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Wishing Big

UNLV Film Students
Photos courtesy UNLV

Two UNLV film students make the finals of a national film competition

Those Coca-Cola-themed trailers that play before a movie starts at Regal theaters may look like mere commercials. But to someone at the beginning of her filmmaking career, the chance to write, direct, and produce such a 30-second spot is priceless, because it comes with training by seasoned industry professionals.

“We went to an orientation, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Am I in the right place? Did they pick the right student?’” That’s UNLV senior Nicolle Peterson describing how she felt in December at the Los Angeles studios of eFilm, one of the sponsors of a student film competition that Peterson won, along with her collaborator Lily Campisi, a junior. “Listening to the other filmmakers talk about the stuff they’d done, I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve only done one short that I don’t want anyone to see, and you guys are so much more experienced than I am.’”

Despite their relative inexperience, Peterson and Campisi were not in the wrong place. They had indeed placed in the top five — out of more than 600 applicants — of this school year’s Coca-Cola Regal Films Competition. As finalists, they got the trip to L.A., along with several months of mentoring in the commercial filmmaking process, from budget and casting, through shooting and postproduction.

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Their success is all the more remarkable because UNLV is new to the 20-year-old competition. “This is (the university’s) second year participating, their first time having a finalist,” says Aviva Kleiner, who runs the Coca-Cola Regal Films program. “We have schools that have participated for many years who’ve never had a finalist. So UNLV doing it on their second year out is extraordinary.”

To improve their odds of winning, Peterson and Campisi submitted 17 scripts. The one that made the cut shows a young hipster girl browsing a thrift store. She happens on a vintage film camera, picks it up, and an equally hip genie pops out, granting her one wish. The girl says she wants to be in her “happy place,” and is immediately transported to a movie theater, where she gets popcorn and a soda, and settles in for a movie next to the genie. He leans close to her and whispers, “This would have been my wish, too.”

Campisi says she actually preferred another idea, which included characters turning from black-and-white into color when they get their coke and popcorn, but she understands why the genie idea was more appealing to the judges, now that she’s been through the process.

“I don’t think playing with color like that is what they would’ve wanted,” she says. “What we have now is more focused on the actual product itself.”

This need to balance creativity with client requirements was one of the many things the duo says they learned: the art of collaboration, the importance of peer involvement, the reward of working in a small community that supports its entrepreneurs.

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“One of the big moments for me on set was when we were one or two takes in, and I was really nervous about being a first-time director,” Peterson says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, and everybody knows it.’ Then I saw something on the monitor, and the fear went away. I realized we all shared the vision of doing something great, and I’d surrounded myself with people who weren’t going to let me fail.”

Peterson and Campisi did not take the grand prize, which included a new camera, but their film, The Big Wish, will be played at Regal Cinemas around the country starting in May. That and the experience of getting it made, they say, is more than enough of a win.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.