Bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger portions at the local fast food joint. In America, the guiding maxim is to think big. Really big.
An Ithaca College dean is encouraging students to instead think small. And she's offering a $5,000 prize to do it.
The school has invited high school and college students across America to submit a 30-second movie shot entirely with a cell phone.
It may come off like a gimmick, but Dean Dianne Lynch has no doubts about the contest's academic value.
In today's media marketplace — where cell phones can take pictures, play music and games and connect to Web sites — it's all about thinking small and mobile.
"Historically, we've always had students thinking bigger and bigger. It's gone from radio to television to the movie screen, to the era of blockbuster films. All of a sudden, things have reversed and everything is getting smaller," said Lynch.
The submission deadline is Jan. 10. A winner will be chosen from among 10 finalists and announced online Jan. 30.
The idea came to Lynch last year while she was in New York City attending an industry conference. One of the topics was the future of mobile delivery of content.
Disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the July bombings in London showed what cell phone cameras are capable of, as everyday people used them to provide TV stations and the Internet with vivid images of the devastation.
There are an estimated 2 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide and 194.5 million in the United States, according to the Washington, D.C.-based CTIA The Wireless Association.
About 130 million Americans own cell phones with camera capabilities and approximately half of those camera phones also shoot video, said Roger Entner, an analyst with Ovum, a Boston-based technology consulting firm.
This fall, MTV launched "Head and Body," a comedy series of eight programs created exclusively for cell phone users. Last year, Zoie Films, an Atlanta-based producer of independent films and festivals, ran what it billed as the world's first cell-phone film festival.
And in October, the Forum des Images in Paris held its first Pocket Film Festival, which included everything from 30-second shorts to mini-soap operas to full-length features.
"It's exciting. We were discussing this last year in film club," said Sasha Stefanova, an Ithaca College junior from Kazanlak, Bulgaria, who is majoring in photography and visual arts. As soon as she heard about Lynch's contest, "I went immediately to the dean's office and said, `How can I enter?' I love old films, and old-school techniques. The challenge here is how to get a meaningful idea into such an everyday tool."
Stefanova is still pondering her entry. She is traveling home to Bulgaria for the holidays and plans to shoot scenes during her travels.
"It will be about my generation's mobility and the falling down of borders," she said.
Sudhanshu Saria is a senior in filmmaking and likes the novel challenges presented by working with a cell phone and a 1- to 2-inch screen.
"There are definitely visual limitations. You have to be able to tell a quick story. You can't really make it character-based," said Saria, from Siliguri, India.
"With a super small screen, you can't have wide shots or crowd scenes. The images have to be visually simple. You can sustain closeups better than on a huge screen but some images may need to be exaggerated to compensate for the small size of the screen," Saria said.
Saria's initial reaction was that the contest "could be gimmicky ... But I hope people studying film will take it as my generation's chance to provide a new language, a new way of thinking."
The rules of the contest are simple.
There must be a story, a narrative and sound, and the film must be shot on a cell phone. The movies can be edited digitally on a computer or a cell phone that has editing functions.
The technical quality of the movies will depend on the cell phones, some of which can film with greater resolution than others. To ensure fairness, all submissions will be judged in basic VGA (video graphic array) quality, Lynch said.
The submissions will be reviewed by a panel of film students and faculty, who will select 10 finalists. Those entries — which can be viewed on the contest Web site — will be judged by a panel of faculty and professional filmmakers.
"The challenge is, can you capture an audience member's attention in 30 seconds and hold it an environment where not only is the delivery system small, but the time frame is short?" Lynch said. "Every single frame matters. There's no excess. That's an incredible discipline to develop."