September 16 – 21, 2021!
By Katherine Barfield, Writer/Producer, CMA Volunteer
Thirty-some years ago, Ranny Levy had an idea. She worked for a production and distribution company that sold 16 mm educational films to schools. As the decade wore on, and films were replaced with home videos, she started looking for her next gig. She noticed something—“the home videos were so low quality, basically pan-and-scans. I knew from my work with educational films that schools have a rigorous review system which includes a jury of teachers and librarians,” Levy observed. Conversely, “with kids’ entertainment, the only guide parents had were the marketing ads.” She thought—why not create a standard of excellence? Why not create a jury? And, maybe most importantly, why not create a jury that includes the audience—children? “You give kids broccoli and tell them to eat it because it’s healthy, but if they don’t want it, they’re not going to eat it. Kids deserve better quality entertainment.” Motivated by that principle, she recruited Peggy Charren, instigator of the Children’s Television Act of 1990 and a friend. One year later, she created KIDS FIRST!, a nonprofit whose goal is to “teach children critical viewing skills and to increase the visibility and availability of quality children’s media.” Now celebrating its 30th year, KIDS FIRST! has seven to ten million viewers every month, and the respect of the major Hollywood studios. All, perhaps, because Levy lives up to her broccoli principle and puts kids first.
KIDS FIRST! consists of volunteer juries of educators, experts, and kids from all over the country who evaluate, rate, and endorse kids’ media in its multiple formats: films, DVDs, audio recordings, TV shows, digital media, apps, screenplays, and games. The juries are geographically, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse.
Ten years ago, Ranny had another idea—why not put kids in front of the camera? She launched the KIDS FIRST! Film Critics Program. Kids, originally recruited from talent agencies, enroll in a boot camp where they learn critical writing, production (setting up a camera, simple lighting, a greenscreen, and reading from a teleprompter), and on-camera presenting. In addition to developing and improving these hard skills, kids learn time management, accountability, leadership, and responsibility. The kids are young too, the entry age is nine. “I had a girl RSVP for an event,” Ranny says. “When she didn’t show up, we called her and told her, ‘It’s not your mom or dad’s responsibility. It’s your responsibility. Work with your mom to set up a calendar reminder on your phone.’” And if kids don’t label video files according to the standard? They’re rejected until they get it right. All of this accountability, consistency, and meticulousness pays off. Ranny says studio heads at a red carpet event recently asked her how her kids are so poised without scripts. This is where “her kids” differ a bit from other on-camera children; Ranny empowers them to find their own voices.
Ranny says some of her kids have gone on to attend Princeton, Emerson, NYU, USC, and the London Met Film School. It’s also apparent that the kids enjoy the work. They sign a one-year commitment to the program, and 80% stay for many years. In 2011, KIDS FIRST! Film Critics had five reporters. Now, there are 65, including three international critics. They have an audience of other kids, parents, educators, and just people seeking guidance. The kids have traveled to red carpets to interview celebrities, attended press junkets and special events, major film festivals, and are well regarded by all of the major film studios. Last year, everything went virtual with a plethora of Zoom interviews with A-List talent and studio C-suite executives. “With the pandemic, we had the opportunity to interview the founders of Pixar, ILM, and DreamWorks Animation. They had been students of one of our board members.”
To celebrate 30 years, KIDS FIRST! is co-hosting film festivals in multiple cities nationwide starting in DC in collaboration with IN THE LOOP Programs of Success from September 16 – 26, 2021. You can find more information here: https://intheloopkfff.eventive.org/welcome In addition, KIDS FIRST! will be partnering with the following film festivals throughout the fall:
Oct 3, International Black Film Festival
Oct 16 – 23 University of Hawaii at Manoa
Oct 25 – 31 Epic ACG (San Diego)
Oct 25 – 31 UNESCO Global Media Literacy Day
Nov 13 – 21 News-o-matic (NYC)