Even Spielberg got his start somewhere, and for aspiring filmmakers in the Sarasota-Manatee area, getting into film is getting a whole lot easier. Technologically, many of the old obstacles are minimal—feature films can now be shot on a simple iPhone—but while the tools of the trade can be acquired through a click on Amazon, the technical knowhow and production savvy to make a feature film, television pilot or even a 30-second commercial can be a lot harder to come by. Thanks to burgeoning film programs in local schools, however, guidance is just around the corner.

At NewGate Montessori, the goal is to educate the entire person, says Jeff Allen, head of the secondary school and history teacher, and prepare the students for adulthood—not just college. Film, according to Allen, and understanding its uses, strengths and weaknesses, fits right in. It’s not that they’re all headed to Hollywood post-graduation, but the belief that no matter the field, there’s a benefit in understanding this medium and form of communication. “Whether we like it or not,” he says, “their future is going to be revolving around technology.”

And it seems that these days every serious pitch, presentation or campaign comes complete with a video package—even local legislative efforts: the UN Women Gulf Coast Chapter sought out students from NewGate to make a PSA this past year regarding the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which it hopes Sarasota will adopt. Clocking in at four and a half minutes, the students explain the history and context behind the ordinance and conduct on-the-street interviews in an effort to gauge community knowledge and interest. The result was well-received.

“That was produced entirely by the kids,” says Allen, and everything from concept to writing, directing, shooting and editing was left in their hands. “They just took it and ran with it.” NewGate supplies the equipment—professional-grade cameras and editing software like Final Cut Pro—and guidance, but students are then encouraged to conduct their own explorations and succeed and fail and learn as they will. Diehard enthusiasts comprise Tim’s Technical Team, named for NewGate Headmaster and tech junkie Tim Seldin, and it’s not uncommon, says Allen, to see even the younger students strolling around campus lugging expensive equipment larger than they. If they’re going to use it in the real world, he offers as explanation, they better get used to it now.

In a few months, the secondary school will move to a new location in Lakewood Ranch equipped with a video and recording studio, where the students can push themselves even further and it’s up to their guides to catch up. “Our students are actually more technologically astute than we are now,” laughs Allen. “They know how to do things with the equipment that I have no idea how to do.”

It’s a similar hands-off approach over at Ringling College of Art and Design, where it’s no surprise that students can pursue film and production in their studies, but the emergence in the last five years of ART (All Ringling Television) Network has added a whole new dimension. Headed up by Lisa Moody, ART Network exists as both a department and a volunteer club, where students of any major and skill level can learn everything about video production and content creation, from technical knowhow to team management. What began as the student voice of the on-campus TV network, where students could bring comedy shows and artist interviews from page to screen with minimal interference from their adult overseers, has grown “tremendously” into a one-stop-shop for all the college’s video needs, whether it be promos for creative services or educational tutorial videos for the website. With more than 25 dedicated volunteers and 18 paid student workers, “We’re pretty much the video hub for the campus,” says Moody.

And while students receive excellent training in video production from their other classes, what ART Network injects into the mix is a harsh dose of the reality of working in that field—the long hours and snap decisions to be made on the fly while the machinery continues to chug around them and won’t be stopped. “They have to be scrappy,” Moody bluntly puts it, especially when working with one of the many outside clients ART Network participants have collaborated with, such as IMG Academy, Suncoast Blood Bank or Sarasota County itself. The reality is “run and gun,” she says, “and they’re immediately immersed in having to do.” It’s not for everybody, but even those who do not ultimately pursue a career in film or television come away with transferable executive skills and a technical understanding of the growing field. For those who do stay on the path, ART Network opens doors—Moody recalls one of her very first students, a business major who joined as a sophomore knowing nothing about film and eventually graduated with a job offer from Disney and now works at Pixar, where her first project was on the Oscar-winning Big Hero 6.

“It’s hard to impress the necessity of a professional attitude in a classroom situation,” agrees Bob Gray, instructor of digital video production at Suncoast Technical College, “but once they’re on a real set with adults who are used to working with professionals who don’t take any [guff], they learn quickly.” At Suncoast Technical, video production comprises a two-year program wherein students explore the breadth of film and TV production with, as the name would suggest, a focus on the technical aspects of lighting and sound and camerawork, including live switching in a multi-camera television format. The program is only five years old, but thanks to support from Sarasota County, students have access to all the equipment they need to graduate with an up-to-date understanding of the industry and the skills needed to get in on the ground floor—and sometimes the ground floor is all you need. Student Christopher Brantley attended Suncoast’s two-year program as a high-schooler and ABC 7 accepted his application upon graduation, bumping him quickly to on-air journalist. “I think of our program as part of a broader movement that is attempting to build a legitimate filmmaking region out of the Suncoast,” explains Gray. “There are a lot of talented people working hard to elevate the area and you can feel the momentum building.”

And as Gray has taken notice, some of those people have taken notice of Gray and his students as well, such as Bradenton filmmakers Thomas Nudi and Trishul Thejasvi, owner of Orensis Films. Invited for a guest lecture after meeting Suncoast film students on the set of Nudi’s film, Monty Comes Back, the pair insisted on leading a workshop instead, which culminated in the creation of three student short films shot with professional crew and equipment from Orensis. Impressed by the experience and the students, Thejasvi initiated Orensis Academy—an apprenticeship program for students like those at Suncoast to further their passion in regular collaboration with Orensis Films. And so the momentum continues.