LACONIA — The irony isn’t lost on Emily Gray, someone who didn’t exactly fit in during high school and worked hard to get into a school in a big city far away. Yet, when it came time for her to present a proposal for a short film pitch contest, she took the stage at Chicago’s storied Music Box Theatre and told a story set in Laconia High School.

Gray’s pitch for “The Scholar” won the contest, put on by the Chicago Film Festival’s CineYouth program. It gives her a little funding and a lot of confidence, and as a result she will be spending this summer at the very place she couldn’t wait to escape just a couple of years ago.

“I worked really hard to get out of Laconia and get to Chicago, I really didn’t expect for myself to come back to high school,” said Gray, a 2017 graduate of LHS who is currently completing her sophomore year at DePaul University, where she is a film major with a concentration in production design.

When she was in Laconia, Gray said she wasn’t in danger of winning any popularity contests.

“I had a small group of friends, I didn’t get close to a lot of people,” she said. But she tried hard in school, and as a result was inducted into the National Honor Society. Before she even graduated, she had already used some of her experiences to inspire a screenplay, which she said she “perfected” in a class at DePaul.

When she heard about the CineYouth contest, she decided to submit her script. It was selected as one of four finalists, and on Sunday, April 28, Gray and the other three finalists took to the stage at The Music Box Theatre and pitched their movie ideas to a live audience, including three judges.

“Seeing the other pitches, I felt like I had a chance at least,” Gray said. She was right, as the judges declared her the winner. Her prize included $250 in cash and –  perhaps more valuable – entry into an industry meeting coming up in Chicago, where she can tell people about her project and perhaps attract additional funding.

The contest conveyed one more thing – the confidence to push her idea to completion. Gray is adding some of her own money to the budget, so that it totals $1,250. She’d like to double that budget, but said she can borrow equipment from DePaul, and from the Huot Technical Center, and hopes to get help from other people like her, who are willing to work in exchange for the experience.

“It’s a doable short and I don’t need a big budget, nor do I want one,” Gray said. Her budget will pay for costumes and props, hiring a sound designer and feeding her cast and crew.

She said “The Scholar” is a light-hearted comedy and, though it is informed by her time at Laconia High School, is not an autobiographical piece. She has already received permission to film at the school, and she plans to hold an open call at the high school for crew and cast on June 22. She expects filming to take place over a week during late July.

She hopes to screen the film in festivals in Chicago, but not before it premieres in Laconia.

“I’m pretty excited. I signed myself up for a lot of work,” Gray said. “After winning this pitch contest, I have a lot more confidence in this project.”

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