Molding Hollywood’s new filmmakers

For Bob Banner, teaching is as much a love as television, music and show business. Banner believes it is his obligation to givesomething back to the industry,that has given him so much successand personal satisfaction for 45 -years.

And, he’s done just that. For 14 years he’s been Visiting Professor of Communications at the Algur H. Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Forty-one of his former students now work in film and television; five work for his company, Bob Banner Associates.

For two weekends a month, two semesters a year, Banner travels from Los Angeles to Dallas to teach an intensive, professional seminar course in writing, producing anddirecting.

“He has made the most exemplary commitment I can imagine,” says Eugene Bonelli, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts.

Typically, Banner gets into Dallas on Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m., has lunch with Dean Bonelli on Friday, teaches from 2 to 6 p.m.that day, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, according to his executive assistant and former student, Ben Caswell. (Banner maintains a condominium across the street from the campus). On Sunday, he takes the 5:45 p.m. flight out of Dallas; is back in Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m.

This big chunk of time away from family and business “is far and beyond what we pay him,” Bonelli assures. An observation that does not escape Banner’s students.

“He puts out a tremendous amount of effort, and I’ve been really impressed by the amount of sacrifices he gives to the class in order to make it a good class and to educate us,” remarks Greg Smith, a student in Banner’s current class. “He could be putting that into his business and be making much more money,” Smith adds.

During the current fall semester, Banner’s class of about 20 students will write and produce two 30-minute teleplays, listen to his lectures, and read and evaluate a number of produced scripts.

“We go through the process of concept, log line, pitch, with each person standing up and pitching their idea to the class,” Caswell explains in describing the course.

After the class selects a project, each student writes a first-draft script, and the two best are produced. The students have an $ 800 budget for production and editing of two half-hour dramas.

Caswell points out that Banner teaches every aspect of the television business, with an emphasis on story structure. Banner tries to keep everything current, breaking down the structure of a recent hit, “Thelma & Louise,” for example, instead of a classic such as “Casablanca.”

“I think that after you finish the seminar you know more than over half the people I’ve come into contract with working as his assistant for six months,” says Caswell.

Last year, Caswell, 22, was one of Banner’s students. He was in Banner’s office at school, saw a script on his desk, and asked permission to read it.

Script evaluation

Banner not only gave him the script but asked Caswell to provide an evaluation.

Subsequently, Jeff Wittes, who began working with Banner as a junior agent at William Morris nearly 15 years ago, delivered a guest lecture to the SMU communications class and Caswell decided to ask Wittes for a job.

But when Caswell told Banner of his plans, Banner said, “I’m going to take a chance on you, young man,” and Caswell went to work for him early last year.

Caswell isn’t the only former student to work for Banner. Don Weiner, producer-director of “It’s Showtime at the Apollo,” also works at BBA. As do Vicky Bereswill, Stace Owens and Steve Kaminski.

“Bob Banner Associates has regularly taken on students as staff,” confirms Dean Bonelli. “He’s in constant contact with students.”

Banner also has been instrumental in helping many of his former students get jobs in the industry.

“Bob keeps in contact with all his former students,” reports Caswell. “He writes a Christmas letter telling them what he’s up to and what the class is up to, and asks them to write to his home and tell him what they’re doing.” Afterwards, Banner compiles the tidbits of information and forwards the packet to all his former students.

Producer-director Weiner met Banner when he was a senior at Northwestern University. Banner was a visiting professor and gave Weiner a chance to visit Los Angeles and complete his college credits by working as an intern at BBA.

“I was in one lecture in Chicago,” Weiner recalls, “and he came on campus and said–kind of generally to 300 students–‘If you’re ever in Los Angeles, stop by the office and we’ll spend some time together.’ He probably thought no one would ever do it, but I knew that I wanted to come to Los Angeles and he was the first producer that I ever laid eyes on.”

Weiner says he assumed that all television producers were like Banner: “gentlemanly, soft-spoken and approachable.”

Weiner came to Los Angeles, called, and Banner set up a time to meet with him. They had never formally met before. Weiner explained that he was trying to get into an intern program as a way of getting the necessary credits for his degree.

It was winter 1979. “Bob spent a lot of time with me,” Weiner remembers. “He devoted a lot of energy into bringing me into meetings, and it really gave me a chance to learn a lot of aspects of the business from an independent producer’s point of view.”

When Weiner’s internship was completed, Banner was starting a TV movie called , “When Things Were Different,” with Suzanne Pleshette. Weiner got a job as a runner on that telefilm and stayed on with Banner.

Banner took the young man under his wing “and was determined to teach me and give me a chance to learn,” Weiner says. The turning point for Weiner came a year after he started work at BBA, in 1980.

Banner was producing a special, a benefit for Northwestern University, “The Way They Were.” All the on-camera talent and all the behind-the-camera talent were from Northwestern.

Banner took Weiner aside. He said, “Listen, a year from now we’re going to produce this show. It’s going to be a well over $ 1 million special from Chicago. And the one staff position we’re missing is associate producer. A year from now you will know enough to become the associate producer of this special. So, set your sights on doing whatever you need to do to learn what it takes to run this show. You’ve got a year.”

Banner introduced Weiner to Bob Wright, the line producer, and the two Bobs “really poured all of their knowledge and experience into me,” the student says of his teachers.

Weiner walked away from the Northwestern special the beneficiary of an “incredible experi-ence,” and with the credit of asso-ciate producer. He’s been producing shows for Banner since.

Tour de Hollywood

Banner’s SMU class begins each year with a two-week stay in Los Angeles, largely hosted by Bob Banner Associates, and Alice and Bob Banner.

The recently concluded tour, Dec. 31-Jan. 13, included visits to Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, CBS Television and Paramount studios, as well as Post Logic postproduction house; attending performances at the “Groundlings” dinner theatre (including meeting with the cast), “Les Miserables,””War Babies, “”Forever Plaid,””Tamara” and “The Phantom of the Opera” (with backstage tour); and meeting, among others, producers Don Weiner, Norton Wright, Dorothea Petrie, Don Maguire; director Jeff Margolis; and industry executives John Pike, Mark Phillips, Ken and Mitzi Welch, Judd Parkin, Barbara Gunning and David Harding.

Banner says his commitment toteaching stems from an experience he had that launched his television career. He was teaching at Northwestern University in 1949, and also working on “Garroway at Large,” one of the first television talk shows. Band leader Fred Waring saw the show and asked Banner to come to New York to work on his “The Fred Waring Show.”

Banner hesitated because of his contract with Northwestern. But Donley Feddersen, his department head, released Banner from the contract saying: “There’s no question about it. It’s a new industry and you should go.”

Banner says Feddersen added, “‘But you must promise you’llcome back and teach after you’reestablished in the industry.’ “”Isaid, ‘I will,’ ” he says.

Banner explains: “I figure that I probably learned more from the classes, than they learned from me.”

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