Scouts' Honors

What does it mean when your documentary wins at Sundance? It means schoolyard bullies and Hollywood producers treat you nicer.

From the moment he arrives at San Francisco International Airport until his flight begins to board, 31-year-old Tom Shepard paces the terminal hoping that the low-dose Valium tablets he clutches in his hand will be enough to take the edge off his intense fear of flying. Usually, he drives or takes the train -- even on cross-country trips -- but now that he has to be in such far-flung places as Miami, New York, Madison, Wisc., and Turin, Italy, all in a matter of weeks, ground transportation is not an option.

Meanwhile, at Petaluma High School, 16-year-old sophomore Steven Cozza has been getting apologies from bullies who began teasing him when he was 12.

Life changes in odd ways for a filmmaker and his subject when their documentary wins at the Sundance Film Festival.

Shepard's Scouts' Honor nabbed both the Audience and Freedom of Expression awards at Sundance this year. In his directorial debut, Shepard chronicled the story of how 12-year-old Cozza and his family organized against the Boy Scouts' ban on gay members. What started as a petition drive at a local grocery store four years ago (with Cozza's straight but activist father wanting to teach his straight son a lesson in social justice), quickly mushroomed into a high-profile national campaign. Cozza endured plenty of teasing at school for taking such a stand, but still achieved the highest rank of Eagle Scout before eventually quitting the program. His dad, however, was kicked out as a troop leader for his activism, which only intensified their opposition to the ban. Father and son joined forces with other Scouts -- gay and straight -- who wanted to extend the benefits of Scouting to everyone. Cozza continues to serve as a part-time spokesperson for the Scouting for All group he helped create, though he is less of an activist now that he has become more interested in the typical teenage pursuits of sports and girls. Both the Cozza story and Shepard's attempts to produce the film for PBS through the Independent Television Service have been reported on in greater detail by SF Weekly ("A Boy Scout No More," Sept. 20, 2000, and "Might See TV," Oct. 20, 1999).

Scouts' Honor will be nationally broadcast by PBS on June 19 as the season opener of the "P.O.V." documentary series. Until then, Shepard is logging thousands of anxious air miles to introduce his film at more than a dozen festivals and screenings he has been invited to worldwide since the Sundance win. Locally, Scouts' Honor had a small sneak preview at the Yerba Buena Center last week and will be shown on the big screen at the 1,000-seat Herbst Theatre April 13 for its official San Francisco premiere.

Shepard hopes he will be able to raise enough funds at the Herbst event -- where Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) and director Gus Van Sant will serve as honorary co-hosts -- to take his film on the road to small towns across the country where local Scouting troops are grappling with the political fallout of a gay ban that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. He plans to set up community screenings with city councils, troops, and schools, and then film the discussions that follow. Highlights will be streamed on a forthcoming Web site. "I'm excited to see the film illuminate the debate and be used as a vehicle for change," Shepard says. "For a guy who can't stand to step foot on an airplane, that's saying a lot. I'm not going to let my fear keep me from realizing this opportunity."

As for Steven Cozza, he is juggling his time between the track and mountain bike racing teams. Having just turned 16 earlier this month, he is also reveling in the freedom of being able to drive his late-model Nissan truck. But Cozza still runs the Gay/Straight Alliance club he started at his high school last year. He has even screened Scouts' Honor for fellow students.

"The more I show it, the better school is for me," he says. "It has really changed people's views and makes them more open. The kids are really cool with it now, and not so uptight."

Cozza went to Park City, Utah, in January to watch the documentary and bask in its glory. "It was pretty weird seeing myself up on the screen, when I was so short and with a squeaky voice. I forgot how I used to be when I was so young," he says. But any embarrassment subsided as he took in the Sundance experience. "It blew me away. I went to a fancy dinner and got to sit next to the director of Good Will Hunting. That was really cool."

Since the win, Scouts' Honor has attracted the attention of Hollywood. Production companies have been inquiring about the rights to Cozza's life story, in hopes of turning it into a feature film. Cozza and his parents are excited by the prospect, but cautious, too. So is Shepard.

"As a feature, Steven's story would be told to such a wider audience. But I worry it could become a TV movie of the week. That's why I want to entrust the story to someone with a lot of integrity," Shepard says. "And given the schlock that exists in Hollywood, it is heartening that this story of social justice is on the minds of Hollywood producers and not just documentary filmmakers."

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