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The Los Angeles Times
Nov 18, 2001

Like many of her film school peers, Jean Williams dreams of one day making feature-length movies in Hollywood. “I want to see my name up in lights,” the 32-year-old student from Columbia College of Chicago confesses with an engaging smile as she calmly waits her turn to pitch a movie idea to a film executive.

The pitch session, held late last spring, represented Williams’ final exam at Columbia College’s Semester in L.A., an intensive, five- week program where students learn the ins and outs of producing in a bungalow on the CBS Studios lot in Studio City.

Never heard of Columbia College of Chicago?

It may come as a surprise, but Columbia College–not to be confused with Columbia University in New York–boasts the largest film school in America. Located on an urban campus in the Windy City’s South Loop neighborhood, its enrollment includes 1,900 film and video majors. But it’s only one of a burgeoning number of film schools popping up–or expanding–around the country. While USC, UCLA, and the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and New York University and Columbia University in New York have long-standing programs that rank in the top echelon of training grounds for filmmakers, an ambitious second and even third wave are capitalizing on the current boom by aggressively marketing their programs and expanding the pipeline of young talent into Hollywood to better compete with the “big five.” At least two dozen other campuses offer classes in actual film production, many with state-of-the-art facilities, while most major university and colleges offers classes in film history or other cinema-related subjects. All across America, students are flocking to film schools with dreams of becoming the next Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese.

“When I went to school in the 1960s, I was a literature- philosophy major, so many of us thought we were going to write the Great American Novel,” recalled Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman University’s School of Film and Television in Orange County. “Young people today, instead of going into literature, want to make films.”

As a result, film schools are raising their profiles, polishing their marketing and attacking the competition head on.

* Chapman has acquired a 10-acre site two blocks from its campus in the city of Orange and plans to begin construction on a $40- million studio complex in the 2003-04 school year. Planners envision a campus with five sound stages, an 800-seat movie theater, box office concessions, 30-seat tiered classrooms, a foley studio, mixing stage, voice booth, film and television library, museum, archives and even a studio commissary.

Chapman Studios, as it will be called, will also feature colorful back lot street scenes–a New York Street, a European Street, a Parisian Street, a Medieval Street and a Suburban Street–and the administration even plans to erect a water tank and fake sky background similar to those found at the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood.

* The North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem has forged ties with Krispy Kreme doughnuts to fly 40 of its graduates to Warner Bros. in Burbank. There, the students’ movies were screened in the state-of-the-art Steven Ross Theater on the lot before an audience of 400, and the young filmmakers could hobnob with Hollywood agents, studio executives and seasoned filmmakers interested in their work.

“Because we are in North Carolina, we are, frankly, at a disadvantage in terms of access to the industry,” explained the film school’s dean, Dale Pollock, a former Hollywood producer. He noted that Krispy Kreme supplied doughnuts at the screening of student films held at Warner Bros. last spring, adding “I got this idea after I saw Ralph Lauren-Polo was sponsoring Columbia University’s screenings.”

* The University of Texas at Austin may be a long way from the bright lights of Hollywood, but the university’s film program annually sends its graduating students to Los Angeles to showcase their films. The students are squired around town by an alumni group called the L.A. Texas Exes, the Texas equivalent of the “USC mafia,” the term often used in Hollywood to describe the famed film school’s many graduates who work in the industry.

* Like Columbia College, other small colleges are planting their flags in Hollywood. Tiny Emerson College in Boston and Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., for example, each run their own Semester in L.A. programs where students can intern in Hollywood.

“I think the program kind of gives you an advantage,” said Stephen Tropiano, who directs Ithaca’s L.A. program, which has 50 to 100 students a semester. “You are coming out here before you come out to get a job. It also gives them a little chance to figure out what they want to do.”

With the film business centered half a continent away, Columbia College of Chicago realized it needed a stronger presence in Tinseltown if its students were to compete with those from more prestigious universities. So it received CBS’ permission to build a bungalow of classrooms at the network in the San Fernando Valley within earshot of huge sound stages where films and TV shows are produced.

Columbia College President Warrick Carter believes that a physical presence in the heart of the film business gives students a better opportunity because they can network daily with professionals in the business.

“A lot of institutions can’t do that,” Carter says. “Even some [film schools] in the center of [Los Angeles] aren’t focusing on the studio lot in that environment.”

While film studies are enjoying an amazing boom, the gnawing reality is that Hollywood not only remains one of the toughest towns to break into when it comes to a film career, but many graduates wallow in debt for years trying to pay off student loans and the cost of making their final student film project.

Tom Edgar, who co-wrote the 1997 book “Film School Confidential: The Insider’s Guide to Film Schools,” warns film school grads that they should “expect to be in debt for much of your remaining life.”

“I don’t say that facetiously,” Edgar said. “A number of people I went to school with at New York University in 1990 are still in debt 12 years later. If you go $100,000 in debt and there aren’t that many opportunities to get jobs to pay off that debt, you will be in debt for a while. If you amass a lot of debt in law school, there’s a good chance of landing a good paying job. Not so in film school.”

At Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, where tuition is about $20,000 a year, professors say a number of freshmen who come with stars in their eyes quickly learn how tough moviemaking can be.

“In our sophomore year, we have a very healthy dropout rate,” said Thomas Kelly, dean of the school’s College of Communication and Fine Arts, and School of Film and Television. “They realize that making a film means working 12 hours a day, sometimes more. It’s hard work. It’s not glamorous, and you have to collaborate with other people.”

Still they come.

“Film studies have grown enormously,” Kelly observed. “It’s always been popular, but in the last five or six years there’s been a tremendous growth in the number of students who come. Since we only take in 50 or 60 students per year in our freshman class, we are turning away people with 4.0 grade point averages and 1400 SATs. It drives our admissions people crazy.”

Tom Schatz, professor and chairman of the department of radio- television-film at the University of Texas, said his program turns away 500 and 1,500 applicants every year.

“We like to think of ourselves as the best program between the coasts,” Schatz said of his department, which enrolls about 800 undergraduates. “Austin has become kind of the flavor of the month. There’s an awful lot of back-and-forth [between Austin and Hollywood].”

Why the popularity of film on America’s campuses?

“This generation was brought up on ‘Sesame Street’ and MTV,” said North Carolina’s Pollock, a former entertainment journalist who spent 12 years in Hollywood producing movies such as “Blaze” and “Set It Off” before jumping to academia. “They are far more visually literate than [my] generation was, far more interested in creating visual images. There are so many students who grow up on movies and on television, and say, ‘I want to do this. I can do this.”‘

Once scorned on liberal arts campuses, where academic traditionalists preferred Dostoevsky and Faulkner to Hitchcock and Kurosawa, film studies came into vogue in the 1970s, when a new breed of director schooled at universities emerged on the Hollywood scene.

Scorsese would dedicate “Raging Bull,” considered by many to be the greatest film of the 1980s, to Haig Manoogian, his film professor at New York University, while the success of “The Godfather” and “Star Wars” fueled intense media coverage of UCLA’s Francis Ford Coppola and USC’s George Lucas.

With the rise of film schools came the perception–often wrong– that certain programs offered the best chance of success in certain fields of cinema. USC was perceived as the best place to enroll if you wanted to make it in the Hollywood entertainment industry; UCLA was considered the place for independent or offbeat films; and Temple University and Stanford University were thought ideal for documentaries.

Today, universities use film as recruiting and fund-raising tools. Not only do college administrators see film studies as lending a certain cachet to their campus, but they realize it takes only one alumnus with a blockbuster movie to create a recruiting bonanza for their alma mater.

Central Florida University in Orlando wasn’t on anyone’s radar in film studies until 1999. That’s when some Central Florida students made a quirky little horror movie called “The Blair Witch Project,” which grossed $140 million when it was released by Artisan Entertainment.

It didn’t take long for Central Florida to reap the benefits.

“Last year, we had one specific introductory class jump in enrollment by 400%,” said Sterling Van Wagenen, who heads the department of film. Applications soared from 75 last year to 210 this fall, and the film department has now expanded to a four-year program. The program recently held an open meeting for prospective students and was amazed when 250 high school and college transfer hopefuls arrived at the door.

No school has struck pay dirt as much as USC, perhaps the most prestigious of all the film programs. Film school deans around the country had to be envious last year when USC opened a new digital arts complex at its School of Cinema-Television, compliments of a $5- million donation from alumnus Robert Zemeckis, Oscar-winning director of “Forrest Gump.” Other filmmakers such as Spielberg (who, ironically, was rejected by USC when he applied to its film school years ago–he went to Cal State Long Beach instead) along with former USC film students Lucas and Ron Howard, have also lavished millions on the school.

To compete, some smaller programs are plunging into film in a big way. Take Chapman University. By his admission, Chapman film school dean Bassett has yet to see one of his graduates hit it big in Hollywood.

“We have nobody [who] is well-known,” said Bassett, whose film program became a separate school in 1996. “One of our graduates is a producer of ‘Babylon 5,’ and he is probably our most successful student. We also have one young woman who sold a script for six figures. It’s starting to be made right now.”

But he hopes that all changes in a few years, when Chapman Studios opens.

“We have ambitious plans,” said Bassett, who adds that his “not- so-hidden agenda” is to “attract the very best students in the country to a first-class” institution. The new studio, he said, will allow the school “one more bullet in our belt to do that.”

Because Los Angeles and New York are the twin hubs of the movie and television business in America, the two regions are home to some of the top film schools in the land.

But the Los Angeles-Orange county region also boasts many quality programs like those at Chapman, Loyola Marymount, Cal State Northridge, Cal State Fullerton and CalArts. Farther north, Stanford, San Francisco State and San Francisco Art Institute also have notable film programs. Outside California, some of the better-known programs are at Northwestern University in Evanston Ill., Syracuse University in New York, North Carolina School of the Performing Arts, University of Texas and Florida State.

Few of these programs, however, come cheap.

One year at AFI, for example, costs $22,000–and that doesn’t include the cost of living in Los Angeles, which the institute estimates is at least $1,000 a month.

“Because we are very specific and very focused, we don’t encourage thousands and thousands of applicants,” AFI President Jean Picker Firstenberg said. “We want people before they apply to know how rigorous and intense this experience is…. It’s not for someone who has decided, ‘I love to go to the movies every Friday and Saturday night.”‘

Tuition isn’t the only big expense at film school. Some students max out their credit cards and ask their families and friends for money to produce their films. That’s the case at USC.

“Without question, there is a perception of our production students, particularly graduate students, that they need to make something slick and professional to gain the attention they are looking for with people in the industry,” said Rick Jewell, associate dean of USC’s School of Cinema-Television.

“We have tried our best to discourage that,” Jewell continued. “We have shown them examples of films made by some of our most famous alums that are incredible and cost almost nothing. But some of our students are spending over $100,000 on their final kind of capstone projects. It’s crazy.”

Of course, not all of students want to break into Hollywood. Pollock noted there is a strong regional flavor to his program’s student films.

“Being out of the New York-L.A. mainstream makes our films different,” he said. “Our films are more Southern. Most of our students come from the Southeast, something like 80%.”

It was largely because of film students such as Scorsese and Spike Lee that New York University became synonymous with gritty, urban, in- your-face films. In Texas, the Austin film school has spawned a regional industry with notable alumni such as Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. But is a college education really required to become a great filmmaker?

“I think the great creators will still find a way to create, and film schools will give them nourishment,” said Tony Macklin, who taught film studies for 38 years at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He noted that Howard Hawks, John Ford and John Huston never graduated from film school, and they became masterful filmmakers. Of course, they were products of a studio system that had directors churning out three or more films a year, the kind of on-the-job training you can’t get anymore.

Additionally, Macklin fears that too many of today’s students choose film studies “because it’s fun.”

“In a sense, to make it successful, they lower the standards,” Macklin said. “The little Betty Boop in our classroom can come and see a movie. Do we demand things? Not much.”

The popularity of film studies has caused privately run trade schools, such as the Los Angeles Film School, the New York Film Academy and Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Fla., to sprout. Tuition is hefty, but they promise to get students working behind the lens right away, unlike universities, where students begin learning theory long before they ever make a movie.

At Full Sail, for example, tuition costs $29,075 for a 13-month program in film production. The school currently has 564 film students enrolled.

Andrew Solberg, director of media relations, said Full Sail has been around for more than two decades.

“The thing that sets us apart from other educational institutions,” he said, “is we offer enormous hands-on experience with actual film cameras, and there is a lot of editing time [on Avid editing machines] in preparing students for real-world practical skills in the world of filmmaking.”

The Los Angeles Film School, on Sunset Boulevard, is now in its third year of operation. With 240 students, the school charges $24,900 tuition for its yearlong production program that includes all the elements of filmmaking from directing and cinematography to production design, sound, lighting and editing.

On the morning of her final exam at Columbia College’s Semester in L.A., Jean Williams talks about her experience at the school, her goals and what she expects as she seeks a career in Hollywood. The Semester in L.A. program, she says, has taught her the “real nuts and bolts about this business.”

Raised in New Orleans as the middle of five children, she eventually moved to Chicago, where she thought of writing a book. When that didn’t work out, she turned to film, supporting herself with freelance journalism.

Why did she choose Columbia College?

“The thing about it was it was convenient, and it was also a good school, a good training ground,” she says. “There were people I could look to who had come out of this school like George Tillman, who did ‘Soul Food’ … and Spielberg’s cinematographer [Janusz Kaminski].”

In her first year, Williams made a 10-minute comedy short called “Oh Brother, My Sister” that she says she is still getting mileage out of. Filmed in her Chicago apartment with a student crew, it won an award in a New Orleans festival.

Bob Enrietto, a Columbia College alumnus and Hollywood veteran who worked as a production designer and assistant director in TV, and is the brain behind the Semester in L.A. program, said it allows students a chance to see how Hollywood really works. While film schools concentrate on the technical aspects of moviemaking, Enrietto believes that Hollywood is looking for good storytellers.

“In order to be a good producer, you need to know how to write,” Enrietto says. “In order to be in the film business, you need to be able to tell a story–whether you are an editor or a costume designer, it doesn’t matter.

“What we try to do here is teach them how to come up with a story, what are real stories and where to go with them,” he explains. “Then, at the end, of course, they pitch their stories. Some are successful because they are really good.”

For her final exam, Williams is pitching a comedy, “Pecking Order,” an idea she got while watching TV news one night. The story revolves around a woman who takes fertility treatments and becomes pregnant with sextuplets, only to question her husband’s ability to raise them. As a result, she sets out to transform her nervous mate into an assertive, paternal force.

Williams enters the classroom and takes a seat across a table from Tom Brennan, at the time a creative executive at Atlas Entertainment, which produced the George Clooney film “Three Kings” (1999) and the upcoming remake of “Rollerball.” Enrietto and an assistant sit nearby preparing to grade her performance.

“Um, do you have any kids?” Williams asks Brennan, who has since left Atlas. “OK, can you imagine what it’s like to have kids? Now, can you imagine what it’s like to have six kids at one time?”

When the pitch session ends, Brennan tells Williams that her idea sounds promising, but encourages her to write it up in screenplay form so he can better evaluate the story later. Asked afterward how she thinks she did, Williams replies, “I did better than my nerves were telling me I was going to do. I didn’t get a ‘no.’ He didn’t say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s awful.’ He said, ‘You know, you’ve got some funny stuff there. You need a little more conflict and you need to like keep your focus in terms of [the husband’s] story.”‘

Williams knows the odds of making it big in Hollywood.

“All of us can’t get in,” she says. “One reason I came out here is to see if I’m one of the ones who can get in…. If it doesn’t happen in the way I envision it, I won’t jump off the Hollywood sign.” The film student then hands her business card to an interviewer.

It reads: Jean A. Williams. Filmmaker.

Caption: PHOTO: An artist’s rendering of Chapman Studios, Chapman University’s planned $40-million studio complex in Orange.; PHOTOGRAPHER: Bastien & Associcates Inc.; GRAPHIC-DRAWING: (no caption), RICHARD DOWNS / For The Times


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