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Chicago students win 'Oscar Experience' contest

  • Chicago's Oscar Experience College Search winners AJ Young (center) and Abe Diaz (right) during rehearsals for Sunday's Academy Awards show.
Chicago's Oscar Experience College Search winners AJ Young (center)…
February 22, 2013|By Erin Vogel @eringejuice | For RedEye

Two Chicago college students won't just be watching the Oscars this Sunday--they'll be part of the awards show, thanks to the first "Oscar Experience College Search," a contest spearheaded by host Seth MacFarlane and organized by a partnership between the Academy Awards and mtvU.

DePaul University freshman Abe Diaz, 18, and Columbia College junior AJ Young, 23, are two out of six college students and aspiring filmmakers who are in L.A. this week to participate in the Oscars this weekend as trophy-handlers.

The winners were selected from 30-second video entries that answered the question, "How will you contribute to the future of movies?"

It's been a whirlwind week for Diaz and Young, who found out they had won the contest Feb. 12 during a Skype interview with Oscar producers and were flown to L.A. on Monday.

Young, a cinematography major, entered the contest at his mom's suggestion after she read an article about it online, but he didn't see much coming from it.

"I had hoped for everything, but I expected nothing," Young said. "That's what you have to do with everything in the film industry--you expect nothing but hope for everything."

Diaz had a similar reaction to the news. He entered the contest on a whim after hearing about it on Facebook and said he was "speechless" to find out he was one of the winners.

"I had thought, ‘This is really interesting, this would be an incredible opportunity,'" said Diaz, who majors in chemistry but has been passionate about film since high school. "But I entered it just for fun, not really expecting anything."

When Young called his parents in Arizona to tell them he had won, his mom already knew before he had a chance to say anything.

"I don't usually call my parents with a phone," Young said. "I usually send them a text or Skype, so when I called them on the phone, the first thing she said was, ‘Did you win the Oscar thing?' " Young said. "If I had Skyped her or sent her a text message, she would have been like, ‘What's going on?' but because I called, she was like, ‘OK, he's calling for two things: either he's in jail or he won the award.' "

The pair's teachers at DePaul and Columbia also were excited after Diaz and Young told them the reason they wouldn't be in class for a week.

"They gave me advice on how to network properly while I'm out there, and things to see and to do," Young said.

Until the show Sunday, Young and Diaz are preparing for their trophy-handler roles, a task Diaz calls "nerve-wracking" because they will be backstage handing trophies directly to the big-name actors, including Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, who will be presenters at the show.

"That interaction, walking up to them and handing them the trophy--it's exciting," said Diaz, who is from Minnesota.

As for the other big names Diaz and Young hope to run into during the show? Bill Murray is Diaz's No. 1 choice; and Young is hoping to meet cinematographers Roger Deakins, who is nominated for "Skyfall," or Janusz Kaminski, who is up for an award for his work on "Lincoln" and also attended Columbia College in the 1980s.

Young also plans to network as much as possible during the weekend so he can get an internship out of the experience.

"There's been a lot of talk with the Academy because this is the first time they're doing it, and they want to make it keep happening," Young said. "I really want to do my best while I'm here, doing the student thing, so they can have it happen again next year for new kids and keep it happening. I think this is invaluable for students to have this type of experience and learning opportunity."

Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.

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