Spartan Film Studios is ready for its close-up.

After years of paying its dues, San Jose State's scrappy student film enterprise is finally coming into its own with three of its projects set to be showcased in this year's Cinequest Film Festival, which gets under way next week. Call it Hollywood U, a university-run film studio where students learn not just by studying movies but by making them, learning to light, shoot, direct and edit, and handling all the other aspects of film production.

But perhaps what's most notable about Spartan Studios is its ambition. While most film schools only let students produce shorts, Spartan encourages the students in San Jose State's Radio, Film, Theater and Animation & Illustration department to shoot full-length films, giving fledgling filmmakers firsthand experience honing priceless skills and making contacts that can pay off. After all, it's good to be noticed in an industry that's all about exposure.

"No other program in our region offers this opportunity," says San Jose State professor Amy Glazer, who directed the critically acclaimed "Seducing Charlie Barker" for Spartan. "If a student works hard, there is this opportunity to make a feature film. How cool is that? ... It's our in-house film internship."

The best and brightest make it into Cinequest, where they have a shot at the brass ring. The film festival, Silicon Valley's answer to Sundance, is a rare chance to hobnob with movie honchos.

"Most student films are amateurish, but Spartan is a whole new model. When you put together professional mentors with emerging talent, that's magic," says Cinequest co-founder Halfdan Hussey. "It's an exceptional program that turns out tremendous movies."

The festival's 23rd edition, which kicks off Tuesday, will feature a final cut of SJSU alum Robert Krakower's "Always Learning" on March 5 before a forum about the creative process at San Jose State. Shohei Shiozaki's "Goldfish Go Home" will be screened March 6 to 9. Ricky B.G. Dellinger's "Kill No Evil," a comedy short, will be shown before several full-length films.

"It's really amazing to be able to create something that can be shown to a roomful of hundreds of people," says Krakower, director of "Always Learning," a touching comedy about home schooling. "It's been a dream for me since I was really young."

Fans of Spartan, a nonprofit venture launched by faculty members in 2002, say it delivers high production values on low budgets. Though professors were originally in charge of the films, they now let the students call a lot of the shots. Newbies work side by side with seasoned professionals such as producer-director Ned Kopp ("American Graffiti," "The Fast and the Furious").

Most Spartan films cost about $250,000, much of it subsidized by use of university resources, from green screens to camera dollies. The rest, about $25,000, is raised by students and teachers. Only a select few of the films make the cut at Cinequest.

Pierce Leggin, 21, can't wait to rub elbows with stars like Harrison Ford and author Salman Rushdie, who are among the celebrities attending this year's festival. That kind of red-carpet action is not bad for an undergraduate.

"Cinequest is a massive landmark for me," says the ebullient senior who worked on the editing of "Always Learning" and another Spartan project, "Super Hero Party Clown." "You can debate the value of a degree in filmmaking, but there's no question that it's amazing to graduate with a bunch of IMDB credits. Spartan is the epitome of film education."

Schmoozing with stars isn't just a hoot, it's also an opportunity to make connections. If you're willing to hustle, you might even talk your way into a distribution deal. "Super Hero Party Clown" generated enough buzz at Cinequest to get distributed on Netflix and Hulu.

"Cinequest gives the students something to shoot for, something to dream about," says SJSU teacher Barnaby Dallas, who runs Spartan alongside teacher Nick Martinez. "You never know who will see your screening and where that might lead."

Dallas is also a script doctor at DreamWorks, so he knows the standards expected in the reel world. He and Martinez try to teach the students that showbiz is more about elbow grease than glitz and glamour.

"It's a grind," says Martinez, producer and co-director of Spartan. "We work 13 hours a day for 25 days. That's the reality."

Students start at the bottom of the rung by catering and work their way through costume, makeup and lighting. By graduation, they are no longer greenhorns.

"Some dudes get out of film school and they still don't know their way around a set," Leggin says. "We do."

It's a make-or-break opportunity that tests the students' mettle. Martinez estimates that one-third of the students who work on Spartan's feature films wash out. And that's a good thing.

"It's much better to learn that now," he notes wryly, "than after you waste five years struggling in L.A."

For the record, Dallas says Spartan has helped hundreds of alumni land coveted behind-the-scenes gigs, from grips to gaffers.

Shehbaz Aslam plans to follow in those footsteps. The junior has worked his way to up to chief lighting technician and gaffer for "Always Learning."

"I know that I can land a job with the experience I've gotten at Spartan," the 21-year-old says, "and that's huge."

Certainly Spartan sees itself as an R&D lab for the next generation. Dallas and Martinez dream of seeing a Spartan movie become the next indie smash. Martinez believes the studio is primed to make its mark.

"These students are on the cusp," he says. "The movies are so fresh, sooner or later one of them is going to hit it big. This could be the year."

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read more from her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and Facebook.com/dsouzatheaterpage. Follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.

Cinequest Film Festival
When: Tuesday through March 10
Where: Venues in downtown San Jose
Tickets: Regular screenings, $5-$10, special events $5-$50, festival passes, $145-$500. 408-295-3378, www.cinequest.org