Whom better to learn from than the pros themselves?
The Ghetto Film School is a non-profit founded in 2000 by former social worker Joe Hall. Dedicated to educating and inspiring the next generation of storytellers, the school has locations in the South Bronx in New York City, and L.A..
During the table read (hosted by Amazon’s Jason Ropell, David O. Russell and Brett Ratner), Elgort, 23, and Johnson, 27, brought to life two scripts that won a competition voted on by students.
One was the screenplay Charley Horse by Luna Garcia, who was also chosen as the director of her own project.
“I’m mixed race. I’m black, Jewish and Mexican. So being in a position of power, and creative power as well, I like to think that I’m part of a new wave, and I definitely want to be at the forefront of whatever is coming,” she told PEOPLE at the event, which was held at historic Hilhaven Lodge in Beverly Hills. (It also happens to be the home of Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, who opened it up for the event.)
“I want to be part of this change, and I want to actively diversify like the industry and the workforce, and I want this to be a thing,” Garcia continued. “I don’t want this to just be a fad.”
After the table read, Elgort and Johnson spoke of the importance of programs like the Ghetto Film School that encourage young talents to pursue their filmmaking dreams,
“It gives kids from all over New York an opportunity for free to go to a school where they can really major in art, and learn a lot about film, and be mentored the way that I was in my school by really great artists,” Elgort told PEOPLE. “And I think this is an important way to develop young artists, and the youth is where it’s at.”
Johnson agreed. “This is the kind of organization, and the kind of environment, that I want to support and see flourish,” she said. “So I was like thrilled to be involved, truly.”
“These kids are really talented, and it makes me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing,” she joked. “And also that there is hope for the future of film because these kids are smart, and they should definitely be given an opportunity. I wish that more people had the opportunity.”
The students also received valuable feedback and tips from Ratner and American Hustle director David O. Russell, who were in attendance.
“The scripts were so good, and the kids were so talented,” Ratner said. “This was rewarding for me, too — just inspiring to hear 16-year-old kids that have this kind of talent. I’ve been making films since I was 8, but I think when I was 16, I didn’t have the understanding of story and character like they do.”
Russell has been involved in the organization for 15 years and spoke about the growth of the program over the past few years.
“This has come a long way. This was like 10 people in a Chelsea restaurant, and then it became the first public high school for cinema. And it’s one of the best high schools in New York,” he said. “They have the highest level of graduates, they have the level who go to college, because people are motivated.”
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Other entertainment industry leaders have also taken note because of 21st Century Fox’s commitment as the founding partner in Ghetto Film School Los Angeles, helping to expand their campus to the West coast several years ago. Liba Rubenstein, a senior vice president at 21st Century Fox, echoed the program’s praises.
“Our commitment to Ghetto Film School goes beyond philanthropy — it’s an investment in the future of our industry. It’s an honor to work with GFS to develop the next generation of great American storytellers by nurturing their creativity, confidence and collaborative skills, and challenging them to achieve new levels of understanding of themselves and the world.”
The two winners will be flown to Israel to shoot their films later this summer, with fellow students working on the respective production crews.