Reel Owl Cinema graduates students into the field of filmmaking

Tucked away in the halls of Garland High School is one of the area's oldest high school film programs and possibly the state’s first International Baccalaureate one. While some may not realize Reel Owl Cinema's prestige, Texas educators and industry professionals count it as a premier example of student filmmaking.

“The Dallas Film Society sends schools to me that are thinking about starting a program,” said instructor Thomas Schubert. “I think we have something special here, different from anywhere else. We focus on storytelling, cinematography and the art of film. I also strive to make sure my students are kind, considerate and not egotistical. If a film festival shows our video, we’re going to volunteer and give back. I get calls after my students work on sets or shadow professionals about how amazing they are.”

But students cannot take all credit for the success of Garland’s program. Schubert motivates them and provides real-world experiences.

“In class, I teach the basics,” he explained. “I let them teach themselves and others the rest. They learn better that way and become more passionate. Our projects are also all group work. Students have to learn personal responsibilities, time management and conflict management.”

The uniqueness of this approach speaks to that of Reel Owl Cinema itself. Schubert's mother, Patty, started the program 11 years ago while she was a theater teacher at GHS. She then enlisted the help of her son, who has seen more than 8,000 movies.

"I actually have a degree in psychology, and a master’s in counseling. These help more than you might think," said Schubert.

Patty retired a few years ago, but she continues to help with the program's annual film festival. Last year's 10th anniversary event featured popular filmmaker Jorge Gutierrez. But big names in the business are nothing new to Reel Owl Cinema. The Schuberts' connections often bring guest speakers and mentors to class, as well as a student-run, after-school film club.

“I believe networking is a big part of my job. It takes a year-round effort, and I spend hundreds of hours to open doors and opportunities for my students,” said Schubert.

Currently on the Board of Directors for the Asian Film Festival in Dallas, he networks with others in the area, never missing an opportunity to promote GHS or encourage festivals to offer a series of high school shorts. When students finish his four-year IB program, they not only graduate with an admirable diploma, but also an impressive portfolio of nearly 20 films. Many have jobs lined up or the promise of one, as well.

“About 36 percent of our total graduates work in the field,” commented Schubert. “To say that about a high school program is a really big deal. We have alumni working toward doctorates in film at Columbia, working on sets as cinematographers or focus pullers for television shows, and even working at Channel 5.”

The program also boasts several film festival appearances and winners. Last year, a student’s piece screened in Greece, and the year before, one screened in Africa. Film festival winnings another year totaled approximately $13,000. But the highlight for the upcoming school year will no doubt be all new equipment the program recently acquired. To the outgoing Class of 2016, Schubert says keep in touch.

“Reel Owl Cinema is a lifelong program. The four years students are here with me is just the beginning. We never stop supporting them. And, I have a decade worth of graduates out in the field willing to help.”