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UNLV students vying to win Regal Films Contest

UNLV student filmmakers Nicolle Petersen and Lily Campisi are on the verge of blanketing movie screens in ways never achieved by any blockbuster — not even the ones starring superheroes, Jedis or sparkly vampires.

Their film, “The Big Wish,” is one of five in the running to play on each of the more than 7,000 screens operated by the nation’s second-largest theater chain as part of the Coca-Cola Regal Films Contest.

You may recognize past winners as those short films that run before every movie at a Regal theater while most of the audience is still on their phones because people are awful.

‘Just a blessing’

The students submitted 17 scripts — 12 written by Petersen, five by Campisi — to the competition, with two of Petersen’s making it into the top 15. “The one that did get chosen (for the finals) actually was the one that we were like, ‘OK, we’ll just kind of throw it in there,’ ” Campisi, the film’s producer, reveals while laughing.

In “The Big Wish,” a girl shopping in a consignment store finds a vintage movie camera that unleashes a genie. For her one wish, she wants to be in her happy place. She’s then transported to a movie theater, where the popcorn is overflowing, a soda is bubbling its way into a cup, and everything is right with the world. Also, the genie is kind of a hunk.

The film will debut Saturday at cocacolaregalfilms.com. The winner will be announced April 4 during CinemaCon at Caesars Palace and will premiere in theaters nationwide May 19.

“I’m incredibly happy with how it turned out,” says writer-director Petersen, who made the top 15 last year as well. “I would not have wanted anything else. It was just a blessing.”

The duo’s entry is UNLV’s first finalist in the competition that also includes film school powerhouses such as NYU, UCLA, Columbia University and the American Film Institute. As one of the top five entries, Petersen, 23, and Campisi, 20, were given $15,000 to make their 30-second spot. Even accounting for inflation, that’s still more than Robert Rodriguez spent in 1992 to make the feature-length “El Mariachi,” which launched his writing and directing career.

“At first, I was like, ‘This is too much money,’ ” says Campisi, a native Las Vegan. Then, even though the contest supplied some equipment, all the bills started rolling in. “We still had to provide everything else. All the lights and all the hard drives, and everything else. It adds up. Even the truck! I didn’t even realize, ‘Oh, wait! We have to pay for a truck to get all the equipment there.’ ”

“Gas for the truck,” adds Petersen, of Sumner, Washington. “Just the little things that you don’t think about.”

‘A really big deal’

Fortunately, the duo could turn to someone who’d experienced similar surprises. Brett Levner, associate professor of film at UNLV who serves as their adviser in the competition, won it in 2004 as a student at Columbia. That victory led to her first paid film work.

“They’re young,” she says of Campisi and Petersen. “They’re competing against graduate students who may have already been in the industry a little bit, but they’re really holding their own.”

The students have been toiling on their entry since early October. After more than two months of preproduction, they filmed for 22 hours over the course of two days in January. Last week, they were still working on the sound mix and color correction.

“If you live in New York or L.A., you have more opportunities,” Levner says, “so this is a really big deal for them. Even for the crew, all their friends and fellow students that got to work on this, it was so cute to see them, how proud and amazingly professional they were.”

The competition requires teams of two students, a rule the UNLV filmmakers found to be a strength.

“We give each other enough space to not bother each other,” Campisi says. “It’s kind of like, ‘I need to do my work over here. Don’t micromanage me.’ But, then it’s like, ‘Oh, wait. I need some help. Please help me!’ ”

That assistance certainly paid off.

“Being able to see something that I had written and was so proud of come to life in this gorgeous manner from all the help of just everyone at UNLV, I don’t know, I’m in awe,” Petersen says.

After graduation, she’s determined to pursue a career as a writer-director. “My plans are to head to L.A. and start at the bottom and work my way up and kind of, just, grind for as long as I can.”

Campisi, meanwhile, wants to be a producer like her father, Gabriel Campisi, who specializes in indie horror movies and brought her to work on a film set for the first time.

“I don’t know how I’ll get there,” she says, “but I will.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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