After two friends died in a car accident blamed on speeding, Westlake High School student Jordan Miller decided to make a video that promotes safe driving among teenagers as part of a class project.
The one-minute video that Miller produced in 2002 eventually evolved into Regenerate, a nonprofit film-production company that makes public service videos aimed at reducing teen deaths from vehicle accidents, suicide, alcohol and drugs.
The company -- a partnership of Miller, his father, David, and partner Mark Barker -- uses teenage actors and production crews for its videos, which run mostly on public access channels over cable television.
So impressed with the quality of Regenerate's work, the Santa Ana Police Department awarded the company an $80,000 contract last year to produce a 14-minute video on the hazards of drunk driving.
"I think we've definitely raised awareness," said Miller, 18, a freshman at Santa Barbara City College. "Teens need to realize that they just need to drive safely."
Miller said his first video was inspired by the deaths of his friends, Jordan Bass and Kenneth Glass. The two 16-year-olds were killed and two other youths were injured when the Mercedes-Benz station wagon that Glass was driving spun out of control and crashed into a brick wall. Investigators determined the vehicle was traveling about 100 mph when it crashed three days after Christmas in 2001.
Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among young people nationwide. In California, 617 youths ages 15 to 19 died in crashes and 59,833 were injured in 2003, according to the most recent figures available from the California Highway Patrol.
The model for Regenerate's mission is the American Legacy Foundation's antitobacco "Truth" campaign.
"We'd like to do for teen driving safety what 'Truth' has done for cigarette smoking," said David Miller, a film producer and writer. The Millers joined forces with Barker, a former neighbor, to create Regenerate, whose motto is "by youth, for youth."
With seed money from Thousand Oaks, the original members of Regenerate produced a series of messages on teen safety that the city reproduced on video and sent to more than 450 cities in California to play on public access television. The spots have been picked up on the Oxygen network.
Using jarring rock soundtracks from local garage bands, fast cuts and stark white-on-black graphics, the public service announcements are attention-grabbers. "More teens have died in the last 10 years in car accidents ... than soldiers in the Vietnam War," one spot says.
Hoping to attract some star power, David Miller persuaded actress Mariel Hemingway to appear in Regenerate's "To Save a Child," an instructional video for teachers on the need to identify depression and self-destructive behavior as early as possible.
Then, the teen video-makers landed a deal with Santa Ana police to produce the short video ".08," a reference to the blood-alcohol level of a legally drunk motorist.
Using mostly student actors from Orange County, the crew from Regenerate supervised the location filming, which included a fiery 11-vehicle crash.
The main character in the video, a teen named Danny, takes beer to a pre-spring break party, then crashes his car on the drive home. His girlfriend is killed and he ends up behind bars. The video's surprise comes at the end when it is revealed that Danny's blood-alcohol level was less than half the legal limit.
"I wanted a video that was going to be very MTV-ish with short segments that were powerful," said Santa Ana Police Lt. Cmdr. Tony Levatino, who secured a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety for the project. He appears as a traffic officer in the video.
"What we thought was critical was that the film have some kind of impact and importance to our target audience, 15- to 22-year-olds. Regenerate was all about that."
Regenerate hopes to give the teen-to-teen message greater exposure by working with the Ad Council, known for its "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" campaign. It also is talking with Los Angeles-based Farmers Insurance about developing a teen driver-safety curriculum.
THQ, a Calabasas-based video-game manufacturer, has offered to approach its industry trade group about adding the teen-produced safety messages across its game platforms. THQ is sponsoring a Regenerate fundraising event at 7:30 tonight at Westlake High, featuring a performance by the comedian Gallagher.
"We're big fans of what they're doing," said Peter Dille, senior vice president of worldwide marketing for THQ. "It's hard to sit through a presentation of what they do without being touched by it."
Regenerate is sharing profits from this weekend's event with Westlake High and Students Against Destructive Decisions, a teen-oriented group that discourages driving while intoxicated.