Alumni Spotlight: Courniotes Takes ‘Freedom’s Gate’ from Screenwriting Course to the Big Screen

  Freedom’s Gate
    Pace alumna and master’s student Annette Courniotes put the skills she learned in the classroom to work writing, directing, and acting in a feature film.

Courniotes Takes ‘Freedom’s Gate’ from Screenwriting Course to the Big Screen

As part of a course assignment while completing her bachelor’s degree in communications at Pace, Annette Courniotes ’08 wrote a screenplay based on the story of her grandparents’ escape from Communist-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1949. Her professor, Maria Luskay, EdD, thought it was so good that she encouraged Courniotes to shoot and edit one act of the screenplay in order to enter it in film festivals and try to secure a producer. It has already received several award nominations. The Dyson Digital Digest caught up with Courniotes earlier this semester to find out more about the film.

View the Freedom’s Gate trailer.

DDD: You wrote, shot, and acted in the film Freedom’s Gate. Has filmmaking always been a dream of yours?
AC: I have been making short films since my parents bought their first video camera in the early ’90s. My brother and I would write little scripts, then dress up as characters, and shoot these five-minute videos. That was playtime for us. We made movies at home. We made movies on vacation in Europe. We made movies constantly, and we loved it.

DDD: Can you tell us more about the inspiration for Freedom’s Gate?
AC: It is based on the true story of my grandparents and their 1949 escape from Communism in Slovakia. All my life I had heard the story of my grandparents crawling across the border on their hands and knees. And, that wasn’t even half of the troubles they faced on their journey to America!

DDD: How did you take it from the page to the screen?
AC: I wrote a full feature length screenplay (120 pages) and attempted to pitch it to Hollywood. However, it’s a long and very difficult road to get your screenplay noticed in a pile of hundreds, or even thousands. I felt it was an incredible story and wanted to find a way other than a query letter to tell it to a screenplay agent. So, I adapted the third act of the script into a short film. Then, I pitched it to several film festivals. It wound up in the Indie Fest 2008, The Beverly Hills HI Def Fest 2008, and most recently The Queens International Film Festival 2009, where it was nominated for Best Domestic Short. The category examined 160 short films and five were nominated; Freedom’s Gate was one of them.

DDD: Where does the project stand now?
AC: Right now we are in talks to shoot a prequel, so we will see about that. Recently, I was interviewed by The Journal News and I also did a one-hour radio interview for a local AM radio station. And, as always, I am working on pitching the feature length screenplay to agents and producers.

DDD: You earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Pace and are currently pursuing a master’s degree in media and communications arts. How influential have Pace University’s communications programs been on your personal and work goals?
AC: Extremely influential! Before I went to Pace I thought I wanted to be an actor. I studied acting and pursued it professionally for about 10 years. However, my Pace professors helped me to see the beauty and creativity that goes into the work behind the camera.

DDD: What are some of the most helpful things you’ve learned from your courses at Pace?
AC: I really took something away from all of my media classes. However, the most helpful was Dr. Luskay’s screenplay course, especially for this project. Dr. Luskay taught me how to professionally write a screenplay, and it was in her class that I first developed the feature length screenplay of my grandparents’ story. The best advice I received was “network, network, network.” Through my work and promotion of Freedoms Gate, whether through festivals, newspaper articles, or radio shows, I have met some fantastic people who have aided me in my career and future projects.

DDD: What are some pieces of advice you’d pass on to fellow film-making students?
AC: Dream big, but be prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up.

DDD: What are your future goals? What are some goals you’re working on currently?
AC: I would love to see Freedom’s Gate made into a feature length film and I would love nothing more than for my 90-year-old grandparents to see their life story on the big screen. That will always be a goal of mine. As for other goals, I would love to be a screenwriter, that’s my dream. Every spare moment I have I am either writing, working on a new script, or trying to get my screenplays made.

Learn more about Pace’s Media, Communications, and Visual Arts department.