Ryan Levine

As founder of the Kids Film It Festival, Ryan Levine made an early pivot required due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ryan, 17, a junior at Hawken School in Chester Township, held an online 48-hour film festival last April, which challenged young filmmakers to make a two-minute short film with a banana, toilet paper or soap, and a line of text – with a 48-hour deadline.

“It was a fun way to keep people busy when there wasn’t much to do,” said Ryan, adding there were about 40 submissions.

Ryan’s first film festival in 2016 came out of his bar mitzvah project for The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood.

“I had a passion for filmmaking and I always wanted to submit my films,” said Ryan, a Chagrin Falls resident. ”But there was never any contests to submit them to. That’s the main reason I wanted to start the film festival.“

His grandmother has Parkinson’s disease, so he decided to have the film festival benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

For the past four years, the venue for the awards ceremony has been the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The event, timed to coincide with the Oscars, has taken place in late February. Last year, people came in from as far away as Michigan, Tennessee and Florida to attend the festival, which raised $65,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

“It’s really cool when you walk in and see the red carpet, the view on the lake is awesome and the theater is perfect for what we needed,” Ryan said. “Unfortunately, we can’t have it there this year due to COVID, so we decided to have it online.”

The deadline for this year’s submissions is Jan. 15. Typically, the top three films have been screened in short film, animation and music video categories for three different age groups: 8 to 11, 12 to 14 and 15 to 18. Film length is five minutes.

More than 100 submissions have come in for the 2021 festival and Ryan expects about 140 submissions in total.

“It’s sort of the Oscars for the next generation,” Ryan said.

This year, because the February festival will be an online event, he expects that many more people will be able to attend the festival than in past years.

Judges announced thus far are Hawken alumnus and award-winning producer Todd Lieberman, who produced “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Aeronauts”; Emmy-Award winning producer and director Marc Buckland, who also grew up in Cleveland and produced “My Name is Earl”; and Aaron Brownlee, “NBC News” producer, who has been nominated for Emmys four times. Ryan hopes to announce a fourth judge prior to the festival.

Lately, Ryan said he hasn’t had time to make many films.

“I always enjoy making films for school projects if I can,” he said. “After doing the film festival itself, I’ve realized that I’m more into the producing it, business aspect of everything.”

The festival runs on volunteer energy from judges to people behind the scenes, and relies on in-kind donations of gift cards and trophies as prizes.

As Ryan prepares for his next steps after high school, he said he hasn’t given thought to a succession plan but hopes to continue raising funds for the Michael J. Fox Foundation through the festival.

“I would love to continue this festival as long as possible,” he said. “It’s a really great way to give kids an opportunity to share their passion of filmmaking with the world, with each other and a way to put their films out there.”

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