin, the quest for CFI is to safeguard the valued cinematic experiences of the community. “I’ve come up with this phrase for us that people have been using: trusted curator. Based on a 125-word description in a program, people come to see a movie. They trust it’s going to be worthwhile. With the Internet, and blogs, and these kinds of recommendations, it’s even more important that you have a defined taste and perspective.”

4. Voyage and Return

PLOT: The hero heads off to a strange land and, after overcoming its challenges, he returns richer for the experience.

CLASSIC: The Odyssey

RECENT: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

REAL LIFE: Every year, Fishkin voyages to Midway, Utah, where he serves on the board of the Art House Convergence and brings back ideas to keep CFI sustainable. “More than 450 people representing 700 movie screens,” says Fishkin. Why do these independent operators come together? “It’s about how do you make a sustainable organization? How do you expand your mission? And how do you operate year-round?”

5. Comedy

PLOT: Two protagonists, destined to be in love, are kept apart by circumstances until the end of the story.

CLASSIC: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

RECENT: The Five-Year Engagement

REAL LIFE: My Place/My Story is a program that gives at-risk youth access to digital filmmaking equipment as a way to learn how to tell stories. “One young girl got kicked out of school for taking a knife to class because she was being bullied,” remembers Fishkin. “She made a film about it, they showed it to the administrators, and they let her back in school.” Film educators believe that once kids can learn to tell their stories and understand their world they can never be kept from the good things they want in life.

6. Tragedy

PLOT: The protagonist is a villain who falls from a position of power, and whose death makes for a satisfying ending.

CLASSIC: Bonnie and Clyde

RECENT: Scarface

REAL LIFE: It’s tricky to pull a flawed character off well. It’s the sort of thing that can be learned in programs such as A Place in the World and Future Professionals. Innately embedded in all these programs is a degree of film literacy. It’s “really important now for kids to understand what’s going on because you’re bombarded with images every day,” explains Fishkin. “These programs help them open up to the world and other kids. What they do is break up into small groups to talk about things like what makes a good film.”

7. Rebirth

PLOT: A villain or unlikable character is able to redeem him or herself by the story’s end.

CLASSIC: Beauty and the Beast

RECENT: Ghost Town

REAL LIFE: CFI Education is not all about film; sometimes it's about using the medium to understand broader concepts — maybe even using that understanding to improve the earth. With the Environmental Youth Forum, “we wanted to create something that would work with the schools and have young kids raise their consciousness about what’s going on with the environment,” says Fishkin. “We have people from different environmental organizations there so they can engage with the kids, who can then learn directly about what’s being done on the ground.”