BYU advertising students win Coca-Cola Refreshing Films competition, shine spotlight on Deaf community

BYU advertising students on the set of “Signs of Friendship.” The short film won the Coca-Cola Refreshing Films competition on April 11, 2024. (Pete Haraguchi)

BYU advertising students recently won the Coca-Cola Refreshing Films competition with a 20-second branded spot titled “Signs of Friendship.”

The short film, which shines a light on the Deaf community, emphasizes the importance of creating belonging through the story of two sisters. The film was announced the Grand Prize Winner on April 11 and is still in the running for the Cinemark Fan Favorite Award, for which people can contribute their votes on the Coca-Cola website through April 30.

The Coca-Cola Refreshing Films program, which has been running for more than a decade, gives young filmmakers from partnered schools the opportunity to develop their talents and create content with the potential of being shown across movie theaters in North America, according to Coca-Cola’s website.

Destinee Neville, a BYU advertising senior who directed and co-wrote the short film, said the process of creation began when she started feeling drawn towards designing an ad for Coca-Cola.

Destinee Neville, left, and Adam Sheets, right, at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, where their fiml’s win was announced. Neville and Sheets co-wrote the short film. (Adam Sheets)

“It felt very divinely led,” she said.

Neville said she had Coca-Cola on her mind for weeks, wanting to create a Coca-Cola spec ad for her portfolio. Adam Sheets, co-writer and producer of the film, agreed to do it with her and they found out about the competition the next day.

Sheets and Neville submitted their script for the film in November 2023. The film was selected with three other finalists from 900 other submissions. After being chosen as a finalist, the team received mentorship from Coca-Cola and funding to create the film.

According to Neville, the project involved 40 people on the team, and when crew, cast and background actors finally combined on set, there ended up being more than 100 people present during the 12 hours they spent filming.

The magnitude of the project and its win isn’t the only thing remarkable about this project, though. Neville said that for her, the film means more than just a 20-second clip.

Through living with rheumatoid arthritis and caring for a 16-year-old friend who experiences health issues and physical disability, Neville said she has thought a lot about the representation of minority groups in film and media.

“It’s a conversation that we often have, her and I … people don’t always see, they don’t always understand and there’s not always room to be included,” Neville said.

Neville said that in her experience, there are a lot of activities she isn’t able to participate in but the cinema is an inclusive experience that means a lot to many people.

Shay Hancock, right, played Cora in “Signs of Friendship.” The short film won the Coca-Cola Refreshing Films competition on April 11, 2024. (Trevor Houser)

“It’s a space where belonging happens so naturally,” Neville said. She explained this film was inspired by the feeling of belonging that can happen at the cinema.

Neville said creating the short film felt like a positive opportunity to shine a light on a community that is vibrant and beautiful.

“Something to know when filming underrepresented communities is that they’re already so confident and so empowered all on their own. They’re so vibrant. And it was just an opportunity to share that with everyone else,” she said.

Shay Hancock, a member of the Deaf community, played the older sister in the short film. To her, “Signs of Friendship” is an important way to increase exposure of the Deaf community.

“I believe having exposure… is so important because it just shows that it’s so much more than your medical point of view. It’s so much more than an ‘impairment,’” Hancock said.

She explained that media representation of the Deaf community can also provide a positive perspective of Deaf culture.

“When you see positive Deaf exposure, it’s very important because it shows people that it’s not a disability; it shows people that it’s a cultural group of people,” she said.

Tanner Jackson was the director of photography for “Signs of Friendship.” Cast and crew shot for 12 hours overnight to complete the film. (Trevor Houser)

According to a 2022 study by the National Research Group, Deaf representation in film is increasing.

However, the study reported that the Deaf community is one of the least represented minority groups in the media, with 14% of Deaf consumers and 16% of hearing consumers saying that they have never watched a piece of media with a deaf character in it.

Cast and crew alike hope that this short film will have a positive influence on audiences nationwide.

“I hope the spot educates a lot of people who don’t know a lot about the Deaf community,” Tanner Jackson, the film’s director of photography, said.

Jackson said he hopes audiences apply the concept of belonging to many relationships.

“This spot is about highlighting the community in a way that … is a life principle with your family and friends to really just show that inclusivity,” he said.

Bethany Duffy, the film’s key production assistant, said she is excited for thousands to see the film nationwide, because “it’s going to touch hearts and make a difference.”

To support the film as it competes for the Cinemark Fan Favorite Award, viewers can continue to vote until April 30.

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